Thoreau's thoughts

 From: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers by Henry Thoreau

Source: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers [The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906)
         


"In the shallow parts of the river, where the current is rapid, and
the bottom pebbly, you may sometimes see the curious circular nests
of the lamprey eel (Petromyzon Americanus), the American
stone-sucker, as large as a cart-wheel, a foot or two in height, and
sometimes rising half a foot above the surface of the water. They
collect these stones, of the size of a hen's egg, with their mouths,
as their name implies, and are said to fashion them into circles with
their tails. They ascend falls by clinging to the stones, which may
sometimes be raised, by lifting the fish by the tail. As they are not
seen on their way down the streams, it is thought by fishermen that
they never return, but waste away and die, clinging to rocks and
stumps of trees for an indefinite period; a tragic feature in the
scenery of the river bottoms worthy to be remembered with
Shakespeare's description of the sea-floor. They are rarely seen in
our waters at present, on account of the dams, though they are taken
in great quantities at the mouth of the river in Lowell. Their nests,
which are very conspicuous, look more like art than anything in the
river. "

"Salmon, shad, and alewives were formerly abundant here, and
taken in weirs by the Indians, who taught this method to the whites,
by whom they were used as food and as manure, until the dam, and
afterward the canal at Billerica, and the factories at Lowell, put an
end to their migrations hitherward; though it is thought that a few
more enterprising shad may still occasionally be seen in this part of
the river. It is said, to account for the destruction of the fishery,
that those who at that time represented the interests of the
fishermen and the fishes, remembering between what dates they were
accustomed to take the grown shad, stipulated, that the dams should
be left open for that season only, and the fry, which go down a month
later, were consequently stopped and destroyed by myriads. Others say
that the fish-ways were not properly constructed. Perchance, after a
few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their
summers elsewhere, meanwhile, nature will have levelled the Billerica
dam, and the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River run clear
again, to be explored by new migratory shoals, even as far as the
Hopkinton pond and Westborough swamp.

"One would like to know more of that race, now extinct, whose
seines lie rotting in the garrets of their children, who openly
professed the trade of fishermen, and even fed their townsmen
creditably, not skulking through the meadows to a rainy afternoon
sport. Dim visions we still get of miraculous draughts of fishes, and
heaps uncountable by the river-side, from the tales of our seniors
sent on horseback in their childhood from the neighboring towns,
perched on saddle-bags, with instructions to get the one bag filled
with shad, the other with alewives. At least one memento of those
days may still exist in the memory of this generation, in the
familiar appellation of a celebrated train-band of this town, whose
untrained ancestors stood creditably at Concord North Bridge. Their
captain, a man of piscatory tastes, having duly warned his company to
turn out on a certain day, they, like obedient soldiers, appeared
promptly on parade at the appointed time, but, unfortunately, they
went undrilled, except in the maneuvres of a soldier's wit and
unlicensed jesting, that May day; for their captain, forgetting his
own appointment, and warned only by the favorable aspect of the
heavens, as he had often done before, went a-fishing that afternoon,
and his company thenceforth was known to old and young, grave and
gay, as "The Shad," and by the youths of this vicinity this was long
regarded as the proper name of all the irregular militia in
Christendom. But, alas! no record of these fishers' lives remains
that we know, unless it be one brief page of hard but unquestionable
history, which occurs in Day Book No. 4, of an old trader of this
town, long since dead, which shows pretty plainly what constituted a
fisherman's stock in trade in those days. It purports to be a
Fisherman's Account Current, probably for the fishing season of the
year 1805, during which months he purchased daily rum and sugar,
sugar and rum, N. E. and W. I., "one cod line," "one brown mug," and
"a line for the seine"; rum and sugar, sugar and rum, "good loaf
sugar," and "good brown," W. I. and N. E., in short and uniform
entries to the bottom of the page, all carried out in pounds,
shillings, and pence, from March 25th to June 5th, and promptly
settled by receiving "cash in full" at the last date. But perhaps not
so settled altogether. These were the necessaries of life in those
days; with salmon, shad, and alewives, fresh and pickled, he was
thereafter independent on the groceries. Rather a preponderance of
the fluid elements; but such is the fisherman's nature. I can faintly
remember to have seen this same fisher in my earliest youth, still as
near the river as he could get, with uncertain undulatory step, after
so many things had gone down stream, swinging a scythe in the meadow,
his bottle like a serpent hid in the grass; himself as yet not cut down by the Great Mower."


Shad are still taken in the basin of Concord River at Lowell, where
they are said to be a month earlier than the Merrimack shad, on
account of the warmth of the water. Still patiently, almost
pathetically, with instinct not to be discouraged, not to be reasoned
with, revisiting their old haunts, as if their stern fates would
relent, and still met by the Corporation with its dam. Poor shad!
where is thy redress? When Nature gave thee instinct, gave she thee
the heart to bear thy fate? Still wandering the sea in thy scaly
armor to inquire humbly at the mouths of rivers if man has perchance
left them free for thee to enter. By countless shoals loitering
uncertain meanwhile, merely stemming the tide there, in danger from
sea foes in spite of thy bright armor, awaiting new instructions,
until the sands, until the water itself, tell thee if it be so or
not. Thus by whole migrating nations, full of instinct, which is thy
faith, in this backward spring, turned adrift, and perchance knowest
not where men do not dwell, where there are not factories, in these
days. Armed with no sword, no electric shock, but mere Shad, armed
only with innocence and a just cause, with tender dumb mouth only
forward, and scales easy to be detached. I for one am with thee, and
who knows what may avail a crow-bar against that Billerica dam?-Not
despairing when whole myriads have gone to feed those sea monsters
during thy suspense, but still brave, indifferent, on easy fin there,
like shad reserved for higher destinies. Willing to be decimated for
man's behoof after the spawning season. Away with the superficial and
selfish phil-anthropy of men,-who knows what admirable virtue of
fishes may be below low-water-mark, bearing up against a hard
destiny, not admired by that fellow-creature who alone can appreciate
it! Who hears the fishes when they cry? It will not be forgotten by
some memory that we were contemporaries. Thou shalt erelong have thy
way up the rivers, up all the rivers of the globe, if I am not
mistaken. Yea, even thy dull watery dream shall be more than
realized. If it were not so, but thou wert to be overlooked at first
and at last, then would not I take their heaven. Yes, I say so, who
think I know better than thou canst. Keep a stiff fin then, and stem
all the tides thou mayst meet. At length it would seem that the interests, not of the fishes
only, but of the men of Wayland, of Sudbury, of Concord, demand the
levelling of that dam. Innumerable acres of meadow are waiting to be
made dry land, wild native grass to give place to English. The
farmers stand with scythes whet, waiting the subsiding of the waters,
by gravitation, by evaporation or otherwise, but sometimes their eyes
do not rest, their wheels do not roll, on the quaking meadow ground
during the haying season at all. So many sources of wealth
inaccessible. They rate the loss hereby incurred in the single town
of Wayland alone as equal to the expense of keeping a hundred yoke of
oxen the year round. One year, as I learn, not long ago, the farmers
standing ready to drive their teams afield as usual, the water gave
no signs of falling; without new attraction in the heavens, without
freshet or visible cause, still standing stagnant at an unprecedented
height. All hydrometers were at fault; some trembled for their
English even. But speedy emissaries revealed the unnatural secret, in
the new float-board, wholly a foot in width, added to their already
too high privileges by the dam proprietors. The hundred yoke of oxen,
meanwhile, standing patient, gazing wishfully meadow-ward, at that
inaccessible waving native grass, uncut but by the great mower Time,
who cuts so broad a swathe, without so much as a wisp to wind about
their horns."

 

"Shad, armed only with innocence and a just cause, with tender dumb
mouth only forward, and scales easy to be detached. I for one am with
thee, and who knows what may avail a crow-bar against that Billerica
dam?"

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