Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Alewives and People

Note: This program first aired on June 6, 2015. 

It’s not often you find your self in the presence of something overtly holy, and by holy I mean elm seedling sprouting out of cracks in stream side rocks. I mean young royal ferns unfurling in the rain. I mean flowing water crowded with the gray and silver bodies of fish, fat with fecundity and virility. If you go way way back the word holy derives from words in Old English meaning “uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, complete….things that must be preserved intact, that should not be transgressed or violated”. And that is what I felt when I went to the outlet of Patten Stream in Surry Maine and saw the pools and eddys fill with alewives as the tide came in.

If you haven’t yet been to the outlet of Patten Stream, it is a good place to see the alewives make their migration inland in the spring. It is also a good place to see community in action. You see, the alewives that have been breeding in Patten Pond hundreds, maybe even thousands of years haven’t had an easy time of it in the last few decades. The rebuild of a large road culvert over Patten stream changed the way the water flowes over a ledge, creating a steep high energy waterfall that makes it virtually impassable for all but a few alewives. Alewives are small sea run herring and while they can swim well, they don’t have the gymnastic jumping ability of some other sea run fish like salmon, so even small ledges can stop them. The Department of Marine Resources noticed a decline in the number of alewives in Patten Stream and Pond and tried to solve it by stocking the pond with hatchery raised baby alewives. A group of citizens took a different approach, understanding that the issue wasn’t population, but barriers to reproduction. And the barrier was the road culvert. So what do you do if you are a small group of concerned citizens that sees a problem that will take a huge amount of money and infrastructure and beurocracy to fix, money that will take years to secure, plans that will take years to develop? You purse all of that, but in the mean time you do what you can with your own two hands. At Patten Stream not only did I see the pools and eddys full of plump alewives, but I also watched as a group of volunteers stood in the stream on a cool rainy day and transfered fish up and over the offending ledge by hand. In a team of 4 to 5 people they would pass a long handled dip net containing 10 to 20 fish fire brigade style, over and over again, as the crowd of fish in the pool below thickened and waited patiently. It was inspiration and heart break in equal measure. The fish way that has been years in the making should be built later this summer, so hopefully next spring those volunteers will be out of a job.

What I learned that day, was that I am not the only one who sees those fish and that stream, as holy. The community members who saw the problem and put their hands to work solving it, the crowd of people like myself who came to watch, the loon swimming in the harbor just off shore, the seals lolling about patiently at the surface just behind her, the osprey and eagles that fly above the harbor and wait in the trees above the stream, the bears and raccoons and other forest animals that feed on the fat fish on their way up stream or the spent ones on the way back down, the cod and haddock that eat the young alewives at sea, we are all connected by something “that must be preserved intact, that should not be transgressed or violated”, something holy. Those fish are a unifying force, you can feel it when you stand there and watch them. It is a force that is feeling more and more unstoppable.

Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Sometimes all that group of citizens has to do is give nature a little help, and she’ll do the rest. Those alewives know what do to. And if you’re not sure what to do, go watch them; they’ll tell you.

You can find a transcript of this program, as well as contact information and references on our website, look for the Show Notes link at weru.org, where you can also download the show as a podcast or listen to it on demand. Our music is from Stanley Watson’s Portrait of Don Potter, performed by MDI guitarist Kevin Morse. Thanks for listening, and as always, join us next week for another look at the world around us.


Here’s what the internet told me about the etymology of holy: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/holy?s=t

From the Ellsworth American: http://www.ellsworthamerican.com/maine-news/waterfront/alewives-return-to-patten-pond-to-get-a-boost