Monday, December 27, 2010

Old Fisherman Goes Zig-Zagging Home

I've stayed awkwardly late at the party. I'm waiting for a bus or ferry that already left. It's the weekend after the semester started and I'm still watching the stars through the top of the cabriolet while she drives the twisting peninsula roads leading from the harbor town of my summer job. It's Boxing Day and the traps aren't up.

The road that was muddy is now frozen to concrete and I'm really enjoying the super heavy socks inside my rubber boots on my walk to the harbor. The same walk where I'd be swishing mosquitoes away and marveling at the dawn chorus of songbirds. I am Held Over. Held over past the time that things are supposed to change to the next phase.

"You'll be cold." Rick tells me from the porch as I walk past. We have a proper blizzard in the forecast. Almost everything is some shade of gray. The wharf concrete. The water. The sea smoke. The clouds to the east, however, are not gray. The band of clouds where we are heading are black. Not like a thunderstorm which is isolated, but a solid band. God is coming kind of black. Old Testament God. Windy and Cold Testament God.

Zig: The clouds and chop and temperature are frightening to a timid person like myself. I am afraid. I want to be back in my jams for Boxing Day. My family was very comfy when I left. But I am a fishermen, even if an inexperienced wussy one. I love it, so I am here.

Zag: The clouds go over us and it is not so bad. The wind dies down some. I am coiling 55 fathom trap lines or "warps," the first of 19,500 feet to be coiled today. I learned how to coil rope much faster this year. What good for a man with 3 kids being a superior rope coiler is, I do not know. But I am good. I do not get behind. I am not afraid. The temperature inside counteracts the temperature outside. I am grooving. We go in with the first load of 50. Captain Clayton says something about thinking we might not get the third load into the harbor.

Zig again: "I don't like the way this wind is coming up. I think if we come back out here it will be some nasty." I hadn't noticed. I certainly notice when we take a wave and a 400 pound barrel of water and lobsters and a tier of traps go sliding to port. Now I have rubbery legs and a tight gut. It gets uglier in a hurry. I see the slate green frowns with white spray crinkled foreheads and knitted brows, all glowering right at me.

On the way in, the trap load keeps fidgeting, but always ever so slightly more to port. I get visions of the load, which is locked together and lashed to the boat upsetting the center of gravity. A surly wave will push us over and its bullying friend will roll us. There will be no time for immersion suits or radio calls. We are far out from land. I am cold. My fingers are soaked and numb. I am not afraid. I am terrified. Probably because I don't understand how stable lobster boats really are. Fear doesn't have to be rational.

Then the traps get trucked. Even though we only got 100 of the 150 we planned on, it's getting dark by the time we're done. 100 traps, 120 or so buoys, 19,500 feet of wet rope.

Zag again. Home is never so sweet and inviting as when I'm cold and nervous on the water. Even with stir crazy kids still in their jams.

Tonight as I write, we're in night number two of the blizzard. Sticky snow, rain, more snow, always copious amounts of wind. Snow is glued to the northeast sides of the tree trunks. After feeding the birds and bringing in wood this morning, the kids and I built the traditional snow fort, but topped it with a matrix of sticks and bows that held the sticky wet snow perfectly. We now have a stick and snow-stucco hut big enough for 1 and a half people or 2 kids to crawl into. Tonight it will certainly freeze solid. Life is good.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Trying to Make a Living in Paradise

Pretty much showing it like it is. This is the saltwater rock music video follow-up to "Haul Em' Up!" Thanks to the fabulous Steamboat Wharf dancers, the old fire truck and the never ending inspiration that is Matinicus Island.

Right now making a living consists of taking up traps, which, tomorrow is likely to be a frosty enterprise, odd painting and carpentry jobs and law geek stuff over the winter. It is all part of the adventure. I need to remind myself of the adventure element when I start getting mopey.

Here we come a wassailing among the leaves of green. Love and joy come to you.

Monday, December 13, 2010

One More Name on the Memorial

The wind seemed heartless and indifferent this morning at around 2. I woke knowing that beyond the walls of my house, past the spruce trees and fields, the rocks and outer barrier ledges, across 30 miles of pitch black December-style Atlantic ocean, the Coast Guard was searching for a man who went overboard 14 hours earlier. The boat was a 77 footer out of Rhode Island, working 50 or so miles offshore.

The marine forecast called for 20 to 30 foot seas as I turned in last night. I'd not seen such a prediction in the 5 years we've been here. The tv news weather graphic showed a boiling swath of precipitation stretching from off the west coast of Florida all the way up to New England.

It doesn't make sense to impute cruelty to the wind or the sea, but that was how I felt when I woke up thinking of that man, his mates and captain, family and the coast guard men and women out there trying to find him. It's cruel misfortune to work a lifetime on the water, get into one tangle with the wrong trap line, and get pulled overboard. After that, according to the Bangor Daily News, David fought back. He cut himself loose successfully in the midst of the mayhem and got a hold of a life ring. Then he let go and sank.

I'm still a newcomer to deck work, and not a newbie in any way other than that. I came to this work figuring that if a hand goes overboard, he can just tread water for a couple of minutes, even if it's cold, until the boat turns around and comes back to scoop him up. All the reports I read and things I hear say otherwise. Much of the time, falling overboard is quick and final.

I don't really know what to make of it when these tragedies occur. David was obviously out there out of necessity, but probably also because that is what he loved doing. I'm old and lazy enough to think that a lot of boats and crews are under too much pressure to go out and stay out in poor conditions. I'll probably always be a lubber. I can't see myself compulsively going out or staying out when the conditions are rotten. I'd rather make a little less money. This attitude would get me flogged in a real fishing operation. Then again, I understand that once you're out, you want to make a trip of it. There is also the primal truth that a rotten day on a boat is still better than a nice day in other work situations.

I'm also timid enough that I don't worry about flotation compromising my manhood. New vests that inflate when the sensor is more than 4" under water and closed cell foam work gear could save lives or at least provide some relief to families.

When I was a kid, I'd never seen a color tv or a bike helmet. Now they're everywhere. Fishing will always be the wildest, most fun, most real occupation, even with a vest on. And it will still be plenty dangerous. And make great color tv entertainment.

Let us pray.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Fisherman as Villain

When the zero carbon lobster project got some media attention last summer, I should not have read the comments. Some were very positive. Some were just nasty. One stuck with me.

" There is no greater destructive
job to the planet than that of the fisherman." -Comment in Huffington Post.

Really? I suppose so as long as we don't consider mining, manufacturing, oil drilling, mountain top coal extraction, box stores, forestry, highway transportation, commercial agriculture or beef, pork, chicken, and soy bean production.

There is no shortage of professionally crafted persuasive and fundraising messages insisting that fishing activity has brought oceans to the brink of mass extinction. Fishermen are portrayed as ruthless pillagers of the oceans. Grisly photographs are shown; the kind we don't usually see in connection with other food production where chicken seems to have come into existence skinless and boneless in a styrofoam tray. Vilification of fishermen also diverts attention from ocean acidification, agricultural, home pesticide, road and industrial runoff, military, cargo vessels, and cruise ships (where does all the, ya know -stuff- go?), and of course grounded oil tankers and exploding drilling platforms.

Perhaps industrial scale fishing, like industrial scale food production of any kind, rapidly depletes resources and causes other degradation of the home we all share. I offer a few points of comparison between fishing and other food production, particularly concerning smaller boats where the catch rarely goes into an intercontinental shipping container.

Fishing works with the natural environment instead of against it. Fish live wild until they are caught. With the exception of methods such as bottom dragging or dynamiting a coral reef, the surrounding environment is left intact. The creatures know when the moon is full. The move about, eat and reproduce as they please. The ecosystem maintains her rhythm.

Contrast this with, say, soybean production, the foundation of so many vegetarian and purportedly green-friendly foods. How much acreage is plowed up? How many trees are removed? How many smaller plants, animals and microorganisms are displaced? How much water is diverted from its natural destination? What quantity of chemicals are introduced into the earth and the oceans?

Food production is a big source of trouble and potential. More local production and marketing means less transportation, refrigeration, processing, preserving. More small scale local production means a broader distribution of economic opportunity and benefit.

Small, local food production means making the most effective use of what your environment is good for. For those of us blessed enough to live and work on the ocean, our contribution to a web of environmentally healthy and economically vibrant food production originates here.

The imagery of the rapacious fisherman is ripe for a little public makeover. We can keep the eye patches for when we really need them, say, Halloween and regulatory hearings.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chapter 1

The winds were gone. They came in October and stayed until they went somewhere else in April. The wind could have been blowing all over the Gulf of Maine or the northern hemisphere, or just off the shore and only tormenting those on the island, the big wind face hanging off to the northwest all winter.

The winds were replaced by green. Over the course of a week the great climatic dimmer switch faded the gray brown into the kind of bright light green promised by Easter Bunnies and yellow hatchlings.

The ledges and islets were granite one week and emerald scarved the next. The horizon was perfect geometric abstraction after being crinkled by temperature and light distortion all winter. The ocean was flat, blue, inviting.

Yards with rows of lobster traps frozen into the ground and grass stubble reaching out of the ice now had crews mending gear, painting buoys, listening to the radio, talking trash.

Lights were on at night up and down the island and around the harbor.

Fourwheelers raced the dirt road. The some-years detour on Carrie’s Hill where the road turns to truck eating mud pot was a go this year.

Recreational gunfire popped off on the south end in the afternoons.

A truck carcass was pulled from its cocoon off the side of the road, leaving a brown socket that would vanish in a month when every growing thing went rampant. The truck was towed down the road, around Carrie’s mud pot and toward the harbor for loading onto the ferry.

Loading entailed pushing, pulling, bashing, smoking tires, scronking metal, whatever was necessary to get the vehicle onto the boat and off the island. At one point when there wasn’t enough side of the road, yard space, room at the quarry or other dumping grounds, there were something like 125 vehicles heaped onto a barge and hauled to the mainland.

He could have taken the plane out and had a 12 minute ride instead of 2 hours and 15 minutes on the steel and diesel ferry. The first real ferry of the year was rolling gently and topped off with lumber trucks, summer vehicles with furniture, groceries, kayaks and other toys and a new crop of “new” island vehicles destined for short tenures in motion and long dormancy in their own cocoons. What seemed a good deal on the mainland was usually well into its second hundred thousand miles. A couple of hundred- or dozen- island miles would do it in.

Coming around Northeast or No-theast Point was a better sight than it was when Patrick and his family had moved here fifteen years earlier. The green on land and blue of a gentle ocean welcomed him back. That day fifteen years ago had been all shades of aluminum and brown-green-almost-black.

Patrick walked off the ferry with his one bag.

“Well!” What is this?!”
“Hello Art.”
“Hello. What’re you up to?”
“Just coming to check on the place now that the last batch of em is out of there.”
”Yeah, I don’t think they were much trouble. Christ, they weren’t here much after the first month or so last fall. They came and got their shit a couple weeks ago and that was the first I’d seen of them for a long time.”
“What’s new and different here?”
“Not a fuckin thing. Stop by later.”
“Oh, definitely.”

The house looked no different. The tenants did a decent job of clearing out. He walked through each room, the chill and emptiness and echo keeping him safe from actually being touched.

He walked into his favorite upstairs room. There was no southern exposure or vista, but a handsome horse chestnut tree brushed the windows and allowed in a bit of the open northern light peculiar to the island. He turned and faced down the upstairs hall. Then he could hear the pain and anger. Patrick would definitely need to stop in at Puff and Quaff Lane later.

Some of the islanders had fun when the state implemented the new E-911 address system. Puff and Quaff lane was one such location.

In the back yard, the apple trees were budding. “Too late to prune ‘em now” he said to no one.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

These New Winter Blues

I am rolling toward a cliff as the brake pedal smoothly and easily meets the floor. Bills and expenses are the gathering downhill momentum. The cliff is the end of lobster season and income. The brakes just aren't. White knuckles don't make anything slow down.

I am not alone on this ride. Riding shotgun is my old pal Johnny Self-Loathe. "What're are ya doin'?" he says with a grin.

"You're living in a wild and crazy place you don't belong. You've been completely financially derelict without even having any gambling debts, girlfriends, power boats, motorcycles or expensive chemical recreation to show for it. You have a law license and a lobstering license and work 360 days a year and can't make money, can't get health insurance for your kids. How do you pull it off?!"

Johnny sings in a shiny gold jacket with his eyes closed behind the black shades, one hand on the microphone, one fist chest high pointed upward, elbow knifing down. He sings These New Winter Blues.

December 1 is warm. It looks no different than the end of November which was also warm. Knowing that we are into December brings mixed emotions. Confused yet terrified. Discouraged yet panicky.

I took the last 6 potatoes from the garden, together with a handful of chard and one lovely little onion. That's it for this year. It is hard not to feel like it is the end rather than a recess. I know the land needs to recharge, but I'm scared.

I think winter began scaring me when I was in middle school and we had a Glenwood kitchen woodstove in the kitchen as our sole source of heat. Winter felt like a prison sentence with execution stayed until daylight savings ended. Confinement, constant cold. All my memories of those years appear as night time. I came to truly dread winter. Spring felt like clemency.

Some years later I realized that the only way to beat those blues was to get out into winter. It was not macho fear-facing, but just a realization that neurochemically, it's happier to be outside moving around in the cold and warming from the inside. Eventually I came to really love running in the cold, even in wet snow or winter rain. The feeling of cold outside and sweating inside was pretty much a cure-all for the staleness and depression of those months.

Now there are new blues. Uniquely tormenting to a sternman with a wife, three kids and a mortgage is the finality of the end of a lobster season. That's way worse than seeing the last 6 potatoes and one lovely onion. The end of the lobster season means a sternman with some attachments has probably banked 36 hours' worth of winter survival money.

The New Winter Blues will require some remedy. I do not know what it is. Flight? Grow up and get back in the box of a mainland job? Winter fishing jobs? Hunker down, pray and eat spruce bark and boiled leather? Johnny's a great performer and a lousy mentor. Love the jacket and shades, though.