Catherine Woulfe reviews Upstream on the Mataura, a memoir by Gore flyfisherman Dougal Rillstone chronicling his journey along the Southland river.
Dougal Rillstone is some guy you’ve never heard of, who grew up in Gore and is in love with a river. He also loves to fish for trout. He’s in his 70s. He fishes with poets – Kevin Ireland, Brian Turner – and he writes clean and beautiful. Somehow, until now he has only been published in the magazines FlyLife Australia and Gray’s Sporting Journal.
The year Rillstone turned 65, his mother gave him a copy of Scuffy the Tugboat. You know it, surely you know it: a toy boat escapes into a creek, floating downstream past cows and flowers and it’s all lovely, but then the creek turns into a river, fast and industrialised, and suddenly he’s facing the wide-open sea…
Scuffy prompted Rillstone to finally tackle his own pilgrimage – a journey along what he calls “the river of my life”. Two hundred and fifty-ish kilometres, from the Mataura’s mouth near Invercargill, to the source in the Eyre Mountains. Rillstone reckons he’s spent 1,500 days fishing this river. “It has given me insight into where I stand in the scheme of things, about what matters, and about what is of little consequence. For all of this, I am deeply grateful.” The walk itself was his tribute, the book merely the record.
Typical sentence: “Near where the Mataura curves back to almost touch Knapdale Road, I clambered over the willows and ate a nectarine beside the water.”
Best metaphor, while slogging through long grass: “I felt as though I was walking through a bath of custard.” Or maybe it’s the time he calls a stretch of snow-melt water “as clear as vodka”.
At one point Rillstone describes himself as assuming the posture of a heron, stalking, staring at the water, and that’s how I thought of him from then on. Peering about himself, neutral, intent, one eye always on the water and on the mayflies. Moving forward.
He is beside the river for almost the whole book – 247 fairly dense pages – and he rarely looks away from it. So much is elided; the river is all that is and has ever been, all that matters. We learn very little about his life, aside from those facts and stories that are river-adjacent, such as that he has a wife called Sue who he is sad to leave and excited to come back to, and that he had a baby sister who died shortly after she was born. (He was eeling with his uncle at the time, hence the river-adjacency.)
There are quite a few poetic, zoomed-in-close childhood anecdotes. There is no mention of his career or of how he squeezed so much fishing in around his family. Nor politics, not even the climate crisis, this one set of waterways aside. Instead what he does, very deliberately, is he looks and he looks at what’s in front of him – at the water, and the trout sipping grubs from the meniscus, and how his legs are feeling, and what the weather’s doing. And he remembers all the other times he’s been beside the river, looking at the water and the trout and the clouds.
Not a metaphor: he is forever turning over stones. He wants to look at the insects underneath.
Fishing is by the by, really. What Rillstone wants to convey is the importance of place and of space, of stillness and grace. Of how if you wait and watch you will always see magic. He writes that after his walk he felt like he’d emerged from a monastery and I felt that way after reading the book. It reminded me of Where the Crawdads Sing – the meditative parts, not the harrowing child neglect parts – and it reminded me of the couple in The Overstory who, after an epiphany, let their garden grow rampant and spend every day marvelling at it, elated.
There is one moment where I felt he failed to see clearly, and it reminded me how very male this whole exercise was. What a different book it would be, written by a woman.
“Near a cluster of fishing cottages I saw the first female angler I had encountered on the trip. We walked towards each other for about fifty metres before we passed. Something about her look – best boots and waders, even though the day was warm – and the way she dressed suggested that she wasn’t from New Zealand. I said hello as we passed but she wasn’t prepared to make eye contact, and with the hint of a smile she moved on. Her muted response felt unfriendly at first, but it reminded me that while it is commonplace for New Zealanders to speak to total strangers in those circumstances, this isn’t necessarily true in many Western countries.”
Maybe he’s right! Maybe this woman’s failure to say hello was evidence of some kind of cultural gulf. But I found it bewildering, in a “Holy shit is this how men go through life?” kind of way, that he skipped to that without recognising the obvious: she was scared. Or at least vigilant. What she did is exactly what you do when you’re a woman and you’re someplace by yourself and then suddenly a man is there saying hello. You do not provoke. You do not invite. You hurry past, but not too fast, and you duck your head and maybe smile a bit to show you’re not a bitch.
(Relevant reading: Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am, especially the chapter Neck, in which O’Farrell, on a walk, encounters a murderer. This is not to suggest that Rillstone was being in any way creepy – just that women have a different experience of the world, and of walks.)
It was odd and it was pleasant, to come at the world from such a blithely male perspective. I wished I could go for long walks alone through the country, and camp under the stars, without for a moment feeling afraid. It was nice to do all that vicariously via Rillstone. It was especially appealing given I read his book tucked up in bed at night with the electric blanket on three. It was the winter school holidays; my kids spent their days snot-lacquering every surface in the house, and their nights snorting and wailing. Solitude! Silence! Yes, please. (I would have probably divorced my husband if he’d suggested he take off fishing for the weekend, by the way.)
It’s not made explicit but I suspect there’s a conceit going on with the structure: the main story, that long walk upriver, ends about three-quarters of the way through, and from there the book abruptly splits into tributaries. These little stories are where the gold is. The heart. I would’ve edited them for length and dropped them in throughout the book to break up the occasional long stretch of flat water, and to give the whole a more natural arc. But then I am an impatient reader, a city reader, a frazzled reader, who rarely has a shower to herself let alone a couple of glorious months, mostly alone, walking beside a friendly river.
Rillstone has oodles of time. It seems like he’s always had oodles of time. He takes his grandchildren camping and reads them The Odyssey; he references Dylan Thomas and Vincent O’Sullivan; he buzzes about in a Cessna; he drinks whisky with old friends; he watches “towering clouds filling the sky like the clouds in a painting by J.M.W. Turner, altering shape and colour as I walked towards them – towards the majesty of it all, in the clear southern light”.
Kevin Ireland has contributed a blurb. “A magnificent and wonderfully important book,” it says, and I suppose the part that’s important, aside from the fact that every life is a story worth telling, is the decline of Rillstone’s beloved river and the waterways that feed it.
Rillstone is even-handed to a fault, a perfectionist, a man of still water. He is “saddened”, never outraged, about the changes he sees, about cows stamping dirt into the water. He has clearly done his best: he mentions taking part in a Save the Rivers campaign some 40 years ago, and joining a society that successfully pushed to have the river protected by a national water conservation order. He outlines his ongoing, fruitless complaints to authorities. He worries about the tendency toward shortsightedness. He describes the arrival of dairying as a “fracture”, and that’s about as impassioned as he gets, on the page anyway – but his metronomic, mesmerising book does that work for him.
“Show don’t tell” is very often a bullshit rule but for Rillstone it works. This is what this place used to be, he shows us, over and over. And this is what it is now.
He is brilliant, clear as vodka, on the changes to Fortune Creek, a small tributary to the Mataura that he found by chance and describes as a secret silvery Eden. It stayed much the same for 15 years, he writes, until the surrounding land was converted to dairy in the 1980s and 90s.
“Fortune Creek suffered quickly. The water lost its clean gloss, and I stopped drinking from it. It became choked with weed earlier in the season than before, and the flow diminished. Cows broke down its banks upstream of where I fished it, and the dips and hollows that held trout gradually filled with silt. The trees and flax bushes that shaded and cooled the water and created the indentations that held trout got in the way of centre-pivot irrigators and were removed, converted into plumes of smoke in the autumn sky …”
Despite it all, the cows and the crumbling banks, the waterweed and the burning, lucky is something I thought a lot, watching that old heron walk. I thought of spending all those years with a properly clean river. All that time, the moments of rippling grace. That connection with place. I thought of my own father. I thought of the bigger picture, and of the fractures to come.
At the end of Rillstone’s long walk, he stands at the source of the Mataura, or near enough, and he thinks about time and the water cycle and he considers his grandchildren, assuming there will be generations and generations to come, flowing and easy, moving forwards.
Lucky, I thought, at that moment most of all.
Upstream on the Mataura by Dougal Rillstone (Mary Egan Publishing; $39.99) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.