Laws of Nature
By Jan Zita Grover
Bullough’s Pond, like the rest of the familiar New England landscape,” writes Diana Muir, “is as much a creature of civilization as Commonwealth Avenue or the State House itself.” Like any urban ponds, Bullough’s Pond in Newton, Massachusetts, a comfortable suburb of Boston, holds stories. Increasingly, these stories are being written by local activists and historians intent on discovering what has been lost in our human drive to control land and waters. From a low in the 1960s, when the nation’s waters were too polluted to sustain fisheries or to swim in, to the present, when the ponds, streams, lakes and rivers of industrialized North America are being restored and repaired, we have witnessed the partial reversal of local extinctions and the revival of allegiance to our fellow biological communities–the fulfillment of Wisconsinite Aldo Leopold’s observation in A Sand County Almanac that “we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.
Diana Muir’s aim is ambitious, given the length of New England’s industrial history and the fact that “more scholarly effort has gone into the study of these six, small states than…any similar region of the globe.” Her title suggests the range of her inquiry and the lens through which she views her subject: “Yankee wealth is the creation of human hands, not of nature,” she writes. “Our soil is thin, our weather cold, and the mineral resources that lie under our mountains are negligible. Yet the people who live here are and have long been prosperous. Reflections in Bullough’s Pond asks why this should be so, and what it means for the planet.” Assuring readers that her book is not a “jeremiad,” she emphasizes that it is instead “a paean to the human ability to overcome daunting odds. Over and over again people in this small corner of the planet have faced disaster in the forms of economic collapse or resource dearth and overcome the odds.”
Muir’s predecessors, William Cronon (Changes in the Land: Colonists and the Ecology of New England, 1984) and Donald Worster (Rivers of Empire, 1985), focused on the effects of human action on the places we inhabit and/or exploit. Muir examines a more complex feedback loop: the effects that the land and waters of New England had on human activity once we altered them. Where Worster and Cronon studied the alterations of waterways, forests and prairies, viewing them as palimpsests on which successive generations of humans wrote their values, Muir is concerned most with how the changes our ancestors wrought on New England created new problems for their successors to solve. In part this difference in emphasis may arise from the synthetic nature of her method: Bullough’s Pond is primarily a skillful redaction of hundreds of studies by ecologists, economists, social historians, political scientists and government agencies.
But Muir is not merely a synthesizer. In her dual emphases on the resilience of natural systems and of us, their alterers, she is onto something that lies beyond the “unpleasant, guilt-inducing scold about our reprehensible environmentalists’ profligacy” that she associates with environmental jeremiads. Jerermiad is a telling term, with its Puritan associations, and Muir clearly savors its Yankee particularity, as she does her own family’s roles in New England’s history.
Often, she uses her personal history to lend character and locality to the broad social studies on which she bases much of her work. She never reminisces for personal memory’s sake: each bit of her personal history–and she uses these sparingly–is tied to the fate of systems larger than her own family’s. In a section on New England’s municipal and industrial water supplies, she recalls the house in the Thimble Islands that her family rented each summer of her girlhood:
My family went every summer to the Thimble Islands off the Connecticut coast. There are hundreds of islands in the Thimbles, but only a few large enough to be inhabited. Of these, some have dozens of houses, and some, like the island of my girlhood summers, have only a single home….
Nothing about it had been changed since it was built as a summer residence in the 1890s. Light in the grand rooms and the immense, polished-walnut butler’s pantry on the first floor came from gas jets… light upstairs in the bedrooms was provided by kerosene lamps that had to have their chimneys cleaned, wicks trimmed, and reservoirs filled daily. … the bathrooms boasted cast-iron tubs enthroned on balland-claw feet with separate taps labeled for salt and fresh water, sinks that stood on pedestals… Water arrived from the mainland via pipes on the seabed and the entire, elaborate plumbing system ended in an outfall behind the kitchen that poured raw sewage into Long Island Sound. (p. 207)
This evocative reminiscence, and “the long, expensive-to-maintain system bringing fresh water to Lewis Island and the short, rusty pipe dumping sewage into the sound, epitomiz[ing] American attitudes toward plumbing” at its heart, lead Muir to “Pure Waters,” a spare, fourteen-page account of the intricate feedback loop provided by New England’s once-famous coastal oyster beds. “Pure Waters,” along with other chapters tracing the intricate connections between human and other populations, demonstrates the truth of Aldo Leopold’s well-known adage that it makes no sense to throw out parts of an ecosystem until we understand how all of them work. Overharvested by local fishermen even before the Revolutionary War, by 1775 the oyster beds near Boston could be sustained only by transplanting young oysters from Long Island Sound and Chesapeake Bay; they were imported in barrels and then grown in Massachusetts waters for several months before being harvested for sale in Boston. “By the 1830s natural production of young oysters could no longer keep up with demand,” Muir notes. In response, oystermen began sieving the sea’s waters for free-swimming oyster larvae, which they then introduced to the shell beds they laid on the ocean floor in hope that the larvae would attach themselves to these new homes. Ingenious, yes, but despite the oystermen’s attempts to correct excessive harvests through the rationalization of production, other parts of New England’s dynamic, largely unregulated nineteenth-century economy doomed their efforts.
Muir quotes the State of New York Conservation Commission’s 1922 “Studies in Oyster Culture,” which pointed the finger at “the requirements of commerce [which] have caused these streams to be lined with bulkheads, dredged to considerable depths and the towns and industries which have grown up around them [thus] pollut[ing] the waters of the harbors.” The Connecticut oyster industry died in the 1950s and ’60s, just as the Massachusetts and Long Island Sound oysterbeds had earlier died, which, Muir explains, was why “the house where I spent my childhood summers was available for us to rent… the family fortune that built it was made in the oyster industry, and the oyster industry died.”
Characteristically, Muir’s examination of this regional extinction doesn’t stop here. It was the polluting of New England’s’ rivers, marshes and ocean waters that sealed the oysters’ doom. This observation launches her account of the municipal and industrial sewage systems that ensured safe waters upstream at the expense of lives downstream, where nutrients from raw human and animal sewage and from tanneries, cotton mills and paper plants flowed into the water, absorbing oxygen and choking the organisms living there. But that’s not all: Muir then serves up the ducks that delivered the coup de grace to oysters and other shellfish: “When duck farming started, oystering began its decline, about 1940. By the mid-1950s, there were forty duck farms and six million ducks pouring effluent into the bay, or into streams that run into the bay…. During the duckling decades, thousands of acres of Great South Bay oyster bottom that once produced prized Blue Points, produced only a bumper crop of serpulid worms.”
This Intricate interweaving of seemingly unrelated human activities, ecosystems’ responses, and human reactions to those responses, is the strength of Bullough’s Pond. Chapter after chapter records the unwitting violence New Englanders visited upon the woods, fields and waters of their region, but because Muir marvels not only at the resilience of those ecosystems but also at human resilience, she notes the gains as well as the losses. She ends “Pure Waters” with an account of what we have learned and what we have (partially) repaired:
Raw sewage no longer flows from outfall pipes. Not on Lewis Island, not in Waterbury, not in Lowell. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 our waterways have been getting cleaner. Not clean enough for oysters to spawn in New Haven Harbor or for fish caught in the Concord River to be safe to eat…. Not yet. Although it is in our power to make them so. The technology exists. All that is lacking is the kind of political will that led the people of Massachusetts to remove invisible typhus bacillus from the water supply. (p. 221)
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” wrote Aldo Leopold in “The Round River–A Parable.” Knowing what is at stake, knowing what has been lost, knowing what stands to be lost, the environmentalist is inevitably drawn toward jeremiad; it is easy to look on the parts we have thrown Out or allowed to expire, and then to despair, and then to rage.
Diana Muir has not settled for such despair, though there must have been times when her researches, both in the library stacks and among the palimpsests on New England’s waters and land, made that tempting. Tellingly, Bullough’s Pond is dedicated to three children “who inherit the world we have made.” Hers is the loving gesture of a mother wishing to pass on to her children an interpretation of the world they have come to, a world fallen but capable of being healed, of being made whole again.
Bullough’s Pond, where this inquiry began, is not “nature wild and timeless”; instead, “like the entire New England landscape, [it] is a mere imitation of nature in a world shaped by human hands.” Even so, like the people who brought it into being by damming a brook, it is resilient. Surrounded by “yellow Eurasian iris,” immigrant herring gulls and pragmatic red-tailed hawks, those “beneficiaries of civilization, of farming, grazing, and, most especially, of the invention of the telegraph pole,” the pond, offers up both “natural” and human reflections. Not surprisingly, Muir finds mostly cold comfort in this fact. As Leopold noted in “Round River,” “Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Muir closes with a brief return to the pond. I sense that she is trying to see it afresh through the eyes of her children, not the eyes of an ecologist, noting the fever of natural activity there–the red-tailed hawk, the diving kingfisher and the fingerling fish aquiver in its bill, the swarm of living things. But she cannot leave behind her wise and wounded vision, and that is the strength of her book: “We continue to depend on the daily miracles of photosynthesis and the water cycle as utterly as did our remotest ancestors. The difference is that nature now depends upon us as inevitably as we depend upon nature.”
JAN ZITA GROVER is the author of North Enough: AIDS and Other Clear-cuts (1997) and Northern Waters (1999). She is currently writing Amity Creek, a book about an urban stream in the city of Duluth, Minnesota, where she lives.
This article appeared on Page 7 of The Women’s Review of Books, Volume 18, Jan. 2001.