The Thirty-Thousand-Foot View

When I interviewed Richard Collins, retired Southern Arizona rancher, he asked the first question: “What have you read?”

Specifically, he wanted to know if I was a Sand County Almanac fan or a Monkey Wrench Gang member, and where I fell on the Aldo-Leopold-to-Edward-Abbey scale of ideas about wilderness preservation. “I lean much more towards Leopold and people like Wendell Berry,” he said. “Abbey just wanted it all to himself.” Collins, like the writers he admires, believes there is a way for humans to eat and drink and take up space without wrecking too much. He operated a ranching business for three decades in the Canelo Valley, working first for the Sibold family, then buying some acreage along with grazing permits for surrounding state and federal lands. His background was in epidemiology, which, he said, is the ecology of tiny, disease-causing organisms, so he had a handle on ecological principles. Disease is perhaps the prime example of how humans are part of a broader ecology.

Then an endangered species of fish, the Gila Topminnow, appeared in Collins’ grazing lot. The Fish and Wildlife Service wanted all grazing in the Red Rock Canyon watershed to stop, which would have made Collins’ business a no-go. In many ways, it was a classic conflict between a federal agency and private ranches. But this experience with federal regulation prompted Collins to wonder if there was a way to run his business that also addressed ecological concerns. He and his neighbors formed the Canelo Hills Coalition to see if they could insure the health of the watershed just by adjusting their grazing practices. They brought in George Ruyle, UA’s sustainable rangeland management expert, who set up vegetation surveys. They monitored conditions and put up new fencing and water sources to control where cattle could go in each season. And they were considered successful, says Collins, “by the people who evaluate these things. The federal agencies and the university and my peers in the ranching industry.” Not to say the fish.

Collins reminded me of some of my own family. Retired, but habitually dressed for outdoor work. A busy brain and sturdy opinions. Even his sense of humor and turn of phrase, and the way he pronounced a long period without water “drouth.” But what I liked most about Collins, and so many other people from the Patagonia area that I met during Southwest Field Studies in Writing, was their blend of practicality and idealism. Agriculture is an undertaking with a pretty clear rock bottom. But people around Patagonia think there must be a better way of doing things, and are willing to take a chance to find out.

One evening I wound my way along the Santa Cruz River to talk to Dean Fish, manager at the Santa Fe Ranch Foundation. He situated me immediately: “We’re located about six miles north of the US-Mexico Border, northeast of Nogales, Arizona. The Santa Cruz River bisects the ranch, and so we have what we call uplands on both sides and semi-riparian river valley in the middle. The main ranch is approximately 25 hundred acres of private grazing rangeland and about 65 acres of that is irrigated to provide forage for livestock and wildlife.” He spoke loudly over the hollering goats, and ignored the light rain falling as we sat in front of an adobe wall with peeling whitewash.

Fish is a good communicator, knowledgeable, generous, and extraordinarily nerdy about cattle. Exactly the kind of person you might want at the helm of a foundation that provides not only beef, but also education, a model for management, and even an animal therapy program to the surrounding community. The Santa Fe Ranch Foundation employs people through the Santa Cruz Training Program, which connects developmentally disabled people to opportunities in the county. This ranch is a private business with its own bottom line, but it is operated by people who know how their business fits into something larger. When I asked Fish what principles guide his decisions around here, he talked about “the 30,000-foot view.” From 30,000 feet, this ranch is part of a landscape, these cattle are not the only ones who need the river water, and people who live nearby will always be part of the picture.

I asked Collins and Fish a few of the same questions, and some they answered alike. When asked how they know what to do day-to-day as managers, they both answered, essentially: Go look. Get to know how water moves, how grass responds, how the animals look, and how weather impacts everything. Both Collins and Fish maintained long-term vegetation monitoring programs to make sure they had accurate information for their decision-making. Collins believes “fiction writers and bad movies and songs and all that kind of stuff” that romanticize agricultural life have done real harm to people’s understanding of where their food comes from. But I still find something romantic about this eminently practical, deeply observant experience of a place.

I asked both men what it means for land to be healthy. I am interested in this question both practically and idealistically—the principles that guide decisions, and the practices that create them. I am interested in the 30,000-foot view and the view at the end of a microscope.

Fish said his overarching priority is always to leave the land better than he found it. But he also offered specifics, his picture of ideal rangeland: “I think that healthy land is land that has seen minimal erosion, that has good ground cover and a diversity of plant species on it. And that supports multiple uses: wildlife habitat, livestock grazing, recreation, hunting or camping.”

Collins took longer to answer. He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “You’re talking about health, and it’s a hard term to get my hands around because it’s so broad and ambiguous.”

“Intentionally so,” I said.

He nodded. “But it does convey the sense that like human health, you have to have all your systems working. At my age they’re beginning to break down a little bit, so I understand. Things fall apart. It has that same sense. But how you evaluate it and describe it is difficult.

“I guess in a nutshell, if you want to summarize my view of land health: It’s got to work for the rancher, got to be able to make a profit. It’s got to work for the health and integrity of the watershed, and that means the plants, the water cycle, and the other animals that are using it, including obviously endangered species. And you’ve got to work very hard to do it. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

“Multiple uses” has a dubious history in the U.S., and there is no hard-and-fast line between use and exploitation. But listening to Collins and Fish, I was imagining an ag industry with these priorities. Imagine for a moment that the economy exists to serve quality of life, and not the other way around.




Before arriving on Grand Manan for the 2017 Summer Field Studies Program, I had been thinking about landscape and how it shapes people’s livelihoods, from what we eat and how we cultivate or harvest our food, to how we communicate to each through time via myths, legends, and folklore. Medicine in both physical and spiritual form passed down through how people speak to each other across generations of knowing an environment intimately. And by intimately, I mean how the land and the water can give and take everything from someone. Food, shelter, joy, death, heartache, anger, and wonder along with the many other complicated emotions such a long and nuanced relationship to the natural world and its cycles can have.

Looking out at an old herring weir from Hole in the Wall

Grand Manan is indeed a special place, and our time here has been blessed in many ways. Our conversations with Islanders and with people “from away” who have lived on Grand Manan for many years, have given us a glimpse into the life and history of a relatively small island rich in the life of the sea and the fishing industry.

Dark Harbour at sunset looking from the pond to the sea wall and dulse camps

Being on Grand Manan focused my attention in conscious and subconscious ways (my dreams on Grand Manan have been filled with the sea) to the rhythm of time and routine. The ferry coming and going, the fog arriving, and the subsequent steady hoo-oot of the fog horn from the Swallowtail Lighthouse, the tides (some of the most extreme found on the planet) rising and falling, the activity in the harbor, boats going out, boats coming in, tourists arriving and departing, the sun and moon rising and setting. The constant hum of work, and the shift from one task to another.  This strong sense of routine and rhythm sparked my interest in learning more about daily life and the experience of raising families on Grand Manan.

Katie and I had the great pleasure of spending a couple of hours speaking with Carole Guptill. Carole has a wealth of knowledge about Grand Manan, and shared many stories with us from her experiences raising a family and being a nurse on the island. One blog post can in no way do justice to Carole’s stories that ranged from historic storms, funny anecdotes about raising children near the water, herring smoke houses, island ghosts, and babies being born mid-air while mothers were being flown to the mainland.

Carole, Claire, and Katie

Carole has a warm smile and her eyes twinkle as she talks. We sat in her cozy light-filled living room while the sea glittered down across a freshly cropped lawn dotted with a few tall Spruce trees. There were jars of sea glass atop the coffee table and side tables around the room collected over the years from Grand Manan beaches. Carole excitedly showed us the latest addition to her collection, a small perfectly smoothed piece of brilliantly red sea glass – a rare and remarkable find that she happened upon just when she was about to give up looking that day. A fine ruby slipper among the more common green, blue, and white pieces.

Carole makes lovely little hanging mobiles from drift wood and sea glass. A few of these hung in the windows bringing little points of bright color to our peripheral vision. While Carole told us tales, showed us her collection of vintage Grand Manan postcards, and beautifully recited a few of her poems from memory, I couldn’t help but think how the sea had shaped these little shards of glass, taking them sharp and pointed, and wave after wave smoothing them into little pebble jewels for beachcombers to delight in finding. Much as the stories of Grand Manan have been shaped and kept by island life and the ever-constant tides. People keep the stories in their pockets, they turn them over in their memory. Some of the edges may get smoothed out or change shape a little, but the stories get passed down over and over again.

One of Carole’s sea glass mobiles for sale at the Grand Manan Museum

I’m from the Sonoran Desert, a place with expansive bright skies, extremes in temperature, shifts in light that give nod to the time when the area was all sea. When I hike to high points in the dry mountains on sunny days I look out across vast valleys and swear I can see the glitter and sheen of water, feel the fossils of long dead sea creatures lodged in the rocks beneath me. While Grand Manan is nearly the opposite of the Sonoran Desert in many ways, with its cooler temps, frequent fog, and emerald robe of green trees and vegetation, I couldn’t help but meditate on what the similarities could be between a desert and an island. Both environments are extreme in their own ways, the desert with its dry heat, and the sea with moody rip currents and storms. One’s eye is constantly trained to the horizon in the desert as it is to the sea. Without a deep ingrained knowledge and a discipline for preparedness, they can both be deadly rather quickly. There is a sense of isolation and contemplation in both environments, as well as people who tend to be resilient and independent. Does a landscape that requires these traits of its people, also foster a fierce sense of community? In Grand Manan I think it does. So many of Carole’s stories revolved around the communities built within family and neighbors, which quickly rippled out to the island as a whole.


On our last night we went to a talk about Kent island at the Grand Manan Museum. I was standing near Russell Ingalls who, when someone asked teasingly if he had been present at the time the 1930’s film we were watching had been made showing logging activity in Seal Cove, simply replied to the question: “No I wasn’t, but I’ve been told.” This was such a strong statement to me, and speaks to the strong oral tradition of many islanders and their deep ties to Grand Manan, the sea, and to fishing. To their sense of community and their knowledge of how to read their natural surroundings.

Gannet Rock Lighthouse

As I write this, Katie and Josh are making cookies in the sweet little Compass Rose B&B Flagg House kitchen that has been our home for the past two weeks. They are talking to each other through a series of communications about dough density, questions about egg cracking techniques, and chocolate chip ratio preferences. They are negotiating dough ball sizing, and joking with each other. Their hands are covered in sugar, flour and oats and they make frequent eye contact while mixing the sweet ingredients. They alternate between talking about the cookies and talking about the whales we saw yesterday. I sit typing away on my laptop listening to their cheerful chatter orbit the kitchen island, and I’m thinking about community, about the strong community that forms on islands in particular, and about the relationship the community members have not only with each other but with the natural world and the stories they tell. These stories get told while the cooking gets done, when the long light of afternoon is drifting through windows and people are sitting around and visiting with each other.


So many of my experiences on Grand Manan have had to do with precisely this relationship between people and nature. From watching the full moon rise over Long Island, to research students banding tiny Savannah Sparrow chicks, to watching Russell Ingalls watch the water as he maneuvered his boat skillfully into the basin at Kent Island. And for the pack of 10-12-year-old island boys kindly and curiously checking out the Harbor Seal pup resting on top of the lobster car at the North Head wharf, to seeing a field of hand-harvested dulse drying on huge round sunbaked rocks.

Harbour Seal pup on North Head Wharf

How grateful I am to have spent time in this special place and talked to so many wonderful people about their experience of Grand Manan, the island they call home.  



Evening at Dark Harbour

Of the strokes I learned at canoe camp, the feather was my favorite: swiveling the blade of a paddle back and forth against the water, parallel to the gunnel, to approach a dock or another boat. I never thought I’d use it to pull my way closer to a salmon cage, as I was doing in my little red kayak. The Dark Harbour water was calm in its reflection of the purple-grey sky above and my black blade sent ripples in the direction of the fish. They were enclosed in netting suspended by a thick rubber floating rim, presumably netting that fell all the way to the ocean floor. One net on the interior of the cage kept the fish in, and another, on the outside, whose webbing was lined with strong metal wires, kept seals out, lest the dogs-of-the-sea reach in with whiskered snouts and dine their hearts out. Which happens, apparently. From the kayak, as I peered in, it seemed that the wire netting was working so far. No seal in sight.

I had seen the salmon from the Dark Harbour wharf earlier that day. From that vantage, Claire and I looked out at the cages as we interviewed Matthew Ingersoll, who runs the operation. He gave us an overview of his plans for the population of reared salmon, totaling four thousand, sorted by age (smolt to adult) into a set of three cages. When they graduate into maturity, at which stage they develop their archetypal beaks, Matthew’s crew will guide them from their enclosure to the wharf in cages. From there, the crew will lift them into tanks in trucks, then lift those tanks into a helicopter, and then drop the fish from the sky – fins flapping in the air – into a nearby river. (For further reading, see the blog Page Buono wrote about this very operation and in her blog post titled Mort Dives here.)

If you look at the cages from the wharf for long enough, you will see a glint of a salmon flank as it leaps from the water and towards the other side of the cage. I took the kayak out and down the slick intertidal because I wanted to be closer to the fish. Not too close, of course, no trespassing involved. But close enough to watch that leap. As I sat there in front of the oldest, largest salmon I couldn’t see the school, but I could almost feel them like a thrum in the hull of the kayak beneath me. Then, without warning, the jump! An eerie display of fish flesh hurtling through the air and falling. That’s why there’s netting on top of the cages too. Carly Fleet, who has worked on aquaculture projects before, told us that sometimes a heron will perch on this netting and snake its neck through, beak agape, in anticipation of a jump.

When I asked Matthew what challenges he faces in running this operation, he said the biggest task is keeping the fish alive, because if the seals don’t get them, then diseases might. While the Dark Harbour cages hold a relatively small population of salmon, larger operations further offshore contain tens of thousands of fish all living together in conditions that tend to promote the rapid spread of disease. Salmon are especially susceptible to parasitic sea lice, for example, which latch on to the fish and feed on their blood, skin and mucus. The lice spread when fish are in close contact with one another, which is of course inevitable in a cage. To keep salmon alive, some aquaculture companies will go to extreme measures. Back in 2009, Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd. applied the pesticide cypermethrin to offshore cages in an attempt to control sea lice. During our time in Grand Manan, we talked to several residents who are still concerned at what this chemical application has done to the marine ecosystem – and especially lobsters, for which cypermethrin is lethal.

But floating around in Dark Harbour, paddling to the cage where the smolt were making their smaller leaps, I wasn’t thinking as much about the science of rearing salmon or its ecological implications. Instead I was considering the sheer challenge of taking on such a project in the first place. From these cages, humans were making an attempt to restock a major fish population in the rivers that feed the Bay of Fundy. Dropping fish from helicopters! The challenge of managing all of that, of not just heli-transport but simply keeping fish alive, seemed to reveal the severity of the broader decline of fisheries in the region. Such extreme human intervention reflected an increasingly precarious relationship between Grand Mananers and the fish that have supported the island for centuries.

Dark Harbour, in all its evening magic, was a place that seemed to speak to that precariousness, and not just in the salmon cages. Earlier that day, perched on the thick round rocks of the Dark Harbour sea wall, our field studies crew had watched the early stages of weir building. A team of six men, moving quickly, winched a boat over a dip in the sea wall, and, on the other side, with a large floating driver, placed and hammered the weir stakes into formation. The machine was nearly as precise as the men who danced around it, their limbs and legs sprawling, grabbing, hoisting, splaying as the operation proceeded. To build a weir on Grand Manan is an investment of not only labor but substantial capital. Each weir stake can cost up to five hundred dollars, and from the looks of it this crew was setting in at least ten stakes before nightfall.

The way the men moved as a crew revealed their expert understanding of the unsteadiness of waves that rocked the craft. As we watched, men and raft swayed together, their silhouettes occasionally blurred by waves of fog that slipped by in sheets from the sea. Pulling up a stake, placing the stake, hammering it with the giant driver, hit by hit, as many clangs as it took to drive the sharpened tip of it into the ocean floor. Soon they would string the weir with twine, seine the weir, and haul herring from the sea. But there would only be a small chance that the profits would allow them to break even. That’s why, on an island where dozens of weirs once lined the shore, this year there are only twelve.

It struck me as we watched them that just beyond their silhouettes, in the distance, was the Grey Zone, another precarious area for Grand Mananers and fish, of the lobster variety (see Paco Cantu’s piece on the Grey Zone here). I’ve been told that the influx of lobster to the region, partially because of rising temperatures and climate change, has led to the “Grand Manan Gold Rush.” The good catches have brought millions of dollars of revenue to the island, so a potential to catch more during the summer months drives a number of boats out to the contested waters of the Grey Zone that lies along the U.S./ Canada border. But the lobster fishery, too, especially in the Grey Zone, is precarious. Will rising temperatures continue to push the creatures northwards beyond the Bay of Fundy? Will the intensiveness of the current fishing lead to a plummet in population numbers? Many of the fishermen we have spoken with predict that they will remain in the Bay for several more years. But after that, what will be fished next?

On one of the last days of our program, I visited the Grand Manan Museum and saw the exhibit that the first director of the museum created, which documents the history of fishing on the Island. It starts with black and white photos of herring seining, a diorama of a weir, and the curious words: The story of Grand Manan begins and ends with people and fish. I wonder what the director’s intentions were in using precisely those words. To claim an ending to any story as it’s still being written is either prescient or bold. But as I reviewed those words after learning from islanders over the past few weeks, I couldn’t help but feel that I had visited this place at a remarkable chapter in the story of people and fish; a story I glimpsed through netting and weir stakes that night in Dark Harbour. If the story of Grand Manan begins and ends with people and fish, what happens to the people as the fish continue to disappear?

Model lobster buoys at the Grand Manan Museum; each color pattern corresponding to a distinct boat or family.