Everywhere communities, habitats, and families are endangered by radical loss. This book is an act of resistance against such loss, a testament to the beauty and fragility of human making. Inspired by Merwin’s Lament for the Makers–and a spectacular Yves St Laurent dress–the book unearths wonders in its journey through family and environmental history to find: the unmarked grave of a grandmother, a fisherman lost at sea afloat for a week in his dory, a seal skin coat, flowers placed in bullet holes in glass after terrorist attacks in Paris, Vermeer’s portrait of The Lacemaker, a seal rising up through the floor of an Icelandic cottager, the historic silk weavers of Lyon, two prom dresses and a crinoline, a Manhattan Subway sandwich shop where once a dressmaking business thrived, the bounty and beauty of a herring harvest, the silences of women lost to history, and so much more.
The author is grateful to the Guggenheim Foundation for a fellowship that supported the research and writing on this project. Counterpoint Press will publish the book in fall 2021.
Poetry Centered features curated selections from voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s online audiovisual archive of more than 1,000 recordings of poets reading their work during visits to the Center between 1963 and today. In each episode, a guest poet introduces three poems from voca, sharing their insights about the remarkable performances recorded in our archive. Each episode concludes with the guest poet reading a poem of their own. Our inaugural season includes episodes hosted by Hanif Abdurraqib, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Ada Limón, Urayoán Noel, Maggie Smith, and TC Tolbert. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
AHD podcast is live now!
1.1 The Big Story of Life on Earth
Alison Hawthorne Deming introduces recordings of Diane Ackerman reading a love poem for an extraterrestrial (“Ode to the Alien”), Cornelius Eady choosing gratitude as a response to anger and racial discrimination (“Gratitude”), and N. Scott Momaday describing a memorable encounter with Georgia O’Keeffe (“Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu”). Deming also reads a new poem written during this time of quarantine and isolation, “Territory Drive,” originally published at Terrain.org.
This collection began with my Letter to America published in terrain.org just after to cataclysmic 2016 election. I wrote: “Think of the great spirit of inventiveness the Earth calls forth after each major disturbance it suffers. Be artful, inventive, and just, my friends, but do not be silent.” Hundreds answered the call in terrain, driven by outrage, heartbreak, and determination. Many of those works are now collected in this volume edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield from Trinity University Press. Visit terrain.org/dear-america for multimedia and other resources to support the reading, discussion, and teaching of the book. http://tupress.org/books/dear-america/
WRITING IN RELATION: THE SOUTHWEST FIELD STUDIES IN WRITING PROGRAM
By Susan Briante
In an article published in Esquire magazine in 1974 poet Muriel Rukeyser recounts her experiences as witness to the dawn of the Spanish Civil War. Towards the article’s conclusion she remembers a conversation she had on a ship fleeing Barcelona. A passenger asks her, “And in all this—where is the place for poetry?” Rukeyser responds, “I know some of it now, but it will take me a lifetime to find it.” Across a lifetime of countless poems and essays—even a posthumously published novel—Rukeyser proved that literature could incorporate testimony and document, could correct the historical record and be a place to advocate for a better future.
Rukeyser’s words and example were very much with me over this summer when I served as faculty liaison and educational facilitator for the inaugural Southwest Field Studies in Writing program sponsored by the Agnese Nelms Haury Program. This initiative sent three graduate students in creative writing from the University of Arizona, Abby Dockter, Gabe Dozal and Raquel Gutiérrez, to Patagonia, AZ, to work with local environment and social justice groups on writing projects that reflected the issues unique to the border region.
Over the course of a 10-day residency, these writers became researchers and witnesses. In the offices of the Kino Border Initiative, a bi-national migrant advocacy organization, they listened to anecdotes, statistics and testimony that described an immigration and deportation crisis. In and around Patagonia, they collected stories from southern Arizona ranchers, scientists and activists. In a migrant woman’s shelter in Nogales, they heard agonizing accounts of death threats and economic imperatives from a quartet of women in the process of considering asylum, migration, or a return to their place of origin. On an eight-hour drive through the desert near Arivaca to replenish water stations left for migrants with volunteers from Humane Borders, they came face to face with the deadly conditions migrants face on their arduous journey north.
The inaugural participants in the Southwest Field Studies program produced writing that clarified, contextualized, and imagined new possibilities from what they witnessed.
Dockter, a recent graduate in creative nonfiction, gave voice to ranchers who want to monitor their bottom line as well as broad environmental and social concerns. Dozal, a poet from El Paso, found a metaphor for a hybrid border identity in the vinegaroon, an arachnid that looks like a cross between a tarantula and a scorpion with pincers and whip-like tail. Gutiérrez, a poet, essayist and editor, contemplated the dramatic and deadly consequences of changing immigration policies comparing her parents own migration history to the conditions faced by contemporary migrants.
In addition to their own writing and research, Dockter, Dozal, and Gutiérrez spent four days over the course of their residency with the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute. This program, sponsored by the Borderlands Habitat Network, engages marginalized youth in hands-on restoration work of the local ecosystem while providing leadership and educational opportunities. With the high school students, Dozal, Dockter and Gutiérrez worked on land restoration projects: planting trees one day and making adobe bricks another. Then, they used creative writing to give the students an opportunity to reflect on their labor. The high school students presented their written reflections as part of the BECY graduation ceremony in front of their families and the Patagonia community. “I am way stronger than I thought,” student Eden Lattanzio explained standing before a photograph of herself welding a chainsaw.
Creative writing offers a place to reflect on who we are and how we exist in relation to others and to the world we share. In the remote stretches of desert near Arivaca, a series of simply painted crosses, erected by the artist Alvaro Enciso, stand as monuments to migrants who died on their journey. Writing about Enciso’s crosses, Gutiérrez provided an apt description of the power of creative writing, a description that would have made Rukeyser proud: “It is these kinds of artistic representations that operate as both homage and reminder that we need each other to get by,” Gutiérrez writes. “We need each other to remember. We need each other to witness.”
Susan Briante is the author of three books of poetry, The Market Wonders (AhsahtaPress 2016, Utopia Minus (2011), and Pioneers in the Study of Motion (2007). She is Associate Professor on Creative Writing at the University of Arizona.
GUEST POST BY ABBY DOCKTER
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.
GUEST POST FROM GABRIEL DOZAL
“Patagonia Simulator: A Blog Post”
There’s a border arachnid called a vinegaroon. It looks like a Tarantula mixed with a Scorpion. I asked the students from BECY (Borderlands Earth Care Youth) if they had seen any vinegaroons while doing their work around different Patagonian farms. They said they found four at the community center. And they gave them Disco names: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Donna Summer.
One of my favorite borderland/Tejano singers is Freddy Fender. His voice sounds like a trapped furry animal. But his songs, a mix of Mexican Country and American Country, represent a lot about the people in Patagonia, as well as in Nogales, El Paso, and other border communities.
As Kate Tirion from Deep Dirt Ranch said: “whether you’re from Mexico or the U.S., country people are country people.”
When are you past versions of yourself?
Today we broke rocks with students from Patagonia, AZ
We also received a chainsaw usage and cleaning tutorial
Later at the Wagon Wheel, while Freddy Fender sang
Me and Abby spoke to Paco
about our PC radar and when we go back
to our hometowns (El Paso, Prescott, Farmington)
the country folk are the people we grew up with
And the negotiations of this feeling of hats
we put on: the academic snapback/the folksy sombrero
(Are) There (are) hats we can never take off
When should you meet someone where they ( )?
When ( ) you future versions of yourself?
La frontera es un rancho
And these were border people
On our second day working in the fields with BECY I met a man from Nogales, Sonora by way of Oaxaca, named Primi, short for Primitivo. Summer, the owner of the farm, would go pick up Primi in Nogales and bring him to her farm to work as a hand. I talked to Primi about his family in Nogales. He has three kids, and one just graduated from college in Nogales. This was the story I’ve heard over and over and one that I’m a part of: A family coming from Mexico/Central America to work harder than most humans, so that their kids could have a better life. Primi had braces, good for him.
Si, I came to Patagonia with a project in mind
called the Border Simulator and the poemy/prose/instruction manual
I’m working on for the border simulator describes what it does, what it sees
How this connects to my time in in Patagonia?
I‘m thinking about how my time here in Patagonia
rides the line between reality and simulation
Even now, as you’re reading this, you’re simulating
what my time was like in southern Arizona
near the border of the twin Nogales
Today was the 4th of July and we watched a simulated parade
A parade that simulated water fights
A parade that simulated water fights by not having any
A 4th of July that simulated a parade
Karaoke was a big part of our saturday
at Southwest Field Studies
It was something we had looked forward to
I sang Okie From Muskogee and Rocky Racoon
I’m not Merle Haggard or Paul McCartney
Raquel sang Proud Mary and Lovin Touchin Squeezin
Raquel is not Tina Turner or Steve Perry
but here we were simulating these voices
their songs flowing out of us
The project I’m currently working on is about simulations on the U.S.-Mexico border.
I’m trying to define what a border simulator does/would do, and what kinds of questions a border simulator can answer. Here’s a poem I wrote toward that project during my time in Patagonia:
nationalism in the border simulator
In the border simulator you spend all day
with the Salvadorans who’ve crossed/made it past talk
about how hormones in pollo make gueros jotos
In the simulator dialect/intuition are immigrant
As you crossed the border you were slimmer and
with debt you think in an accent
and with death you think in accent
My work has been about the border for a long time now. When I started writing poetry I didn’t want to explicitly write about El Paso/Juarez, where I was from. I felt that other writers used stories about the border as a crutch, while at the same time I felt that my border community wasn’t progressive enough. I don’t feel that way anymore, but I still keep a discerning ear for stories that complicate standard narratives of the border. Being from there, I knew I could offer perspectives about the life and language of the borderlands because I know these people deeply, I am that community, that multiplicity of selves. I am rural person and a city person. I am a type of Freddy Fender and a Vinegaroon.
GUEST POST BY CLAIRE MCLANE
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
GUEST POST BY KATHRYN GOUGELET
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.
GUEST POST BY JOSHUA RIEDEL
Kent Island: “Prey for Fog”
About five miles south of Grand Manan lies Kent Island, a home for nesting birds and spittlebugs and lots of fog. I’d hoped to visit the island during my stay on Grand Manan, but the trip wasn’t guaranteed. Boats bound for Kent Island are infrequent, and weather conditions needed to be favorable in order to make the journey out. On our daily schedule for Thursday, July 13, the proposed date of our trip, we simply drew a star, superstitiously thinking that writing out KENT ISLAND TRIP might jinx us. What if they run out of room on the boat? Or maybe storms might roll in.
Our superstition rewarded us: we were greeted Thursday morning by calm waters and mild, drizzly weather. The trip was on. We hopped in the car, made a necessary stop at the North Head Bakery for cinnamon doughnuts and blueberry turnovers and more cinnamon doughnuts, and drove down to Seal Cove, where Russell Ingalls waited for us in his boat, Island Bound.
We arrived at Kent Island at low tide, which meant Island Bound and its trusty skiff Chuck, could only take us so far: we’d have to walk through the muddy basin to reach shore. Thankfully, Ed Minot, the director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station on the island, and caretaker Mark Murray guided us across the tricky terrain, offering solid mud-walking advice like, Lift your heel up first so you don’t lose your boots!
Fog attracted me to the Field Studies Grand Manan program, specifically the work of Bob Cunningham, who studied fog on Kent Island for seventy years, in what was the single longest continuous study by one person in one place, ever. I had heard about Bob’s rudimentary methods for gathering fog and had seen photos of him hanging high from an aluminum pole, fixing an anemometer, but it wasn’t until I was out on Kent Island, standing in front of his small 8’ x 6’ shack, named Fog Heaven, that I could really imagine what those summers on the island must have been like for him. With only his shack and a few basic meteorological instruments, Bob performed research that would lead to the Clean Air Act of 1963. A headline from the June 30, 1940 issue of the Mount Washington Daily News describes Bob’s work succinctly: TECH MEN JAM FOG INTO JARS FOR RAIN RESEARCH.
Today, the shack houses a Bowdoin College research student, and the weather station is much more sophisticated: Solar-powered instruments connected to WiFi collect data, and you can even watch a live webcam that shows the current conditions on Kent Island.
Before lunch, we discovered a series of letters sent to Bob by Ernest Joy, Kent Island’s first caretaker who stayed on the island year-round with his wife, Carrie. His letters detail the critical role Ernest played in recording the weather conditions on Kent Island when Bob Cunningham was away. Ernest was also quite funny: he often joked with Bob about the weather, once claiming that the fog was so bad it nearly caused his eyebrows to mold!
After lunch, Savannah-sparrow researcher and poet Ian Pristis led us on a walk through the meadow to see the birds’ nests. Savannah sparrows on Kent Island have their own unique song, Ian explained to us, and the sparrows pass on their songs from generation to generation. As part of his research, Ian and colleagues wanted to find out whether the sparrows can learn new songs. Camouflaged speakers line the trail and play these new songs, mimicking two birds communicating with each other. So far, some birds have indeed learned the new songs, and have even passed those songs on to the next generation.
By 3pm, the tide had gone up, and our boat was waiting for us at the dock. On our walk down to the water, a Bowdoin student offered to show us the storm petrels burrowing in the forest on Kent Island. Whisking us through the forest, she paused at a small clearing and leaned over, reaching her arm deep into a burrow, all the way past her elbow, in search of a petrel. “Feels like there’s a chick in here too,” she said. Carefully, she lifted out of its burrow a mature petrel. “Want to smell it?” she asked. I’d never been asked to smell a bird before. Its scent was rich and musty, like the forest floor itself. She then held the petrel up to our ears, the way you would a cell phone, and we heard its rapid heartbeat. Finally, she showed us the petrel chick, small and gray like a ball of dust, or a rain cloud.
By the time we boarded the boat, the rain had picked up. A group of students from Dalhousie rode back with us, documenting the birds they saw in the water along the way. As I watched them record their findings, I thought about the similarities between scientists and writers, about how close observation is so central to both our work, and about how the boundary between these fields is so much more fluid than is usually assumed. I thought about Ian studying Savannah sparrows and imagined him taking measurements in his notebook, jotting down notes for a poem in the margins. I thought about Zoe, a Bowdoin biology major who studies spittlebugs, who talked with us about the importance not only of performing research but of communicating that research clearly to a lay audience. I recalled the books scattered around the common area tables–field guides to local birds and plants and marine life, as well as novels like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist–and thought about how Kent Island has all the makings of a place in which the sciences and the arts coexist.
I hope I can return to Kent Island. I have this dream of everyone sitting around the long table where we ate lunch, after the research is done for the day, and discussing the essays and stories and poems inspired by work on the island, new songs to carry with us back to our respective homes when the summer ends.