Mark Spitzer’s new Season of the Gar (University of Arkansas Press) is a travelogue into the world of ancient garfish—those prehistoric “monsters” that in their alligator gar variety look like something out of PT Barnum or an older mythology. These misunderstood fish—which can grow to twelve feet long and a century old—have been hunted for both sport and for purposes of genocide.
Misperceived as a “trash fish” for centuries, the gar become, in Spitzer’s fascinating book, a figure for the cultural constructions of their greatest predator: man. Equal parts fishing adventure narrative, ecological ruminations, and Gonzo journalism, Season of the Gar will make you care about things you’ve never even thought about before.
You can find Spitzer, and the gar, in clips from an episode of Animal Planet’s River Monsters:
Spitzer always has a lot to say—how can the editor of the Exquisite Corpse Annual and former writer-in-residence at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris not?
Davis: You had a novel released the same week as Season, called CHODE! and you have two more books on the way, After the Orange Glow (Monkey Puzzle Press) and Writer in Residence (University of New Orleans Press). What type of writer are you these days?
Mark: I guess I’ve got multiple personalities. We all do, really. Perhaps this is my attempt to avoid getting pigeonholed. Or cornholed.
Davis: How do you describe this book in terms of style and genre—it’s such a rare mix of so many things? Are there are environmental lit precursors?
Mark: Season of the Gar is pretty typical of the sort of university-press eco-creative-nonfiction voice that seems to be so popular these days. Through action-packed first-person narratives I attempt to inform and entertain while not getting too experimental or letting my jargon lapse into the vernacular, like in “cornhole,” above.
As for environmental precursors, I owe a big fat debt to Edward Abbey, whose acute sense of humor and learnéd concern for the ecosystem as a whole informed by sensibility, maybe even mutated it.
Davis: I was fascinated by the sheer geologic age of gar? When do we think they emerged as a life form, and where do they fit in your conception of evolution toward homo sapiens?
Mark: Gar go back 300 million years, to way before the dinosaurs. Miocene, Pleistocene, Permian Age—whatever. Gar are literally as old as the hills. No—they are older than the hills. And they’ve hardly changed at all.
And thanks for asking that evolution question. As you know, I make an argument in my book that human beings evolved from gar. Or, to be more precise, that humans evolved from Tikaalik Roseae, which was basically a big old gar that crawled out of the primordial stew à la the Arctic 375 million years ago, with the wrist bones to prove it. Wrist bones in their pectoral fins, that is. Wrist bones that, along with air-breathing lung-like organs, beg the question of whether or not the recently discovered fossils of Tikaalik represent the missing link Darwin predicted in 1860.
Davis: You’ve been a fisherman for years—yet the book offers disdain for those who bowhunt gar. What’s the difference?
Mark: When it comes to alligator gar, the largest and most threatened of its species, I am all about catch and release. But when you put an arrow through the brain of a hundred-pound fish, or any fish for that matter, there is no possibility to catch and release. My problem with the bowhunters is that there is a culture of killing fish then leaving them there like an unflushed toilet for others to come stumbling upon. I’m sure there are bowhunters out there who have a sense of responsibility and respect that’s similar to mine, but I just haven’t run into that breed yet. Basically, I’m looking at a lot of good fish going to waste and it bums me out. Rod and Reel fishing is a lot easier on the species as a whole.
Davis: The back cover of Season calls this book “nature/fishing” and you include gar recipes in the endpapers. Yet, I sense the occasional hesitation in the text about your position as a fisherman. Has your experience with gar changed your feelings about the ethics of fishing—as perhaps embodied by this excerpt?:
“Which got me thinking about all the fish in my life that were out there now, swimming with lures in their jaws….I had injured thousands of fish, rubbed of their protective slime, ripped up their throats, and thrown countless back to die” (114).
Mark: My feelings are always up and down. I use live bait on my limb lines out in my lake, which I check twice a day, and I sometime go through phases where my inner-vegan asks if it’s right for me to be playing God with the lives of all those little fish. So sometimes when I get soft like that I question my methodology.
But when it comes to gar, I’ve never met a more human fish. The way their eyeballs rotate in their sockets, the way they smile and breathe air and like to hang out in the sun, those are all very human characteristics. So maybe that’s why I feel more for gar than other fish. It always chaps my hide when somebody throws a carp on the shore to die or murtilates a bullhead, but I get much more emotional when somebody does that to gar. Getting to know them has created an empathy in me, which I fear might not be very rational. When I see gar getting murdered, I think Jews, Native Americans, slaves, etc. But I am also a serial killer of fish, so I try to repress those feelings out in the field. Like gar these days, I also find myself in a very strange place.
Davis: Have you considered that even catching-and-releasing gar plays into a fetish for the exotic that works against the conservationist aspects of the book? Wouldn’t it be better for people to leave these fish alone, and let ecologists focus on getting the populations back up?
Mark: That would be ideal, and I have thought about this contradictory-feeling “fetish.” On one hand, here I am saying “Save the gar,” but I’m also supplying recipes to dispel the myth that their meat ain’t worth squat. What I’m trying to do is educate. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there killing gar and throwing them away, because that’s how they were raised to deal with these fish. As an alternative to such behavior, I want to spread the word that they have value, and should be respected. There are some other things that I do in the book that are similar to that (like giving away their habitats in the name of Truth and Honesty, so that people will be aware of their situations and less likely to go running out there with guns to Kill Kill Kill ‘em all). Anyway, since it’s doubtful that we’ll ever stay out of gar places, I’m hoping to affect the attitude of a few, who can affect the attitude of a few, so that when we are on gar turf there will be a .00001 percentage more awareness of the facts. Of course, I never advocate eating alligator gar. But for the smaller more common species, there is a utilitarian use for them that is more favorable than pure waste. Besides, every time you take a gar out of the water, you essentially take a bass out as well (see Dennis Scarnnechia’s seminal study on gar and bowfin management). That’s what I’m talking about.
Davis: What’s your involvement these days with the University of Central Arkansas teams doing research on gar? The book suggests that they let you tag along to help apply tracking devices to the fish, but I imagine that your decades of experience with gar prove valuable—along with your position as an advocate of the species?
Mark: I do a lot of work with our biology and environmental science students, from checking water quality in tributaries to sampling for invasive snakeheads to sampling gar. They let me tag along and observe but they also put me to work. I learn a lot from them, but I don’t really know if they learn that much from me. For the most part, I think they are a good-natured sort who are amused by people who are amused by fish. Basically, they deal with numbers and I deal with letters, but they know that I synthesize this stuff to make a case that they agree with.
Davis: There’s a real Gonzo element to the text—especially in your fishing trips with a former student you call “Hippy.” To what extent did you deliberately expand or control this voice as you moved into the more conservationist-minded sections of the book? I don’t think the tone completely changes, but I wonder if you think too much fictive exuberance can injure a “message.”
Mark: Hopefully it comes off as nonfictional exuberance, but I know what you mean. Creating characters is a technique more commonly found in fiction. As for the voice, yes indeedy, I manipulated the timing of some dialogue to make it look more spontaneous in its occurrence, compared to how it actually happened. My hope is that these techniques will captivate readers, or at least not piss them off, so therefore the message reaches a wider audience. I suppose that I might lose my more skeptical readers if they don’t cotton to the way I cast my net, but I’ve also heard back from some people that those rollicking adventure stories were the most entertaining parts of the book. So, hell if I know…
Davis: What’s do you hope the gar-uninitiated, like myself, take away from this book?
Mark: Mostly, what I’m hoping gar-virgins can take from this book are a few anecdotes that they can rattle off at parties, or over dinner, or to others who might be interested. One of my main objectives with this book was to add some balance to the communal conversation. If somebody brings up gar, odds are that somebody else will pipe out something about them being ugly, or a “trash fish,” or how they should be iced. This book, perhaps, is a tool for making counter arguments.
Ultimately, though, I’m hoping that some of my excitement for the species translates to others. I really do think it’s important for kids to see gars, in the wild or an aquarium. So if I can convince some parents to take their kids fishing, or spend a day at the fish zoo, then—like Thoreau once said—I’ll be not just simply good, but good for something.
Davis: You’re married to Robin Becker, whose novel Brains: A Zombie Memoir will be released at the end of May. Any zombie-gar in that book?
Mark: No, but I once saw a zombie carp. It was totally pale and half-eaten by the turtles. It saw me and shot back to life, then shot back out into the pond. That pond is probably full of zombie carp now waiting to mob us in the night.
Davis: What’s next for you at UCA—I hear an MFA program is in the works?
Mark: That’s what we’re shooting for. It will be a specialized studio program that specifically prepares students for careers in editing and teaching. These things, however, can get struck down by lightning bolts out of nowhere… just like alligator gar. I mean, the Pacific salmon fishery has totally collapsed, the world sturgeon population has plummeted 70% in the last 30 years, and now there’s an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatening to wipe out everything. It’s all so fragile. Everything is made of glass. And there’s always some clown with a hammer waiting to smash that glass. Or, in the case of gar, millions of clowns with millions of hammers, not even aware of what’s at stake.
3 thoughts on “Must be the Season of the Gar”
THE DANGEROUS shadow was no more than a faint dappling of darkness among the sun-speckled shallows. Uncle Birdie hunched in the skiff and pointed a crooked finger.
Yonder, boy! See! Right yonder! That’s him—there by the big root!
John bent suddenly to the skiffs stern and the shadow was gone. It had not moved, it had not fled; it had simply dissolved suddenly from the deep tobacco-dark water and then there was nothing but the sun dapples again.
Meanest, orneriest, sneakinest son of a bitch in the whole damn river, boy! A gar! Did you see him?
Yep. And he stole your bait, Uncle Birdie?
You seen me plunk that there crawdad on the hook, boy. Then you seen me cast—and when I pulled her in the bait was gone. Ain’t no tobacco box can do that, Cap. Ain’t no little sunfish can swipe bait like that. It was that sneakin’, egg-suckin’ son of a bitch.
Uncle Birdie blew his nose against one scarred, horny finger and cocked a wise blue eye sidelong at the boy in the boat.
Your ma don’t know I cuss—does she, boy?
Shucks, sighed John. She don’t even know I’m here half the time.
Well, you ain’t opposed are ye?—to cussin’, I mean?
Tell you why I ask, boy—your step-pa bein’ a preacher and all that I—
John’s lips grew thin as string and the old shadow flickered back behind his eyes again: the dark gar in the river of his mind.
Birdie stuffed his cheek full of fresh Mail Pouch and stared off into the shore willows, draped softly out over the still shallows clean to the bend below the orchard.
Never was much of a one for preachers myself, said the old man, with another sidelong glance, quick as a robin’s eye. But then I reckon there is all sorts.
John swallowed quickly and his wide eyes were lost in the river. Now Uncle Birdie reached out a scaly, hook-scarred finger and turned the child’s face to meet his eyes.
Stepped on your toes that time, didn’t I, boy? Well, no matter. I don’t know what’s wrong up at your place and I don’t figure to ask. But just you remember one thing, Cap—if ever you need help you jus’ holler out or come a-runnin’. Ol’ Uncle Birdie’s your friend. Now reach me that can of hooks yonder and I’ll show you how to catch Mister Gar as neat as snappin’ a tick off a redbone’s ear.
John relaxed and his face shone as he handed the old man the hooks. They understood one another that day because of a great many things that neither of them could say and because, for some wonderful and ancient reason, when two men are alone in a boat on a river it is nigh impossible for them not to understand one another, no matter if no word is said at all.
Better pick out a big un, Uncle Birdie.
Big un, hell! I’ll pick the littlest one of the lot! The one thing you got to understand about old Mister Gar is this, boy—he is a crafty sort. Why, there hain’t nary hook in the land smart enough to hook Mister Gar. What a feller needs is—
He tugged his greasy hat from his shaggy white head and sought among the motley flies and hooks and lures and presently plucked a long gray hair from the greasy, frayed band.
—is mother wit—and a horsehair.
You heard me, Cap. A horsehair. A horse tail hair, mind ye— a good long one like this here. Now watch! First you loop your old horsehair and make a little lasso. See there?—And then you hang your baited hook right down in the middle of it—like so!—See?
John followed the old man’s swift hands with brooding, enchanted eyes.
Like this. Now fetch me that piece of crawdad there, Cap. That’s a lad! Now! There we are!
Won’t he bust it, Uncle Birdie? Won’t the gar bust the horsehair when he gits lassoed?
Shoot! A horsehair’ll hold a whale, Cap. You jest watch now. You see old Mister Gar comes along and sneaks up on the bait and when he gits his head right smack-dab in the middle of the noose we snap him up. Watch now!
Uncle Birdie lowered his line cautiously into the placid shallows, dark as old mahogany under the golden tessellation of the willow trees and sky. John’s eyes peered into the water until they ached, and every submerged can and leaf seemed the dark shadow for which they waited, every cloud or bird that passed above them in the afternoon cast its image in the mirroring river and seemed to the boy to be the black hunter. He thought: Like him. Like his ways. Sneaking around after the bait, only he ain’t as smart as a gar—he don’t know where the bait is so he can’t steal it. Time ticked on and the old man’s eyes glared shrewdly into the depths and then suddenly, without warning, Uncle Birdie thrust his arms upward and the boat rocked like a cradle and the air was full of sparkling pearls of water.
There! There! There, you slimy, snag-toothed son of a bitch!
And John wiped the water from his face and saw the ugly, thrashing creature in the skiff bottom.
Don’t git your fingers in the way, boy! cried Uncle Birdie, snatching off his mud-crusted shoe. He grasped it by the toe and flogged the thrashing nine-inch fish flat into the floor boards with the heel.
Meanest, suck-egg, bait-stealin’ bastard between here ‘n’ Cairo! roared Uncle Birdie in a proper riverman’s rage. Presently he peered, with John, at the broken body of the dark, slim knife-jawed fish in the skiff bottom among the cans and bilge.
There now, boy! He’s done!
Can we eat him, Uncle Birdie? Can we cook him?
Shoot! If you’ve got an appetite for bones and bitterness you can. That’s what makes a body so derned mad about a gar. They ain’t fit for nothin’ after you go to the trouble to catch ’em.
Birdie fetched the creature up gingerly by the tail and threw it far out into the river and watched with angry eyes as it floated away on the quickening current near the channel. Then Birdie spit in the water and went to baiting his line for sunfish again. They had a panful already and the sun was standing close to the crown of the mine tipple across the river on the Ohio shore.
Gars are just plain out badass. Harmless to people and just look terrifying.