Saturday, February 06, 2010

Crossing the political divide with Ice fishing.

Hi everyone,

I thought, after the flurry of resentful and angry letters all hot over the question of religion, something cool would be soothing to the fevered brows of the local heirs of Torquemada.

Saturday's column.

The Zen of ice fishing

Crossing the spiritual divide one tip-up at a time

This week, as we’re engaged in the heat of political battles, I thought I'd talk about something more important than why three of the school board candidates identified themselves as creationists, or why one of the candidates for District 3 has his house up for sale; something more important to our survival as a community, as a culture, as a people.

I thought I’d say something about a religious sensibility uniting us in Wisconsin rather than about the divisiveness of ideologically driven politics that, more and more, fracture our communities.

And what religious practice is it that unites us in Wisconsin? Catholics, Muslims, Pagans, Jews, Wisconsin, Missouri and ELCA Lutherans, and even Zen Buddhists? Ice fishing. Of course.

I was walking our year-old Rottweiler Lab mix along the Milwaukee River late last Sunday morning under an impossibly blue dome of winter sky. The air was icy crisp, like it was made of crystal, like it would break when the church bells at St. Mary's started to ring.

My dog was up on his toes and his ears were up too, taking it all in, bouncing along in front of me, aware of every sparrow and every stray twig and, I suddenly noticed, having a much better time than I was. My mind was chomping on the useless cud of current events: snippets from the NY Times Week In Review opinion columns, the Sunday morning news shows, the logical syntax in some of the previous week's letters to the editor in the Daily News endorsing School Board candidates I don’t endorse, one written by a friend of mine, the swirling rush of fallacious and almost wrathful reasoning that constitutes political discourse online, and 10,000 other meaningless and time-consuming shards of things I d been exposed to in the past week. The shards were banging together like out-of-tune wind chimes.

Coming to myself, I thought,

"This is an inappropriate mental content for a Sunday morning."

As if to reinforce this discovery, a redtailed hawk sitting on a tree beside the river drew my attention to the ice above the Barton Dam and there, sitting on a bucket, was an answer to the question of what constitutes appropriate Sunday content: quiet reflection through prayerful attention to something one loves — in the form of a lone ice fisherman. He was bobbing over his hole a bit and almost looked like he was working a set of rosary beads. I’d like to think he was.

Ice fishing marks off people in Wisconsin as serious-minded and deeply spiritual.

Note: they don't have ice fishing in California. Or Texas.

Ice fishing is often compared to a kind of Zen. Consider the process: attention to an empty hole down which you drop the thinnest line of intention and from which you draw forth, after patience and long practice, nourishment — but not just for the body, since I can’t imagine anyone eats much of what they pull out of the Milwaukee River and because, frankly, in ice fishing it can’t be the fish that matters. No. That empty hole in the ice provides nourishment for the soul, something rarely mentioned in the endless list of ice fishing jokes. (Favorite ice fishing joke punch line: Keep your worms warm.)

When I got home I tossed all of this at my friend Andrew, a one-time Wisconsin ice fisherman, who is now practicing Zen out in Oregon.

I asked, What’s up with Zen and ice fishing?

He sent me this: A Wisconsin version of a poem originally by Sensu Tokujo (Chinese, Chuanzi Decheng)

Letting down the line ten thousand feet,
A single break in the thick ice makes ten thousand cracks.
At night, under the shanty the cold fish won't bite.
An empty Ski-doo filled with moonlight returns.

He reminded me that Henry David Thoreau, a Zen master if ever there was one, once observed: Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.

And, finally, I began to wonder whether running for office was like fishing.

Now that’s the appropriate content for a Sunday.

[The house in District 3 belongs to Ed Duquaine, currently running for alderman in that district -- but he didn't return calls about this either from me or from the newspaper so I did not mention his name in print.]



DanBack said...

Ed didn't return your call because he was too busy trying to make his letter to the editor about you make any sense. He should have tried harder.

Kevin Scheunemann said...


Good column.

I would dare say it had a "spiritual" quality about it.

John Jost said...

Right down my alley, Mark. Whenever I feel the world is polluting my mind, I try to do a bit of amateur meditation, which, after much reading on the subject, I define as "sit down, shut up, and look at a tree".

Kevin Scheunemann said...

So are we saying science is not enough when it comes to the human condition?

And why don't we want to teach our kids that life has "spiritual" aspects to it?

Mpeterson said...

If you could tell me what "enough" means, I'd be able to answer you... but for a hard core Randian like yourself, science should be more than enough.

My observation, however, is that religion is the most important thing people need... and they need to learn about it.

-- just not on the taxpayer's dime, and not in publicly funded science classes.

Sarah said...

Good morning, Dr. Peterson,

What a wonderful article. Whenever I hear someone discussing the pleasure/benefits of fishing or, in this case, the Zen of ice fishing, I am always reminded of the introduction to "A Room of One's Own". Perhaps this bit will help elucidate the meditative qualities of fishing.

'Thought--to call it by a prouder name than it deserved--had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until--you know the little tug--the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one's line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating.' (Here's the rest of it)

Take care!

Anonymous said...

Sound article.

I prefer canoe fishing with no signs of humans (excepting my fishing partners) for 2-3 days.

It's wonderful, like being on my back in a sleeping bag looking up at the stars.


Zen Trixter said...

Well, most people today want a religion that "accomplishes" something. A religion based on nothing isn't very sexy, quite frankly. It's a hard sell to get folks to see and appreciate that "nothing is something worth doing". The heavy lifting is all there; it looks like you're sitting still but there's a helluva burn that you develop siting there trying not to think. Hours of noise (both mental and environmental) are punctuated by the briefest moments of sublime quiet, intimate awareness and deep, vast and boundless peace.

Then somebody farts.

The ground of Being; 'tis a smelly place.

Kevin Scheunemann said...


One should not be learning religion on taxpayer dime?

Great, when will you call for an end to the global warming religion being funded on the taxpayer dime?

What about the religion of recycling? Many times the mandatory recycled material consumes MORE energy to recycle than it does to put it in a landfill and make it from scratch. Recycling at that point is a religion, not sound science or public policy.

Since you acknowledge "spirituality" is an essential part of the human condition, you want to advocate public policy to deprive kids of learning about, perhaps one of the most impotant aspects of their life? Sounds like public schools are being handicapped with this public war on religious speech.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the ice fishing article. I think we miss how peace and quiet in nature can be a spiritual event.

I never thought that I would see creationism as an issue in 2010. I am a Lutheran, was a Catholic and never worried about God and the creation story. I guess 18th century Rationalism is too modern for some folk.

DanBack said...

"Recycling at that point is a religion, not sound science or public policy. "

So science exists when it suits your needs, but is called "faith" when it doesn't?

Zen Trixter said...

So, did you enjoy your afternoon stretch, Kevin?


Kevin Scheunemann said...



Isn't that what liberalism does to religion? (and every other political issue)

Conservatives do it too.

I think what has really got your button pushed is that I'm taking sacred liberal issues, like evolution and global warming, and equating it to religion.

This is why the left needs to back off censoring and attacking religion in the public square, its easy to paste the issues you care about with a "religious" label, making your advocacy subjected to public square attack and ridicule as religion.

DanBack said...

You are an idiot Kevin. Seriously.

S i l e n c i o said...

all i know is that once you said in class, obviously grief-stricken at the intellectual malaise of our collective term papers:

"just, everybody, you all need to do spend one hour a day in a completely silent room."

an unsettling but true fact as it ever was..

Kevin Scheunemann said...


I believe that's the second nicest thing a liberal has ever said about me.

If science mattered, we would not be recycling half the stuff we do now...because it consumes more energy and resources to recycle.

If recycling consumes resources, (more than it takes to make it from scratch) it wastes resources and energy, defeating the very purpose of preserving and conserving resources. That is not science, its a religion at that point.

Calling me an "idiot" will not change the scientific fact that some mandated recycling is done out of religion and actually hurts the environment.

So you cannot deny the fact that liberalism discards the science when it wants to.

DanBack said...

You know what happens when you assume Kevin...

I have no idea what "liberal" means. I think gays should be able to marry, creationism shouldn't be taught in public schools, that we did a good thing by taking out Saddam, that we need to do something about Iran soon, that making us all take our shoes off at airports is silly, that the sky is blue, that fast food sucks, that this country is governed by the Constitution, not the Bible, that NASCAR is boring to me but I get why people like it, that a $100 bottle of wine is generally worth it, I love traveling all over the world to see what other people have to say. I think carbon credits are silly and I hate when either side makes fun of a politician for fumbling a word or writing shit on their hand. If a camera were on any of us 24/7 we wouldn't look better.

I'm not afraid of ideas in books. I'm not afraid my marriage will mean less if two guys get married to each other. I don't call anyone who doesn't agree with me an elitist. I don't think most issues are as important as we make it out to be. I don't like sea urchin as much as I wish it did. It amazes me that people drink Miller OR Bud - they both suck. I'm not bothered by seeing a Nativity scene or a Menorah. I think the ratio of time spent talking about politicians vs. the actual affect they have on our lives is way out of whack.

If all those things make me a liberal than so be it.