To The Rivers, With Love

When members of the McKenzie Flyfishers met last fall in Eugene to bestow the first Glen Love Lifetime Contribution Award to Glen Love himself, many of those in attendance knew the recipient simply as that tall fellow in the plaid shirt and tortoise-shell glasses with the bemused expression and the wicked off-side cast, who could not tie a decent fly to save himself.

But who could write one helluva letter to the editor.

Even those who knew Love was a retired University of Oregon English professor may have been surprised to hear fellow English teacher and fly-fisher Bob Bumstead, BA ’63, MA ’78, recite his friend’s professional bona fides: Former UO director of composition and coauthor (with his wife, plant ecologist Rhoda Love) of what was, in its day, one of the country’s leading college composition textbooks. Teacher of popular courses in American and western American and even northwestern American literature. Author of numerous works of literary criticism and editor of several literary anthologies. “The single most influential intellectual spirit behind the takeoff phase of the ecocritical movement,” according to Harvard professor emeritus Lawrence Buell—a movement that, as Bumstead explained to his fellow anglers that evening, “aims to transform the study of literature by exploring the influence of the natural world on the human psyche.”

The accolades were all a bit much for the 84-year-old professor emeritus. “There are fishermen there who are so helpful and so great at casting and tying flies,” he later said, “and here I am, kind of a bookworm.”

Well, that last part is certainly true.

But it’s only part of the story of a man whose activism has had a lasting impact on Oregonians’ quality of life, and whose academic pursuits helped set a new course for the study of literature in virtually every university in the country and beyond.

Love still remembers the first time he saw a fly-fisherman in action. It was in the 1940s at Green Lake in Seattle, where Love grew up. Spinning reels hadn’t yet been invented, so Love—a hook-and-worm angler, like everyone he knew—was stretching out his line and attaching a sinker to give him enough torque to pitch his bait far enough to give him a chance of catching something for dinner. Then, out of the fringe of trees above the lake, another fisherman emerged. Love watched as the man strode down to the lake’s edge, made a few artful casts with a long, quivering rod, and caught a fish. And then released it.

Love had never seen anything like it: that effortless-looking cast, much less fishing, not for food, but for fishing’s own sake.

Fly-fishing slowly became an organizing principle in his life. He fished in the Cascades when, at age 19, he spent a summer working at Mount Rainier National Park (where he met Rhoda, who would become not only his wife but a favorite biology teacher at Lane Community College and his partner in environmental activism). He fished around Seattle while pursuing his bachelor’s degree and, ultimately, his doctoral degree in literature at the University of Washington. He fished when and where he could around San Diego State University, site of his first university teaching job.

When in 1965 he moved to Eugene to join the UO Department of English faculty, a group of citizens were deeply engaged in a battle with the Eugene Water and Electric Board over a proposal to build a nuclear power plant alongside the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River near Westfir. It didn’t take long for the Loves to conclude that such a plant would indeed be a bad deal for both humans and fish, and they jumped in with both feet. According to a recent article in Northwest Fly Fishing magazine, Glen Love “probably holds the record for writing more letters of support of environmental causes than any other human, ever.”

“It’s just my thing,” Love explains, looking back. “It’s the part of it I thought I could do, because I’m good at it.”

That battle went on for several years, and those who opposed the plant were ultimately successful. But the Springfield Utility Board then proposed a new scheme for the North Fork: a series of five hydropower dams. It would have been the end of the wild fishery on the river. Love and Bumstead, who by then cochaired McKenzie Flyfishers’ conservation committee, led the club’s vocal opposition. They were supported by UO Book Store manager Jim Williams and composer Mason Williams, who arranged a concert—“Of Time and Rivers Flowing”—and took it on the road in support of a free-flowing North Fork. They and others managed to not only kill that proposal, but to ultimately help get key portions of the North Fork protected as part of the National Wild and Scenic River System, permanently putting it off limits to power interests.

“The North Fork’s source is Waldo Lake, one of the purest lakes in the world,” Love says, attempting to explain the river’s particular charm. “And it pummels down through an impassible little canyon to a beautiful valley. We named all the pools, and we named all the runs. There was Super Pool, and the Rockslide. The North Fork just became a kind of first choice, even though the fish on it aren’t as big as they are on the Middle Fork and in some of the mountain lakes. It was beautiful, and clear, and green, and delightful, and just 30 or 40 minutes from home. And the idea that anybody could take that away—the thought of it was just crushing, and we all felt we had to do something about it.”

Meanwhile, Love’s activism—coupled with a worldwide awakening to environmental concerns—had led him and other academics to forge a new interdisciplinary approach to literary criticism, examining works of literature in the context of how they are informed by, and how they inform, our understanding of nature. “Like all cultural practices, English teaching and research goes on within a biosphere, the part of the earth and its atmosphere in which life exists,” he writes in his most recent book, Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment. “As the circumstances of the natural world intrude ever more pressingly into our teaching and writing, the need to consider the interconnections, the implicit dialogue between the text and the environmental surroundings, becomes more and more insistent.” Ecocriticism was slow to be accepted by the Modern Language Association of America, the principal professional association for language and literature scholars, Love recalls. “They didn’t even allow it as a session at the MLA conference. Now ecocriticism is one of the most widely taught ideas in English departments, not only across the country but around the world.”

For Love, all of this—ecocriticism, a fascination with regional literature, environmental activism—is really just one thing: a reverence for place. “The most vital sense we have is in our relationship to place,” he recently reflected. “I think place is at the core of our being.”

“It is the nature of all human beings to create meaning and pattern from whatever environment they are placed in,” he writes in his introduction to The World Begins Here: An Anthology of Oregon Short Fiction. “Ecological consciousness seems to be an inevitable consequence of place consciousness.”

It doesn’t hurt, Love adds, to live in a special place. He is fond of quoting a passage from Robert Traver’s Trout Madness: “I fish . . . because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful.”

Months after receiving the eponymous fly-fishing award, Love is still a bit abashed and not certain that he’s entirely deserving. “You could have knocked me over with a feather when I got that award,” he insisted.

“I imagine next time they’ll make sure they get someone who’s a damn good fly-tier and -caster.”

—By Bonnie Henderson

Journalist Bonnie Henderson, BA ’79, MA ’85, was a student of Glen Love and is the author of four books, including The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast.