Book Review: A Cast in the Woods by Stephen Sautner

It’s a familiar story: writer buys home in the Catskills for [insert reason] and ends up losing heart, time and, no doubt a smidgeon of sanity to conservation, restoration and protection of these beloved mountains and its river network. For Stephen Sautner, the reason was a familiar one: fly fishing. An avid outdoorsman from boyhood, he decided to buy a fixer-upper cabin on the banks of a tributary and turn it into a “fish camp” for holidays and weekends until retirement. Well, that’s what he thought. Turns out Mother Nature had other plans for him and this portion of the river that ran through his 14-acre property, that he named simply “Six-Foot-Wide Stream”, but it was anything but simple. Several devastating floods, flora and fauna infestations and a scare over fracking gave him an all-consuming education he didn’t anticipate. But he would do it all over again, he says: “come spring, when the warblers have returned, and mayflies are hatching and brook trout are rising to them, and I’m siting on the front porch sipping coffee and watching it all, I believe I wouldn’t have changed a thing”.

A few years after he bought his cabin, the 2006 floods transformed parts of his property by the stream into a “barren, lifeless, desecrated moonscape”, completely altering the course of the stream and downing hundreds of his trees, leaving behind tonnes of displaced stream bed like gravel and rock. Japanese Knotweed subsequently threatened to overtake the property.

The most endearing chapter is all about Sautner’s next-door neighbor, Tim, a born-and-bred local who takes him foraging, hiking all over and teaches him the ley of the land. Tim even offers him his own trees to plant on Sautner’s post-flood land as he embarked on the hard graft of stream restoration to bring back the trout. (“Willows don’t know which way is up,” he writes). This is the best part of moving to the Catskills: welcoming neighbors, friends with a rich history, kindness, community and simplicity.

The funniest chapter is the TO DO list which should be at the beginning of the book because there is always something to work on in a house once you’ve committed to the landscape outside. Kitchen renovations wait years. Fixtures age and become disco relics. You will loathe your bathroom, but not do anything about it for a decade. Your house fills up with old wood, compost, dirt, seedlings, books, and all manner of equipment.

The moral of this warm-hearted and poignant, yet pragmatically-told tale, which is interspersed with passages from Sautner’s fishing journal, is don’t move here thinking its going to be all bucolic frolic. There will be steep learning curves in what Sautner calls his “rushing, watery classroom” and perhaps a healthy obsession with invasive species like Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, Rock Snot or the Emerald Ash Borer. You will don new caps like Sautner, who became “Guy Who Builds Walls With Rocks”.

“Sleep here comes quickly and deeply,” he states, but when you’re awake here, you’re awake.

Fly fishing season starts in the Catskills on April 1st. I wish you all tight lines… Watch the Esopus Creel website for details on Stephen’s book signing event.

About the Author:

Stephen Sautner is author of the acclaimed Fish On, Fish Off and editor of Upriver and Downstream, an anthology of fishing stories from the “Outdoors” Column of the New York Times, where he has been an active contributor. His stories have also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Fly Rod & Reel, Angler’s Journal, Outdoor Life and Underwater Naturalist. He is the director of communications for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, where he publicizes the Society’s conservation programs. He lives in New Jersey.

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