By Susan Hand Shetterly
I miss counting alewives.
The summer has bloomed into a tangle of busyness, and I look back now to the seeming simplicity of early spring, the days cold and wet, the trees just leafing out, the warblers just returned, and Patten Stream pouring under the bridge at North Bend Road in Surry, gurgling and swishing along the banks like a big swimming animal seeking its way to the bay.
If we give what’s wild half a chance, it will, as these fish teach us, do the hard part.
For nine years, a group of us, citizens of this town, worked to create safe passage for alewives so they could migrate from their deep-winter seas into our early-spring bay and up Patten Stream to their natal pond to spawn. A weir-and-pool construction, a series of rising steps created out of granite blocks with iron rods to stabilize them during ice out, lifts the water level in stages to meet a culvert at Route 172, just above the bay. The fish swim easily though the culvert now, which they hadn’t been able to do for years. After that, they fight their way up a natural falls, pass through a number of beaver dams, and glide beneath the North Bend Bridge to the outlet to Patten Pond. We take turns sitting on rocks in the shadow of the bridge to count them. When the alewife run is over, we send the numbers to the Department of Marine Resources.
I count by tens. We have laid in the streambed, from one bank to another, a row of white bags filled with sand. The fish swim over the bags, which makes them easier to see. Ten. Twenty. Thirty.
Each phalanx of fish, one after another, whether 20 or 100 fish or more, is all business. Their blunt noses point upstream, their sleek gray backs pack together, their broad tails move in unison, side to side. It is our town’s magnificent migration. To witness this part of the life cycle of these essential wild fish that almost disappeared from our lives, to have helped them flourish, brings some of us near tears. I have seen photographs of caribou galloping across the tundra, the dust rising from their hooves. Here, there is no dust. No sound. This migration is the silent imperative of homing fish.
Neighbors who keep this vigil love it as much as I do: for the gentle pause in their day; for warbler song, water gurgle, and the occasional car over the bridge that makes the girders hum; for the proof, right here in our own town, that if we give what’s wild half a chance, it will, as these fish teach us, do the hard part.
This year, the fish came late. The water out of the pond was too cold, and there were days when no one saw a single fish. We spent our individual time watching light-tannin water streak by and letting ourselves ease into springtime under the bridge: the clouds, the rain, the sun, the wind, the phoebes building a nest on one of the girders.
Philip Booth, the noted Castine poet, wrote a poem titled How to See Deer, which gives me a dictum I carry: “Expect nothing always.” That’s the way to see. If you allow for any possibility, if you demand no certain outcome, then you take in everything that’s around you. Sometimes it’s fish. Sometimes it’s a female yellowthroat picking up a bit of sedge for her nest. Sometimes its just water flowing by. And that’s fine.