Category Archives: Historic Preservation

Swimming Upstream

Salmon, shad, and alewives were formerly abundant here, and taken in weirs by the Indians … 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…. Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere meanwhile, nature will have leveled the Billerica dam, and the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River run clear again, to be explored by new migratory shoals. – A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Yes, it often seems that hope is measured in “thousands of years,” but every so often it shows up as more immediate; sometimes there’s even a human helping hand.

May 25th: It’s the day after the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder Restoration Festival, but when we arrive a little before noon, the gravel lot is mostly full, even as the festival signage is down. For the first time this year, the sun is summer hot. We cross over a small bridge, and I look down into the clear water flowing toward the salt pond downstream. We are at what’s called the head of the tide – fresh water upstream to our left, salt to the right. We’re here to see the anadromous alewives as they complete their spawning swim from the sea to Damariscotta Lake, which is exactly 42 feet above this meeting of waters. Up those feet they must go…without feet, of course.

The tents for the festival are still pitched, but only a stain from a dwindling pile of melting ice suggests that yesterday this flat spot by the stream was full of noisy human celebration, including the chance to eat the smoked brethren of those swimming by.

We idle forward and turn left, upstream by some buildings that once made use of the river running by; the falls rise ahead, and just across the narrow river it’s impossible to miss a squall of gulls. They are sleek and loud; for them the festival happens every day of the spring run. Also across the river at the fall’s base lies a stretched curtain of orange plastic meant to discourage ambitious fish, who would go right at the impossible falls. Instead they are meant to aim right, where a small, rounded pool empties into the river. Above that pool, another, and another, and on…up; the ladder rises. Now, in these pools six-or-so feet across, we can see the concentrated fish in dark tens as they circle, gathering, we suppose, strength and the fishy equivalent of resolve for the next climb to the next pool a foot above.

Swirl of alewives in one of the pools. Photo: Russ Williams

Swirl of alewives in one of the pools. Photo: Russ Williams

A narrow path runs up beside the pools, and we climb its shallow slope. At pool ten, we lean on the railing and watch the swimming swirl of fish; then, we begin to watch the thick muscle of descending water from pool eleven; we watch it closely. Do alewife jump upstream like salmon, leaping then lagging back, then repeating until they gain the next bit of slackened water? No fish breaks the surface, but there, there goes a black streak close against the dark brown stone underwater; up goes a fish, and another, another still…ten in a minute. So they rise, one by one, pool by pool.

Later, at the top of the ladder, we lean again on the railing and watch the portal where the placid lake water begins to gather speed before disappearing down stream into the ladder. To the left a swirl of 30 fish spins in the currentless water- What now? their swimming seems to ask; What now? Then, apparently at some signal, they shoot away up lake as a pack; the water is empty; its dark olive bottom vacant…for a bit. Nearby, we can make out the outline of a long-sunken skiff.

A fish appears. It seems just that – appearance from nowhere. Another materializes. And now, if we watch closely, we can see each quick dark streak as each alewife reaches a summer of procreation and slow swimming. It is the promise lake.

The Ladder

The Ladder

Back downstream, we pause again at the ladder’s outset, where the aspirants gather in the quick water, amid the claque of gulls. Up close, the gulls look huge, their wing span equal to the spread arms of an adult human. A gull lifts up and drops into the water, beak down; he lifts his head and flaps up into the air again. From his beak a full fish protrudes, its tail flipping still. Other gulls zero in on their successful relation; he tips back his head and swallows the eight-inch fish whole, chokes it down in a hurry. His neck swells like a stuffed sock, and his relatives veer away, as if to say, “Aw, Chuck bolted another down whole; Chuck’s no fun.” They settle again to watching: for fish near the surface, and each other. Within a minute four more gulls catch fish and, just like Chuck, they bolt them whole, each taking the fish down head first.

In 2013, an estimated 900,000 alewives made it to Damariscotta Lake, even after people and gulls removed their share. Who knows what this year’s tally will be? During this 30 minutes, we’ve seen a few hundred of that tally climb an inspired and inspiring ladder, living on into one of the earth’s best stories of return.

As we turn to go, hundreds more alewives press on upstream. The water roars; the gulls squall, dive and squabble; urgency reigns. So too does life.

Here’s the web address for the folks who have restored the fish ladder. The site is rich with information and its photo gallery is superb.

Link:https://damariscottamills.org/

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Commonality

“Each town should have a primitive forest where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. All Walden Woods might have been preserved for our park forever, with Walden in its midst, and the Easterbrooks Country, an unoccupied area of some four square miles in the north of the town, might have been our huckleberry field. . . . Journal, 10/15, 1859.

Let’s begin the new year with praise for the Commons – what we hold in common, what we hope in common, what we walk in common.

Commons Trail

Commons Trail

Five or so years ago, I took a walk into our town Commons, a two-hundred-acre stamp of wood- and wetland set aside for wanderings and recreation. Already, after a few years along these trails, I was growing attached to them and to the trees that always awaited me there. So the sound of saws snarling unsettled me; as I walked deeper into the woods, the saws grew louder. Near the heartland of the Commons lies a pitch pine barren, once a common finding in our area, now a rare one. The cutting was going on there, and, as I approached I heard the familiar crack followed by the gathering rush of toppling as a tree went down.

No little outrage quickened my pace. The saws of the world, even here? I said to myself. Even in the Commons?

Here is the moment to remind myself that it’s always good to get the full story before boarding the express to outrage. Here is compression of that story: the cutting in progress aimed at large white pines that had overshadowed their smaller pitch pine neighbors; the Commons were “in succession,” shifting into their next stage. But the pitch pines and their barren were now unusual, deemed worth preserving, and, with some thinning, they would thrive. Okay, I thought, let’s see.

Pitch Pine Friends

Pitch Pine Friends

To ring in this new year and celebrate its possibility, I went for a walk in the Commons. The air was sharp, the sky open faced. And in the barrens heartland, the pitch pines rose from the general scrub like columns of gray smoke; then their thick needles poked the sky. The barrens had an expansive feel that infused me with hope for what’s ahead. Here and there, I could see the aging stump of a white pine, and from one I looked aloft, imagining the 80-foot tree that stood there and the way it would have obscured the sky.

Rising Column

Rising Column

The selective cutters had done well, I thought. In one tiny grove, more than 50 pitch pines aimed at becoming full trees; each had been given a chance; a few would become the grove’s dominant trees. And the barrens, with its wide spacing of trees would provide walking reminder of what once was usual in our area.

Our Commons now has its uncommon barren and its common paths, where I and others have a place to wander throughout the coming year. What we hold in common is a place both rare and usual; it is where we often walk to find ourselves.

Best wishes for the Commons of 2015.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Once More to the Old Tree

By Corinne H. Smith

In November 1860, Henry David Thoreau walked around the neighboring town of Boxboro to inspect an old-growth woodlot owned by Henderson Inches. He was fascinated by the oldest oak trees he had ever seen. He made two separate trips in eight days and did a lot of trunk measuring. “I can realize how this country appeared when it was discovered,” he wrote on November 10th. “Such were the oak woods which the Indian threaded hereabouts.”

The oldest tree I ever met was a craggy and shaggy sycamore that lived a few miles from my childhood home. Our Girl Scout troop visited it once, probably in the late 1960s. We were told then that it was either the oldest or the largest tree in the state. Or was it the country? I forget. I remember that its arms stretched over the front yard of a farmhouse that was otherwise surrounded by cornfields. One huge branch almost touched the ground. We could have climbed up and sat on it, but we were warned against doing so. Someone was worried that the branch would break off under our weight. Being an avid tree climber myself, I was disappointed. The tree was great to look at. But I longed to clamber over that one branch and to sit among its massive leaves for a while. I would have been careful. I wouldn’t have broken it.

Fast forward, forty years. Now most of the cornfields are gone from this area. They’ve been replaced by a four-lane highway, strips of businesses and eateries, and a road leading to the Old Sycamore Industrial Park. It’s ridiculous. I feel a sense of indignation whenever I pass by the intersection.

I voiced this opinion to a childhood friend recently, as he and I were riding along the main road. “It’s too bad that the only legacies left of the tree are its name and its picture on that stupid sign,” I said.

sycamorepark

“What are you talking about? The tree’s still there,” he said.

“No, really? I assumed it had fallen down or had been plowed under.”

We made a quick turn onto Old Tree Drive, passed a few faceless facades of warehouses, and then turned left into a small parking lot. Sure enough, there they both still stood: the farmhouse and the sycamore tree. I was amazed. The developers had chosen to leave them alone.

And yet: time and circumstances had aged the tree a great deal. Fresh leaves showed that the tree was still alive, but much of its main trunk had deteriorated and was missing. It seems never to have grown straight up toward the sky. Instead, it grew out and across the yard. The low main branch I remembered was now supported by a short post, and part of it had long settled on the ground. The higher main branch also rested on a large support timber. This sycamore was an even older man now, receding and wasting away, needing crutches. But it was still hanging on; still taking in carbon dioxide and giving us fresh oxygen in return. Thank you, Tree.

sycamore1

In the days that followed, I grew curious about this sycamore. Was it the oldest or the largest, within any political boundaries? I did some brief research. A contributor to a 1944 state tree book called “Penn’s Woods, 1682-1932,” said that this one was ‘Pennsylvania’s Most Massive Tree.” Local newspapers occasionally ran stories about the tree, but the articles didn’t include any accolades. I clicked on some web sites that documented the oldest or biggest trees in the country and in the world. But no one had yet registered “our” sycamore on these species lists. And I didn’t have any numbers to make accurate comparisons. So I did what Henry David Thoreau would have done. I went back to the site outfitted with a tape measure, a camera, a notebook, and an assistant.

sycamore4

We measured the girth – or, what remains of it – at 25 feet around. The low branch is about 70 feet long and is generally about 7 ½ feet in circumference. We can estimate that its age is somewhere in the 300-350 year range, taking it back to a time when this place really WAS part of Penn’s Woods and was merely a colony. I registered the tree on an international Monumental Trees web site. According to the lists assembled there, this one may not be the oldest or the biggest sycamore tree in Pennsylvania. One in Lansdowne may beat it out by 100 years.

Our sycamore may not be an award winner or a “witness tree,” but it has witnessed quite a lot. We can be proud of its history and its stamina, and we can admire it for as long as it is able to live with us. And yes, I still desperately want to climb over that low branch. I haven’t … yet.

(Thanks to Paul Martin, Jr., for his help in this rediscovery.)

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Nature, News and Events, The Roost