What A Middlebury Professor Learned About Life From Fishing

Nov 3, 2014

Middlebury College Professor Matthew Dickerson, along with David O’Hara, gets readers out of the classroom and into the great outdoors with the book Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia. The book takes the fishermen to the waters of Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.


Dickerson has been fishing since a young age, and took up fly fishing in his teens.

“It’s a book in which narratives about fishing provide the opportunity to explore things that are maybe much more meaningful, deep and significant, the whole human condition, as well as human relationships with nature,” he explained.

It’s not a technical book about fly fishing, or a fishing guide.

The opening chapter talks about Maine and some of the pollution in the Androscoggin River, which was listed as one of the ten filthiest rivers in the 1970s by Time Magazine.

“I think a big part of the clean-up was the Clean Water Act, which made some of those very unhealthy practices simply illegal. And given time, rivers do have an ability to begin to wash themselves clean,” he said.

Dickerson and O’Hara worked with many guides while researching the book, and found them to be a wealth of knowledge. “They’re fishing and guiding because they love being on the water,” he said. “They love the insects, the birds, and the trees, and the landscape, and they love sharing those things with other people.”

Vermonters may be surprised that their state doesn’t make an appearance in the book. Dickerson said he and O’Hara became friends while fishing together over the course of six years in Vermont.

“There are plenty of stories we could have told about Vermont, but when we did the hard work of combining all these stories and finding a narrative that fit, the most important stories that we felt like needed to be told could be told from other states,” Dickerson said.

He said writing the book revealed to him some of his attitudes about technology. “As a computer science professor I have a tendency to have a very high faith in human ability to engineer anything we want to engineer, to see technology as the solution to all of our problems,” Dickerson explained. “My tendency would be to look at any stream and say, ‘How can I make that better?’ Engineer it to meet my desires. And I think my attitude in that area has changed somewhat over the course of writing this book. I don’t so much see the natural world around me existing simply to meet my desires. And I’m a little more hesitant to think that technology will provide the solution to everything, that humans can engineer a better world.”