The Dying Fish with Cedric Keith

Published July 18, 2016

Cedric C. Keith’s “The Dying Fish: A Sojourn to the Source,” is a retelling of Keith’s 4,000-mile walk through the eastern wilderness prompted by his desire to save the Eastern Brook Trout. Born from an early childhood fascination with the Eastern Brook, Keith’s journey would lead him to roads often left untraveled and tinged with rugged American spirit. His close witness to the resiliency of the environment would encourage Keith’s hope in regards to the recovery of the environment following centuries of human development.

The entertaining and educational Cedric Keith book event was held at The Heartland Institute’s headquarters in Arlington Heights on Thursday, July 7th. The livestream of the event as well as the corresponding podcast can be viewed here and here. Joseph Bast, the president of the Heartland Institute, prefaced Keith’s speech with his own similar experiences. Like Keith, Bast had also hiked the Appalachian Trail and had worked as a janitor prior to his journey.

Cedric Keith and his fascination with the brook trout

Keith began his talk by thanking Bast for the invitation and his personal interest, declaring himself to be an inexperienced speaker. Keith launched into a few basic facts on the trout, explaining that the Appalachian brook trout is a small fish that spans roughly five inches while the Canadian brook trout reaches a larger size as a result of colder water temperatures. Brook trout spawning occurs from late September to early November where eggs are laid in the gravel of head water streams for winter incubation. The nature of the brook trout is such that they flourish only in unpolluted head water sources; thus, the trout serves as the hallmark of a healthy water source. This explains why the habitats in which they live are mostly remote and remain relatively unaffected by human activity.  The original premise of his project was to simply learn more about the trout while raising awareness for its preservation.  

Keith recounted his early interest in the brook trout, catching and holding the fish to observe its beauty as a child. As an adult, there were four concerns that drew Keith to the preservation of the brook trout specifically, those are: rapid changes in the land since 1600, rising temperatures, pollution, and the introduction of non-native fish like the brown and rainbow trout in the mid-19th century. These four factors, while having an acute impact on the brook trout, are all rooted in major environmental changes with widespread impact.

Cedric’s thoughts turn into action

After reading the “Eastern Brook Trout Join Venture Report” from 2007 and learning of the trout population’s rapid decline since the pre-Columbian era, Keith felt compelled to take action towards its preservation.  Keith explained that at the time of his journey, he was unattached and working as a janitor. He asked himself, “Why not do something that would be crazy and incredible and simultaneously help the brook trout?” He was aware that an informational book of internet research would not sell, ultimately deciding to hike the Appalachian trail and do field work instead.

Cedric’s began his journey in the intense Georgia summer heat, an inexperienced backpacker with little idea of what was to come. The completion of his expedition would require half a decade of mind rewiring, culminating in a substantial change in his world viewpoint. Through his trek, Keith learned that within his solitude was extraordinary freedom.

Cedric describes his trek

In year one, the absence or presence of the brook trout was determined with a fly rod with study sites few and far between.  Keith deemed this expedition a failure but as ultimately necessary in teaching him how to live in the wild. This first leg led him to recognize his actual physical limits beyond his fears. His first year ended in West Virginia. In his second year, Keith began from the same starting point in Georgia but was able to finish much further north in Pennsylvania. Year three yielded considerable data on how the brook trout was faring. In the wild, Keith discovered that every day presented a challenge. He was plagued by foot sores, bugs, bears, and constant dampness. Through his daily struggle, Keith came to understand our existence within the civilized world to be incredibly fabricated in comparison to the state of nature. The safety extant following his return from the wilderness led him to become more docile, finding no need to resist constraints or ward off human competition.

Writing the book

Listening to him talk, it was surprising to learn of Cedric’s internal conflict in pursing an environmentally charged issue even before beginning. Raised within the church, Keith observed that conservatives often shy away from environmental issues entirely.  Even so, Cedric was able to find a higher social order somewhere off in the trees, noting how George Washington and other founding fathers similarly came out of the wilderness. “The Dying” took three years to write and is a derivative of the Keith’s daily journals while in the wilderness. Realizing that a technical field journal detailing every particular fact about the brook trout would be uninteresting, Cedric included his many adventures and experiences along the Appalachian trail. Cedric’s book as a whole is a personal story with a rough start given his prior ignorance to the realities of his trek but a deeply philosophical conclusion. What were Keith’s conclusions?  You’ll have to read Cedric’s book to find out the true state of the Appalachian brook trout.

[Originally published at the Illinois Review]