Some of the Ghosts

An Excerpt of A Woven World
by Alison Hawthorne Deming

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The ghost weirs speak of small-scale industry perfectly suited to its time and place.

 
In August 2018, I took a charter flight in a single-engine plane over the waters surrounding Grand Manan Island. I had been researching the origins of the weir-based herring fishery in the region for several years and finding sketchy rings of stone in offshore waters that appeared only at the year’s lowest tides, hinting at the ballasted weirs they once anchored. I found it hard to draw conclusions from the evidence, though it was a thrill to discover traces of a legacy that had nearly fallen from the island’s memory. Many knowledgeable islanders had scoffed at the notion that undiscovered treasure lay off our shores. I’m not talking about the legend that Captain Kidd had buried gold in Money Cove on the western side of island. Legend has it that Captain Kidd buried treasure on innumerable islands along the Eastern Seaboard. I am talking about the treasure of a shared sense of place and history, of ruins that are a monument to community and the dignity of work.

Excerpt from A Woven World: On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress, Counterpoint Press (August 2021), by Alison Hawthorne Deming, reprinted by permission of the author and publisher.

A Woven World: On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress, by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Sensing a need to preserve the crafts and stories of our founding communities, and inspired by an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute featuring Yves St. Laurent’s “sardine” dress, Alison Hawthorne Deming turned to the industries of her ancestors, both the dressmakers and designers in Manhattan in the 19th century and the fishermen on Grand Manan Island, a community of 2,500 residents, where the dignity of work and the bounty of the sea ruled for hundreds of years. Reweaving the fabric of those lives, A Woven World gives presence on the page to the people, places, and practices, uncovering and preserving a record of the ingenuity and dignity that comes with such work. In this way lament becomes a song of praise and a testament to the beauty and fragility of human making.

Learn more and purchase the book.

Our flight was not exactly rigged for high-tech reconnaissance. One pilot, one poet, one photographer leaning out the window, one fisherman, all crammed into the Seahawk. We lifted over the island’s interior bogs and spruce forest and ponds glinting with morning light. The plane lofted light as a red-tail. Our spirits matched the brightness. Peter Cunningham, our photographer, rode shotgun beside the pilot. Peter is, like me, an island convert since childhood. His father Robert Cunningham, a cloud physicist based at MIT, conducted fog studies on nearby Kent Island, beginning in the 1930s. His work continued there for 60 years, providing evidence that industrial effluent from the Midwest was falling as acid rain on the Northeast. His work helped lead to the 1970 U.S. Clean Air Act.

Peter spent summers as a kid hanging out with island families and they are still among his kin. As a photographer, he apprenticed with the Henri Cartier-Bresson. Peter’s work bears witness to rock musicians (Bowie to Springsteen to Laurie Anderson), the fall of the Twin Towers, Zen practice with Peter Matthiessen in Japan, and sitting for witness at Auschwitz. His images make him a world citizen. One obsession of his work is to document “The Rock” and its people—fishermen, clamdiggers, dulse pickers, worshippers, toddlers, centenarians, ship builders and ship wreckers, quilters and bakers. He understands the island’s situation, as it emerges from a history wed to the sea onto the uncertain waters of climate change—which inevitably means culture change.

We’ve clomped around some shorelines together in pursuit of stone weir ruins. After the clear message of the ring of rock in Grand Harbour, our minds became magnetized to objects emerging at low tides. It became easy to imagine a ruin wherever a sliver of stone peaked out of the water looking suspiciously linear and well-placed. I say ruins, but there was something vital about the sightings, something so present and actual that the word seems wrong. The rocks that draw the shape of work once done in these waters are a cultural heritage. To see them, record them, are acts of preservation. To hold them in photograph or writing is to participate emotionally with place and community.

J. B. Jackson writes in The Necessity for Ruins, that “a traditional monument… is an object which is supposed to remind us of something important. That is to say it exists to put people in mind of some obligation that they have incurred: a great public figure, a great public event, a great public declaration which the group had pledged itself to honor.” That can backfire. Saddam Hussein’s statue is toppled and everyone cheers. General Robert E. Lee is toppled and ghosts of the Confederacy send up smoke signals of rancor and hatred. Pledging oneself to the wrong side of history is poison. A monument to the 17th-century British slave trader Edward Colston was recently toppled and dumped into Bristol Harbour as Black Lives Matter protestors acted to detoxify their environment. But ruins marking the labor of forgotten makers, the millions whose hands crafted civilizations, can be monuments worth honoring. Jackson writes, “Many of us know the joy and excitement not so much of creating the new as of redeeming what has been neglected.”

Memories become monuments in the landscape of a shared imaginary.

Russell Ingalls and his family have been fishing these waters for four or five generations. Their Pat’s Cove weir has been dressed with twine each summer for 100 years. He works all the local fisheries from herring weir to lobster trap, scalloping to sea-egg dragging. I have learned a great deal from him and appreciate his generosity in sharing his knowledge. I admire this kind of knowledge, won through work and careful observation over a lifetime. Russell is pious and thoughtful man. He speaks with the sparkle of island wit, a judicious coping mechanism on an island of 2,500 souls where no one escapes another else’s scrutiny. I ask how the herring season has been, and he shakes his head in discouragement then lights up with a smile. “Just enough to feed the seals.”

I was tasked with holding open Peter’s window so that he could lean out and focus his lens on the tidal flats in Cow Passage, that shallow reach that separates Cheney’s and White Head islands. I reached over his shoulder with a metal pole we’d found behind our seats—something like a long-handled engine crank. I braced the pole against my knees to gain the proper angle. It was an awkward matter. Russell was leaning into me to catch shots out the window over my shoulder. No one cared how awkward it got because we are on a mission. My cap flew off as soon as the window opened, hair blowing wild as rockweed in a high tide surge. How’d your pictures come out, I later asked Russell. “Pretty good, except your hair’s in most of them.”

Our pilot was Peter Sonnenberg, a young man whose father had launched Atlantic Charters, the flight service connecting island to mainland with air ambulance and charter flight services. Peter’s father had died a few years earlier in a plane crash just shy of the island’s  runway. He was returning from a hospital run to Saint John late in the middle of a foggy night. Russell, as first responder and fireman, had been first to arrive at the crash. It could not have been an easy thing for him to board a small plane in the aftermath of that crash, to fly right over the ground where two people he’d known for decades had died. Stories were still percolating about how things had gone wrong. An intimacy with death fuels a small community. The island is 55 square miles of rock, balsam fir, black spruce, and collective memory as keen as a spotting scope. Islanders know their landscape as marked by those of their own who have died, when and how.

Islanders carry the spirits of the dead in story. No death is anonymous in such a place. Every death is a shared lamentation and cause to bind more closely together with the living. It’s as if those who have gone before us into the long night are still watching us and we are watching them. The line between living and dying can seem fragile. How can it be that one day I am sitting on my deck listening to nonagenarian Gleason Green recite Robert Service poems after he laments that there used to be a bumblebee on every single blossom of clover, and the next day I am hearing that when he got home, he felt a little funny, and stroked out. And yet islanders work the sea, commercial fishing the highest risk occupation, surviving frigid plunges and ferocious swells, grounding out on ledges and taking on rogue waves. The line between living and dying seems both a permeable membrane and a fiercely defended border. Some islanders believe in the afterlife. I don’t know how many really think that our lost ones are up there in Heaven. There’s a lot of Heaven talk. But my guess is that anyone who has lived very long in this place feels that the lost ones are still among us or “looking down on us,” as people say, as if the dead were a mere thousand feet overhead. Memories become monuments in the landscape of a shared imaginary.

We flew low out from the island’s shore, scanning the tapestry of greens and browns that stitch the intertidal waters. Islands lose their edge with the tide. Seen at the ebb, the rocky shore gives way to a long reach of musky yellow dressed in wrack. Is the moon pulling water away from us to the other side of the world? I find it so hard to imagine the planetary forces at play, though I watch the tides come and go, come and go, and I gauge my day by their tempo. The water is always in motion, always responding to invisible power, becoming powerful itself, becoming lax. The shallows shine. The depths resist light, hoard their darkness. Shoals and ledges, brackish brown, break through here and there. Nature is messy: there are no straight lines, no perfect curves. Deep water morphs grey-blue. Shallow water glows pale lichen green.

When we popped up to a thousand-foot altitude, forms began to resolve among the rock protrusions. The Seahawk tilted to catch the view. Patterns merged—circles, arcs, and bars of stone set in place more orderly than the sea could accomplish on its own. A huge circle, broken with a broad mouth. Two long straight wings of stone stretching out symmetrically from the mouth. An invitation to schools of herring stemming the tide up the channel. Another hint of structure then another, some legible, some largely erased. The ghost weirs butted up against each other, overlapped, one laid on top of the other, as they were built over time. Stone ballast is all that remains of the structures once lined with brush that served as nets, the herring harvested with buckets and pails and dories, men and oxen working in teams, a crazy quilt assembled by the generations that have gone before. My head was spinning as the plane circled and circled. Someone would say, What’s that over there? Is that another one? And we would fly to the ruin, astounding by the abundance and craft. They’re everywhere, someone would say, and then someone else would repeat it. We couldn’t believe our eyes.

Russell’s eyes must have seen more than mine. His grandfather perhaps was among the builders. These structures may have been in play as recently as the 1930s. The knowledge of sea and tides, herring and mackerel, the ability to read sky and wind, patterns legible to those who work the sea (“blows sou’west every afternoon about 3:30,” a neighbor will say), all carried from grandfather to father to son to grandson. This is a bounty that gives weight and meaning to life, makes it possible to endure our losses, because people have shared what they know across generations, have built ways of living that make sense in their place and time. Of course, there are new tools and new skills: radar and sonar, fishfinders and diesel generators to drive weir stakes into deeper offshore waters. There are seiners that chase shoals of herring out in ever deeper waters. There is our immense appetite that cannot quit its hunt for and decimation of bounty. But the ghost weirs speak of small-scale industry perfectly suited to its time and place.

The beauty of the structures says that the builders were masterful makers with complex skill who knew something profound in their bones about the relationship between form and function. The structures hold mystery. How deep is the learning that flowed into the craft of the weirs? Perhaps they speak of cross-cultural learning. Passamaquoddy people used weirs in coves and streams for several thousand years before Europeans settled in the region. During the American Revolution 30,000 Loyalists flooded the Fundy region. While the violence of that time inflicted deep wounds and loss, in the quieter recesses of a new cultural mixing, knowledge was exchanged about how to make a life within the terms that nature set in that place. Makers told their stories of harvest and hardship. Stories became adaptations. Adaptations became who we are today with ever more profound lessons to learn about the terms nature sets upon our lives.

We flew on from Cow Passage to circumnavigate all the weirs built that season, circling and dipping a wing and repeating their names: Mumps, Pat’s Cove, Bradford Cove, Sea Dream, Jeff Foster’s weir just going up in the pond at Dark Harbour, Money Cove, Wayne Green’s experimental floating weir built with recycled materials off Eel Brook beach, Whale Cove, Intruder, Iron Lady (named for Margaret Thatcher), Cora Bell. Blackened stakes tracing the remains of weirs abandoned but still known by name: Jubilee, Turnip Patch.

Herring, it turns out, are storytellers that have a lot to teach us about adaptation to climate change.

No one knows the future of the Maritime herring fishery. The summer of our Seahawk flight was surprisingly abundant and led to renewed enthusiasm for weir builders. Herring showed up in weirs in July and kept coming well into the autumn. The first hauls were a pleasant surprise after nearly a decade of poor harvests. As they continued, one could feel people relaxing again into the feeling of natural bounty that had shaped the island culture. But for the Gulf of Maine, just south of our Bay of Fundy, the herring season was a bust. The gulf’s water had been five degrees Fahrenheit above average. Above normal, I wanted to say, as if the sea had a fever. Both prey and predator had come north for the colder waters they prefer.

Atlantic herring are one of most abundant fish in world. A shoal of herring might hold a billion fish. The weight of the eggs they spawn along the coast of Norway is three times greater than the weight of the Norwegian human population. Leif Andersson, professor at Uppsala University in Sweden who specializes in genome biology, has led a study of herring that included sequencing Atlantic and Baltic herring. These fish are, he reports, “a near ideal model to study genes underlying ecological adaptation.” Atlantic herring are highly adaptable because their population is enormous and they can spawn in a range of seasons, some in autumn, some in spring. Baltic herring adapt to high levels of salinity.

“The Atlantic herring has a tool-box of gene variants that underlies its ability to adapt to its environment,” the research team reports. “I am convinced,” Andersson continues, “that further research on this rich collection of genes associated with ecological adaptation will lead to new basic knowledge about gene functions that will be relevant also for human medicine since the majority of genes in herring are also found in humans and are expected to have similar functions.” Herring, it turns out, are storytellers that have a lot to teach us about adaptation to climate change.

Ruins too can become storytellers. Sometimes they become repurposed in unexpected ways. A friend who spends his summers in southeast Alaska, knowing of my interest in weir fishing, recounted the story of a stone weir made for catching salmon built along the western coast of Canada. In high tides, the salmon entered. In low tides, the fish were stranded. The weir had been built and fished by Haida people, though at least a hundred years had passed since they had lived in that place. But the weir is still fishing, said my friend. Brown bears use it, splashing out at low tide to feast, leaving salmon carcasses all around their kitchen.

We do not have bears on Grand Manan Island. We no longer have many wild salmon. But we have a culture schooled by relationship with the sea, and that is a way of belonging to the world worth cherishing.

 

 

 

Alison Hawthorne DemingAlison Hawthorne Deming’s new book is A Woven World: On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress (Counterpoint Press, 2021). Other recent books include Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit and the poetry collection Stairway to Heaven. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and Walt Whitman Award, she recently retired as Regents Professor at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada. Learn more at www.alisonhawthornedeming.com.

Read additional work by and about Alison Hawthorne Deming appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo of hand and fishing weir on Grand Manan Island by Peter Cunningham. Photo of Alison Hawthorne Deming by Bear Guerra.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.