Sunday, March 13, 2011

Worth doing again

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geography, new jersey, seasons, watermen

A good idea bears repeating. When, fifty-plus years ago, Edwin Way Teale drove about 150,000 miles to chronicle the American seasons in his books North with the Spring, Journey into Summer, Autumn Across America, and Wandering Through Winter, I wonder if he knew he was already repeating history. I have a much-read set of these, which I think of informally as America's Seasons. Another four-book series The Fall of the Year, Winter, The Spring of the Year and Summer was published just about a century ago, authored by Dallas Lore Sharp, a New Jersey-born naturalist who is buried on New Jersey's "west coast", in Haleyville. Now I have in my hands Bayshore Summer: Finding Eden in a Most Unlikely Place by Pete Dunne, the second in a four-volume set that is still in process (and I'll have to scare up a copy of Prairie Spring).

Pete Dunne and his wife Linda chose to live in Mauricetown, about a mile from Haleyville, and nine or ten miles by road from Thompson's Beach, a defunct community that is the closest access to Delaware Bay. Not far away, kids may "take" a crab or two like this one using baited jigs, while on the bay, more serious watermen take them by the bushel, though all complain that the catch is diminishing.

Unlike Teale's nation-spanning summer volume, Bayshore Summer is focused on a few square miles of land and bay, and on the almost unnoticed ways of life that linger there, though as the area gets "discovered", those ways of life are passing away.

One chapter is devoted to an influence that could well mightily delay "development" of the bayside: biting flies. In coastal areas of Salem, Cumberland, and western Cape May counties, you'll find the most dreaded collection of flying pests in the nation, and perhaps in the world. For seven months of the year, many residents wear a hooded, screened "fly shirt" when going to the coast, and they never wear shorts. To do so is akin to self-sacrifice.

People in many places learn to dread the deer fly. The New Jersey strawberry fly is worse, though being soft-bodied, one swat will do one in, perhaps before it inflicts a bloody bite. But the greenhead fly, a bit bigger than a horsefly and armored like a knight, will simply drive you inland if you fail to armor yourself. The author writes that if you are lucky, a swat followed by a rolling drag will knock one to the ground where you can stomp it, twisting your foot to be sure you actually crush it. Maybe. Well-designed clothing and a stiff breeze are your only defenses.

But there are delights here for the residents, who love the place dearly. A chapter on recreational fishing, whether singly or in a "party boat", explains that fishing draws a person into a different world, where different values and rhythms take hold. I recall talking with an elderly woman about fishing once, and I remarked on my frustration with spending a day to drag up a couple of barely-legal crappie (this was in South Dakota), when I could have bought better fish at the market, for less than the price of my bucket of bait. "Don't tell me you fish for economic reasons!" she scolded. I know many, many folks fish for the love of it, whether they catch much or not. At the time of the scolding, I'd already fished for the last time in my life.

The rhythms of life are different enough in these South Jersey places—akin in my mind to southern Delaware and rural Pennsylvania, and to other rural places I've lived—that one doesn't have to go fishing for a refreshing change of routine. In my case, most of the places I've chosen to live, I simply have to go home from work.

For many South Jersey residents, the place is their work. The watermen who fish for crabs, whether blue or horseshoe (I know they are in different taxonomic families), or for weakfish or eels, work harder for a living than anyone except perhaps coal miners. And, as many will tell you, they "get to work on the water." Many work a "day job" so they can afford to spend the half day between pre-sunrise and the start of the "9-5 workday" catching fish or crabs for market. These are not the "commercial fishermen" derided by the shallower thinkers among environmentalists. They are doing what they love.

The last chapter of the book describes the complex web of forces that underlie just one fishery, the weakfish of the Bay. The author spent a day on the water with "Captain George" Kumor, catching blue crabs and baitfish. He did some portion of the work, which probably slowed the Captain down a bit, but was received with good humor. But there are many forces at work behind the continually dropping population of weakfish, in spite of environmental remediation efforts. Just one example: The land that was flooded to "restore" buffering marshland had been growing salt grass for a generation or two, and as this grass rotted on the bottom, oxygen levels dropped. This forced the young fish into deeper water, where more were lost to predators. Although the weakfish population is dropping everywhere, it has been dropping fastest where "they" are doing the most to restore it!

A chapter on light pollution hit a chord with me. (It's already official; before the year 2000 began, there was no place left on Earth that did not have measurable light pollution. On a map of the night side of Earth as seen from satellites, a few stand out as the darkest: mountaintops such as the Himalayas and the Andes and the top of Mauna Kea—partly due to lighting regulations in nearby Hawaiian cities—, plus one more: the center of North Korea, where the feudal conditions don't allow such amenities as night lighting. Isn't it a pity that North Korean kids may be the only ones to really see the night sky!) The author recounts the gradual loss of the night sky, first in his boyhood home in northern New Jersey, and over the past twenty or so years in Cumberland County. How rare it is to see the Milky Way any more! (I see it no more than once or twice a year)

This well-focused book limns summer for us in just this one small portion of the planet. Summer is well-loved by many, everywhere, and there is room for a shelf-full of books on the seasons, as they are experienced everywhere. "Join the club, Pete, and much welcome to you!"

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