By Chip Prehn
I write to honor a great man and praise God for what this man gave to so many for so long. He only taught me how to fly fish, but he also taught many others how to love and serve God, appreciate and care for all of God’s creatures, especially birds and flowering plants, appreciate baroque music, play the harmonica, and write effective haiku. This man was also a dedicated college mathematics professor for twenty-two years. In 1980, he left the professorship to begin his second career as a research scientist for the Natural Lands Trust. He possessed a keen understanding of the total ecology of southeastern Pennsylvania. His attention to and love of every living thing revealed him to be a contemplative. “Contemplation is nothing more than very deep, very mature faith,” he once told me. “You know the true contemplative in a group of Christians, not by mystical talk or accounts of strange visions; he will just be the most spiritually unflappable person in the group. And this is because he simply trusts God.”
Stevens Heckscher did nothing he did not do well. If he decided to do something new, he learned all about it and made himself expert. His five children believe he was an expert dad, even without being perfect. For many years he was the lay spiritual director in a parish church that cared about such direction. He helped hundreds of people work through their doubts, or their fears, or their incomplete understanding of God’s ways. His mentees became more joyful, confident, and free by way of his spiritual friendship.
In the late spring of 1987, Stevens approached me in the parish hall of the church I was serving in suburban Philadelphia. I did not know him but had noticed that he was in church most every Sunday. He struck me as a devout man. In the sacristy after Mass, he would humor people with high-brow wit. In the sanctuary, he was completely absorbed in the business at hand. For him, worship was worship; there was no other reason to be in church except give oneself entirely to divine worship of the living and true God.
Stevens had smiling eyes. His thin gray hair was always wacky. He looked every bit the absent-minded professor but was nothing of the sort. I learned that there was no time when his mind was not working at great speed. He was what he was — a serious player in the game of life. Yet he was a humble man who did not push himself on anyone. He was a consummate gentleman who watched and waited before he spoke or acted. He always wore a distinctive crucifix round his neck. It meant something to him. He was on the duty rotas as both altar server and lector. He once astounded everyone with a brilliant Sunday morning class on the resonance between Carl Jung and Christianity. So I was quite flattered that he approached me to introduce himself that Sunday morning in May.
“How would you like to go fishing?” Stevens asked me with a cup of coffee in both hands.
I liked this idea immediately. I loved to fish but had not yet wet my hook in Pennsylvania. Weaned on the cane pole, a bobber, worms, and minnows, I graduated in time to spin-casting and bass lures. I had fished for just about everything and caught my share of bream, perch, and bass. How nice to be invited fishing!
“The weather’s been so beautiful,” said he. Indeed, it was an especially beautiful spring. Five horticultural zones coalesce in southeastern Pennsylvania. The azaleas had been spectacular that year. The many varieties of dogwoods were coming into their own. The blooming tulip trees and Rose of Sharon were glorious.
“I don’t have a pole,” I said.
“You mean a rod,” replied Stevens.
“I left my pole and tackle box in Texas,” I continued.
He looked me over a bit with a faint smile. “You don’t fly-fish,” he said correctly. And I realized that he was not inviting me to go bate-casting with him.
“But I’d love to learn,” I said.
“Well then I can teach you,” he said.
I gladly agreed to his offer. I had no idea how seriously he would take his responsibility, or just how much it would require of him. It turned out to be one of the most generous offers of tuition in my life. We met middle of the next week at a shop in Media, Pennsylvania. Stevens had asked me to earmark a certain amount of money; not too much but not too little. He promised that for the amount of money I set aside he would outfit me with the best beginner’s equipment he could recommend. I had already bought Red Ball chest waders at the local Wal-Mart. Now Stevens helped me choose a rod, a reel, a landing net, fly-line, leaders, various wet and dry flies, and a fishing vest. For each of these items, Stevens gave a rather complete explanation of history and purpose. What to his mind constituted bad, good, and superior quality he attempted to pass on to me.
He garnished my new vest with stainless steel attachments and water-resistant necessities: bug repellant, tiny scissors, a pair of small forceps for holding the hooks for threading, silicone treatment for dry flies and goop for wet ones, a landing net and the yo-yo clip to hook the net to my vest, and tapered tippets. Tippets are the almost invisible fine monofilament to which the fly is attached. Stevens was adamant that my landing net be made of soft cotton fiber. “We must always think of the fish. Some landing nets damage the trout’s skin.”
We left the fly shop and met half an hour later on the lawn of the Curatorium, which it was the custom to call the Curate’s house. Here I was given my first lesson. I had a two-piece Orvis rod and an Orvis Madison reel. Stevens believed both were just right for the beginner. He showed me how to load the reel with the backing and line and how to tie the leader to the line and the tippet to the leader. He commanded that no rod should ever be put away wet and that one must be extremely careful putting together and taking apart the two parts of the rod.
At last, Stevens put a small, brightly-colored fly on the tippet and showed me how to use the rod to cast the fly. He stood a bit away from me and demonstrated, first, the correct overall posture and, next, the right way to use the arm. He explained everything as he used the rod and spoke of various situations I would face in a live trout stream. I tried to take it all in.
“You’re going to be standing in a stream all day,” he said. “Thus your casting must be efficient and smart so you don’t get worn out. Your legs will be in the water. That’s your cooling system.”
Once Stevens showed me how to use the rod and the ways to gain greater accuracy with the fly, he handed the rod to me and watched me have at it for a while. “You need to do this every day for half an hour. Just stand here in the yard and make yourself proficient. You’ve made good progress but you must practice here every day. You’ll save yourself much agony in the stream.” He did not get in his car and drive away until he was sure that I was able now to teach myself how to practice the correct technique. His object was to make sure I knew the goals to which my practice was leading; that was the main thing. Teach a man to fish, I thought.
Five or six days later, we loaded my car and headed to central Pennsylvania. “I’m taking you to a place called Boiling Springs. The Yellow Breeches. That’s where my father taught me how to fish,” he said. He seemed positively thrilled to be off on the adventure, even though he had fished all his life.
“There are two famous streams out where we’re going. The Yellow Breeches and the Letort. They’re both good and they are both difficult to fish, because there’s a lot of pressure on both of them. We won’t bother with the Letort. It is too difficult for a novice. The truth is, only Vincent Marinaro [one of the great fly-fishers in American history] could catch fish on the Letort. You and I will start on the run flowing into the Breeches. Lots of trout in there! You’ll be able to see what you’re doing and correct your mistakes. Once you’re properly taught, we’ll go get into the Breeches.”
I was thrilled beyond description when we got to Boiling Springs and to the Yellow Breeches. Soon we were standing in two and a half feet of water below the dam. Stevens tied a pheasant-tail onto my 5X tippet. This is a well-known, copper-looking wet fly which is designed to look like a bug – a mayfly or a caddis nymph — rising from the stream bottom to the surface where it sprouts wings, leaves the water, finds a mate, conceives eggs, returns to the water, lays eggs, and dies. The eggs fall to the bottom of the stream and germinate in the mud into larvae and bugs that rise to the surface (unless a trout swallows them). The trout eat the bugs – nymphs – on their way up from the bottom of the stream (wet flies replicate this phase) because it is easier and safer for them, or they will rise and take the fly – spinners – on the surface (dry flies replicate this) which leaves them more exposed to predators.
I asked Stevens why he did not start me out on dry flies, since it is easier for the neophyte to see what he’s doing when the fly is floating on top of the water. “I always like to start with the more difficult task first,” he replied. “When the trout are rising, it’s not that difficult to catch them on a dry fly. You’ll see this when we come back for the white-fly hatch on the Breeches. The wet fly should be mastered first. Besides, the bigger fish stay below. They get big because they are smart. Smart fishermen go deep where the smart fish live.”
The run was full of browns and rainbows. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Very gently, we stepped down into the stream. “The fish come up from the river into the run because there is plenty of food here,” Stevens whispered. He did not have his rod with him. His objective was to stand next to me and coach me, which he did for about two hours. He narrated my work step by step, speaking quietly and patiently into my left ear. He tended every detail.
We very slowly made our way to a part of the stream where no trees would frustrate the greenhorn. He made a dozen casts with my new rod, speaking to me as he worked with both hands. “See how I don’t have much line out? Too many people fish with too much line,” he said, “then they wonder why they don’t hook fish. The optimum situation on every cast is to have just enough line out and no more. Lots of fish are lost because of the slack.”
He handed me the rod. I pulled out some line so that I had eight or nine feet of line out, including leader and tippet. I tried to ape Stevens, casting upstream and diagonally across. I let the stream take my line and I followed the coil of line with my rod parallel to the surface. This allows a wet fly to slowly sink without any extra advertisement. When the line finally stretched out downstream and became taught, the fly began to slowly rise from the bottom. Stevens showed me how to get slack into or out of my line by “mending.” He took my rod again in order to demonstrate how to put a cast in such a way that the pheasant-tail would begin to rise just in front of a trout I could see. “You can be more accurate than you think. The fish is looking ahead and up. You would be surprised how narrow its field of vision is.” Amazingly, he caught a small brown trout on the third or fourth cast. So clear was the run that I was able to watch the whole episode from beginning to end. It was masterful work!
We arrived that day about nine o’clock in the morning and stood in that beautiful brook until dark. At a certain point, Stevens trusted me to fish without him standing beside me. He was never far away, however. I was glad that he was going to fish himself. He told me that, when one can see trout so clearly, he likes to decide exactly what fish he wants to “stalk.” I watched him pick a nice rainbow trout hanging out in a pool just up from the low cataract. He went after that one fish for almost three hours, never appearing to take his mind off the thing. This is the Zen of fly-fishing. He was absorbed. If I had not realized it before, I knew now that I was fishing with a serious sportsman.
He started fishing with a pheasant-tail. An hour later he tried a sinking terrestrial of some kind (I believe an ant). He went back to the pheasant-tail for a while. At last, I saw him tie an exceedingly small black nymph onto the end of his tippet. He had become very quiet. As the sun began to sink below the massive trees, Stevens’s large-billed hat concealed the face of a fellow with amazing power of concentration! Now quite worn out, I was watching him from the bank. My thought was that the big rainbow was not going to be caught today, if ever. The trout are used to seeing lots of fishermen stand in the stream. They learn quickly enough. They are either skittish or picky. As if reading my mind, Stevens whispered, “He’s been looking over this midge. O yes! I’ve gotten his attention.” He had been working on the same fish for three hours then remembered he had a partner. “Kindly give me thirty minutes,” he said, “then we’ll load up and go home.”
He did catch that fish. It was a very nice one who had been living a comfortable life in pretty much the same place for many weeks. Stevens beamed with pleasure as he scooped up the fish in his landing net. I was astonished. Before he touched the fish, he pushed his hand into the cold water and explained again this important step in the landing process. He withdrew the barbless hook quickly and held the fish up for me to see. He grinned from ear to ear. “He took the midge! I thought he might.” He very carefully released the trout back into the run, talking to it gently.
“I think you know the old saying,” he said as we drove back to Philadelphia. “Good things come to those who wait.” I told him how impressed I was with his patience and perseverance. “I did not expect you to catch a fish today, Chip. I’m sorry you didn’t land one, but that’s not why we were here today. You’re just starting out! You made good progress on very difficult water. It’s all down-hill now. Your form is okay, I think. Starting on a tough stream is the best way. That way you concentrate on your technique instead of the fish. Doesn’t Thucydides say somewhere in the Peloponnesian War that those who train in the hardest school come out on top? I don’t believe that catching fish is the main thing about fly-fishing. Being in the stream, becoming one with that glorious stream — that’s the pleasure. And landing a nice fish.”
I slept like a rock that night. Before I slept, I thanked God that I had just experienced something special, something important — something for life.
One or more of Stevens’s lovely children wrote the following very short obituary for him:
Stevens Heckscher was to the end a brilliant mathematician, ecologist, and botanical photographer; an irresistible teacher; a gifted and enthusiastic bird-watcher, amateur astronomer and meteorologist, trout and salmon fisherman, singer, player of the recorder, classical guitar, and harmonica, connoisseur of Baroque music, and haiku poet; a wise and loving lay pastoral counselor and guide; a lifelong faithful Altar server; a dedicated Benedictine oblate who linked each day to a rhythm of prayer; and a reverent student and scholar of Christian theology, spirituality, and sanctity. Above all, he was a devoted and loving father and grandfather, and he remains the very heart of his family. (Remember My Journey, Philadelphia)
At the time of his death, Stevens had signed a contract with a leading publisher for the book he worked on for some years. It is a biography of Dorothy Kerin (1889-1963), the English Anglo-Catholic who experienced a miraculous healing and became an eminent spiritual guide and healer. Stevens is a person who made the most of the opportunities afforded him by his parents and teachers. Prepared at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, he went on to earn three degrees in mathematics from Harvard. He was elected a Fulbright Scholar in 1958. In 1980, after teaching higher math at Swarthmore for twenty years, he began an altogether new career with the Natural Lands Trust in Media, Pennsylvania, a science-driven conservation organization of which his beloved father was a founder. He studied with Tilden Edwards in Washington, D.C., and was certified a spiritual director. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Sciences, the Society of Conservation Biology, the Natural Areas Association, and the Philadelphia Botanical Club. He was made a Fellow of the National Science Foundation in 1966. Heckscher was an early Phi Beta Kappa and while in Cambridge toyed with the idea of becoming a member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist or some other religious order. His plans changed when he met his future wife Flossy.
Stevens was passionate about Christian unity, had dear friends in every denomination, and was a valued member of many disparate ecclesial fellowships. He published in journals of different kinds and lectured on the tension between science and religion. He was learned and wise in Christian spirituality, Christian healing, and sustainable biology. An active parishioner at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont, Pennsylvania, for over fifty years, Stevens never left his home parish. He lived through and often enough addressed with insight the challenges and confusions of the Episcopal Church, but he was eager to celebrate the good things. In his relationships with others, he was always courteous, attentive, and smart. For public display he was preparing his world-class and worldwide collection of botanical photographs when God called him to other work elsewhere on October 21, 2020.
Chip Prehn is a partner of Dudley & Prehn Educational Consultants. He is an Episcopal priest, an independent historian, and a writer. Prehn serves St. Mark’s Church, Coleman, Texas, as part-time vicar.