Sunday, September 5, 2010

Naturalism: The Sound of Effluence

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Late June: Silver Sands State Park, Milford, Connecticut.



The sun is behind us, sinking down behind the tall sea grasses where the beach meets the fen and beyond that the trees at the estuary’s end. Red-winged black birds call out. Their voices are wet and warbling, vaguely robotic, modem-like. I think of dinosaurs.

Above us the atmosphere is thick with wispy orange clouds hanging down, moving beneath a sky of pink-blue ether. It looks like gingery velvet, the fuzz of some giant inverted peach.

The air is calm, warm like an embryonic bath. Everything seems beautiful.

Upon the rocks that break the waters’ waves, my cousin Johnny stands fishing. Beyond him, upon the now submerged land bridge that stretches from the beach all the way out to Charles Island, wading fishermen stand. The men are wearing chest waders, casting off fishing lines into the deeper water surrounding them. They are pillars, all of flesh and neoprene, and the sound swells up around them. I can almost feel the cool early summer water pressing the rubber against their dry legs and torsos as if I ‘m out there too. And small light flick in their hands, suggesting a few of the men are smoking cigarettes. Dusk rolls in slowly around them.
Soon, the moon has risen fat and white, its rays chopped to bits by the wrinkled waters’ surface, transformed to tiny speckles of light that look like silver-side shiners skipping and swimming through the short crested waves.




The big fish, the stripers and bluefish, feed at night, and the moon’s illusionary baitfish seem to have whetted their appetites even more. In the distance tail fins slap at the surface, and something keeps getting away with our bait.

We’re fishing with chunks of melting mackerel, and our reserves are getting thin. Two straight hours of stolen bait have literally eaten up the three, foot-long baitfish into little more than tails, the heads sacrificed to the wire bait-trap, which has yet to bear minnowy fruit.

But then my old pole arcs, bending sharply ‘til it seems it might snap. The line on my grandfather’s old Mitchell reel grows taut. I jerk back the poll, setting the hook, then reel in my catch.
When the line’s end breaks the waters’ surface at the shore, a foot-long Striped Bass is displayed, dangling by the lip. I drop it down to the sand, remove the hook with my fingers, and place the fish back in the water. It swims away with a splash.
It is the last catch of the night. Lone save the small Sea Robin-- a locally opulent fish known for its large wing-like fins, toey appendages, and ability to produce a barking sound via an evolutionarily creative use of air bladders when brought to land-- my cousin had hooked before I’d even arrived.

The tide recedes and the fish stop biting. As we pack up our supplies and grab a few beer and soda cans that someone else had left along the breakwater rocks, fireworks plume in the summer sky. They look like the photoluminescent cells of some magnificent and immense jellyfish. The fuchsia, crimson, grass-green light the fireworks cast mingles with the moonlight upon the waters’ surface. And everything seems really alright.



I’ve been spending a lot of time at the sound lately. Fishing with my cousin when the tide is high. Bluefish, Striped Bass, Flounder and Sea Robins are our quarry. I toss in my bait trap, dredging up mummichugs, shrimps, green crabs and fiddlers.

When the tide is low, I rummage the tide pools. Sifting through sea grasses, overturning stones, avoiding broken bottles and human litter jetsam, I search for mollusks and salt-water arthropods.

There is always life: large harmless horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, quahogs and steamers, whelks, snails, sandworms, mussels, barnacles and all the shore crabs and shrimps. I pick them up with bare hands, feel the weight of their beings, photograph them for posterity and sketch them out on paper later. But the feelings these outings instill in me are conflicting.

There is garbage everywhere, and the unseen pollutants are even more abundant.

At Short Beach in Stratford, the brackish flow that runs out to the sound from the estuary sieves past a small mountain of trash bags and waste, the municipal landfill. At Silver Sands State Park, beach access involves a walk down a long boardwalk perched above an estuary laden with literal tons of littered rubbish. The beach itself is broken by yards of out-of-use piping that once rested beneath the road that at one time traces the shoreline. The road, though mostly hidden, is still there. Large stretches of cracked and broken asphalt jut out from beneath the sand in places. Dislocated chunks clutter the rocky portions of the shore, and twisted mangled lengths of rebar stick up here and there along the length of the beach.

Against the backdrop of seeming maritime seclusion, these rusted and sullied artifacts seem almost post-apocalyptic. Perhaps in reality, they are pre-apocalyptic portents, shadows of a future that will inevitably arrive, a time when everything is quiet wilderness all strewn with the crumbling relics of a destructive ill-fated race.




After all, everything is connected. We live upon a planet of entirely symbiotic species. This fact is undeniable. We need each other, or at least, Homo sapiens needs the other species. Save e coli and other microbes specially evolved to live within and upon the human body, our necessity as members of the biome is ambiguous. Even our puppy dogs could continue on easily without us, though admittedly, silkworm moths could not.

In Connecticut, humanity’s effect on the environment is being felt hard. According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, there are six species of endangered, threatened and special concern fish in the state’s waters.

As well as the fish, there are seven amphibian, 11 reptile, 12 mammal, 54 bird, 143 invertebrate, and 347 plant species listed as endangered, threatened or special concern in the state.




Of these 580 total species, 173 are believed to be completely extirpated.

Included in this list of extirpated species, species once plentiful but now entirely gone from this land, are plants and animals ranging from the Slender Willow to the Yellow Lampmussel to the Eastern Cougar.

Never again will we know the anxious thrill of encountering in the woodlands of this state a wild cougar, an animal the Native Americans called “friend of man.” However, two fine specimens could , at one point, have been viewed stuffed and posed above a similarly taxidermied elk, enhancing the internal superficies of a certain sporting goods store located on the post road in West Haven. I saw them while browsing for fishing tackle.

Reading the long list of disappearing species, my heart fills with sadness. Some of the names of these animals are quite beautiful in their descriptiveness. Without seeing the creatures and plants, I can envision their morphology by reading their names alone.

Invertebrates with names like sparkling jewelwing, Appalachian blue, sleepy duskwing and crimson-winged whiteface; plants such as dew-drop, blazing star autumn willow, lizard’s tail, little ladies’-tresses, heart leafed golden Alexander’s, and winged monkey-flower; birds called blue winged teal, little blue heron, snowy egret and yellow-crowned night heron.

It seems so ironic that the very species which gave these plants and animals names of such sincere poetry, would be the very same to abuse them to the point of near extinction.

It is obvious that the depletion of all these species is somehow connected. The list’s inclusion of both the Sedge plant and a butterfly called the Sedge Skipper seems to illustrate this fact verily.

The Striped Bass I caught that night at the beach was fat with PCBs.According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Blue Fish and Striped Bass caught in the waters of Long Island Sound are a certain health risk to anyone who eats them. The DPH advises that pregnant women, those who plan on becoming pregnant, nursing mothers and children under the age of six should never eat these fish. Moreover, anyone not included in this group should not eat meals containing these fish more than six times per year.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, build up in the bodies of fish and the humans who eat them, eventually causing cancer and health defects.

The DPH further advises that most types of fish caught in the Housatonic, Quinnipiac and Eight-Mile rivers, should never be eaten by anyone ever. They extend this warning to include fish from Brewster Pond in Stratford, Wyassup Lake in North Stonington, Union Pond in Manchester, Dodge Pond in East Lyme, lake McDonough in Barkhamsted, Silver Lake in Berlin, and Versailles and Peppermill ponds in Sprague. In fact, the DPH doesn’t advise that anyone eat any fish caught anywhere in the State of Connecticut any more than one meal per month.

According to the United States Environmental protection Agency, pollutants of all types are present in varying degrees in water bodies all across Connecticut. These polluting agents include: PCBs, mercury, chlordane, bacteria, lead, copper, ammonia, zinc, landfill solids, de-icing agents from airports, “urban runoff,” creosote, metals, pathogens from septic runoff, biochemicals, nitrites, cadmium and chromium.

To be continued…

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