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What you don’t see when you see the gorges

Charles E. Burchfield, MARCH SUNLIGHT, 1925-1933

Images courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center


Behind the glass is a large watercolor of the junction pool where the South Branch of the Cattaraugus Creek meets its main stem. One cannot look at the work of Charles Burchfield without feeling as though he is trying to capture the spirit inside and outside the physical world. 


Like many anglers in our area, I have spent hours walking these waters in the hopes of feeling a tug at the end of my line. Unfortunately, the worlds of museum-going and fishing rarely meet, and so many of my comrades will never experience the connection I feel to a fellow artist and admirer and documenter of the spirituality of our local waters. 


Deep in our gorges, above the moving water that flows between the cliffs and forests, is a silent invisible corridor of air that rises up to meet the sky. It is this nondescript column that one usually walks through when fishing. This is the space often overlooked and rarely described because there seems to be nothing in it, but, for some anglers, it is full of spirituality. 


This atmospheric veil is void of physical characteristics except for those extreme weather events when the wind reaches down within the gorges and you can feel its presence as it rustles the branches and roughens the smooth surface of the stream. This sparse space balances the saturated physical worlds of the woods, high banks, and the life underwater.


Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Cattaraugus Canyon (March Canyon), 1933-57


I often walk these streams feeling as a temporary intruder to an environment that evolved over millennia and that will continue changing long after I am gone. In its evolution, it has created its own narratives and amassed centuries of spirits—if you believe, as Native Americans do, that all elements in nature are connected and have their own sense of life. After spending countless eight-hour days over the past two decades in these gorges, I cannot dismiss the presence of this spirituality. It takes a while to shed the distractions of the saturated physical environment but, as soon as that happens, one is immersed by the indescribable world that fills the air. At times, it is seems as though it is difficult to concentrate amid the ethereal veils of being.


There are some streams that seem more welcoming than others. I’ve tried to analyze why that is, but have not been able to do so. There is something else beyond the physical characteristics of these streams that continues to draw me back to some streams over others.


This is what keeps us coming back and connects generations of outdoor enthusiasts, naturalists, and artists.    


Artist Alberto Rey is an art professor at SUNY Fredonia and an avid fly fisherman.


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