Angler and writer Harry Middleton (1949-1993) is an elusive figure. Except for what he chose to reveal in his books — which are part memoir and part novel — little is known, outside of family and friends, about his too brief life. But the books speak for themselves in a voice that is at once haunting and uplifting. There is nothing else quite like them in American nature or outdoor writing. On the Spine of Time: An Angler’s Love of the Smokies (1991) is one of the finest books yet written about this region.
As a boy, Middleton was almost constantly on the move as his father shifted from one military base to the next. During the mid-1960s, he did spend influential years — learning to fly fish and explore the natural world — with his grandfather, his great-uncle and their Sioux friend, Elias Wonder, on the grandfather’s farm in the mountains of northwestern Arkansas. Those experiences were warmly captured in his first book The Earth is Enough: Growing Up in a World of Trout and Old Men (1989).
He initiated his literary career by writing about food, art, music, and books for Figaro, an alternative newspaper published in New Orleans. During that period he met Walker Percy, the post-existentialist southern novelist whose ruminative style and philosophical perspectives are reflected in Middleton’s work. In the early 1980s, he began writing about regional and personal themes for Louisiana Life magazine in a column titled “Louisiana at Large.” That led to his becoming a writer and editor for the Southern Progress Corporation in Birmingham, Alabama, which publishes the widely distributed Southern Living magazine.
Middleton wrote for various magazines that the corporation issued, but his passion was a monthly “Outdoor South” column contributed to Southern Living. He had apparently suffered from chronic depression for much of his adult life, but the column gave him a positive identity that stabilized his personality. He was apparently happy, for the most part, and productive.
In 1989, a new Southern Progress magazine titled Southpoint, for which Middleton was also writing, failed after just nine issues. On June 21, he was called into the CEO’s office and fired. June 21, 1989 ... that date was seared into his memory bank. It was the pivotal point at which his life began to unravel: “On the day that I lost my job, waves of depression hummed and sizzled in my gray-pink brain like downed electrical wires.”
Descriptions of that sort permeate The Bright Country, published several weeks after his death in July 1993. In that book he described his immediate flight from Birmingham to Denver, Colo. There on the edge of the Rockies he found a job as a hack writer; he consulted with a psychiatrist, Dr. Lilly Mutzpah; he interrelated with an outrageous group of misfits that included Dr. Truth, who spoke wisdom from a folded chair on a street corner, and a pair of grifters, Swami Bill and “his main squeeze” Kiwi LaReaux; he went fly fishing every weekend in the streams west of Denver; and in the fall of 1990 — “the year which haunts this story” — he returned to Birmingham, where he worked “on the crew of county garbage truck No. 2 for two years.” Shortly before his death from an apparent heart attack, Harry Middleton — one of the very best southern writers of his time — had been hired by The Birmingham Herald to write restaurant reviews.
On the Spine of Time was written before and based upon experiences that took place prior to June 21, 1990. It is a love song in prose composed for the Great Smokies and the adjacent mountain ranges he had discovered by accident in the early 1980s. One reviewer, Jason C. Sheasley, observed: “His salvation was fishing cold mountain streams with a fly rod. For over a decade Middleton traveled from his home in Birmingham ... to the Great Smoky Mountains. There he found relief wading the trout streams with his 4-weight Winston fly rod in hand. On the Spine of Time captures the essence of those trips through the Smoky Mountains and provides us with a glimpse into the quiet splendor of this place ....”
These excerpts from On the Spine of Time track Middleton’s constant yearning, while residing and working in Birmingham, to get away from it all, if only for a short while to the Great Smokies. In that regard, he captures the feelings of many others, past and present, who have shared the same yearning: the desire to find a place of refuge in the high country. In this instance, his objective was Hazel Creek on the North Carolina flank of the national park:
A few words of explanation on this cold and windy mountain night. This is not a book about the history — social, cultural, or otherwise — of the Great Smoky Mountains or the high country of southwestern North Carolina, which is where most of the high country trout streams that haunt and soothe me are located. Neither is this some great quest or sojourn, nor a chronicle of some ambitious pilgrimage, angling or any other ... It’s a look at life, its losses and joys, its tragedies and happinesses, what is lost in a life and what is found ... I began going into the Great Smoky Mountains and into the nearby Slickrock Wilderness and Snowbird Mountains more than a decade ago. I was on my way to West Virginia and got side-tracked. Lucky me ... For years I have tried unsuccessfully to abandon this peculiar need of mine for mountains, for high country and trout streams, for the economy of life that seems to follow a steady rise in altitude. It’s a serious malady, a vexing obsession ... The mountain I live on rises 1,100 feet above a narrow valley spreading to the south ... On good days, days when the air is not thick with the heavy, gray clouds of smog rising up from every city between central Alabama, Atlanta, and Knoxville, I am sure, quite sure that I can look out this window and see all the way to Tennessee and beyond, all the way to the high dome-shaped peaks of the Smoky Mountains, mountains that appear briefly in the bright light as though they are momentary illusions ....
The day I set up camp [on Hazel Creek] I purposely ignored a wide pool of alluring water just downstream from the small rise above the creek bank where I put up the blue tent ... It was a stretch of water worth saving, for tomorrow or the next day, or a morning such as this ... I sat alone on the big stone by the tent. The rod was ready, as was the angler, and the creek ran fast and cold. Daylight widened along the creek, giving a flat shine to the stones and the damp ground littered with a chaos of fallen leaves heaped by the wind into low swales, against outcrops of stone, in weathered coverts, ravines, and cuts, scattered like winnowed duff about the deep shadows of the forest floor. With each breath of wind the landscape shuddered, became almost liquid, a geography of colors rather than of fixed landmarks and boundaries, colors endlessly mingling one with the other .... All along the upper ridges, the thick deciduous forest glowed in the hazy autumn light. Under a press of wind, the trees and their fashion of dead, brightly colored leaves bent and swayed like great coils of undulating ribbon, bolts of warm, rich color.
Sitting on a large, flat, comfortable stone, I took a No. 18 Royal Wulff from my small metal fly box, examined it carefully, decided it looked too well kept, too tidy, too much the imposter to entice a fish as suspicious as trout, especially at this time of the morning. Instead of putting the fly through expected routine of preening, making it presentable, I intentionally mussed it up, giving it a rumpled, tacky, almost ruinous look, like an insect truly fallen on hard times and in deep trouble, a morsel ready for the taking, a temptation tied invitingly about a fine well-sharpened hook and knotted securely to nine feet of 6X leader and tippet ... Rod in hand I walk up the creek. Brittle leaves crumbled underfoot. At the instant of my first cast above and across the deep pool’s smooth dark surface ... a kingfisher across the creek squawked harshly.