Travelling Through Time
By Jesse A. Floyd
Bullough’s Pond dominates the view from Diana Muir’s front porch.
In late May, the water seems to shiver as a light breeze disturbs the surface. A kingfisher stalks its prey from a utility wire.
A swallow performs aerial acrobatics in search of bugs on the pond’s surface. Nearby Commonwealth Avenue is a footnote, a muffled, barely audible backdrop.
For Muir, a published author, Bullough’s Pond is something more than just a view: in her latest book, it serves as a reflecting pool, a looking glass into New England’s near and distant pasts.
“A lot of what went on in New England is reflected in the history of this small place,” Muir said.
Muir’s latest work, “Reflections In Bullough’s Pond,” has just been released. Published by University Press of New England, the narrative is a meditation on the history of New England, a densely researched tome weaving the relation of ecology and human economics, starting before the first Europeans settled the area and continuing through the industrial revolution.
According to Muir, research first began on the book when she noticed that New England looked different than other parts of America. What caught her eye was not differences in nature’s landscape, but differences in the manmade landscapes. That led her to research the forces that dictated the development of the New England and the decisions drove that development.
What she found was the New England’s lack of natural resources caused a unique evolutionary path for the region. ”This is a peculiar economy,” she said. “For years, we have not had a sustainable natural resource.”
What resources were here – huge trees for ship’s masts, fish and shellfish and timber for lumber and paper – vanished in a few short centuries after the arrival of Europeans.
Since the time of Christopher Columbus, Europeans fished the waters off New England, harvesting tons of cod and other groundfish, and hunting down giant tuna and swordfish. The bounty was so plentiful, an entire subculture was created. A carved cod hangs in the State House, a remark on the importance of fishing in the development of the state.
Just 30 years ago, author Kim Fields portrayed a threatened but still viable fishery off Gloucester in her book “The Finest Kind.”
Today, that industry has all but vanished. Fishing boats which once lined harbors in Gloucester and New Bedford are all but gone; fishermen have moved on. No amount of government wrangling, regulating or protection seems to work as every study of groundfish stocks shows an unchecked decline.
“Through stupidity and greed, we’ve reached a point [where] we can’t fish. I think it’s appalling, and says a lot about our ability to plan and behave reasonably,” Muir said.
Her research for the book brought a few surprises. Native Americans were not the ecology-friendly people they are often portrayed as. Groups worked in various ways to tame nature and make the environment provide for them.
Muir also discovered that many of the choices made for industrialization in the past were made with a knowledge of the long-range impact those decisions would have.
For example, European settlers opted to end the migration of fish up New England’s rivers by building dams. The dams were seen as a cheap, reliable source of energy, and more profitable than fish. Today, efforts are being made to restore runs of salmon, alewife and shad to the rivers.
The settlers also decided to use the rivers as sewers, even though they understood what dumping effluent might do to the rivers.
Some rivers, including the Charles, are just beginning to recover.
“They constantly chose profitability over sustainability,” Muir said.
According to Muir, those short-sighted choices continue largely because people want cheap power. An easy and profitable way to provide it is using coal. Burning coal emits gases linked to global warming. Global warming is blamed for a series of ever-more serious and frequent storms and floods. Bad weather destroys crops, houses, infrastructure and people. Acid rain, another result, kills trees in New Hampshire, and is responsible for destroying the maple sugar trees in Canada.
But, Muir said, those selling the cheap power aren’t asked to pay.
“We don’t do our accounting that way, what is real cost on real people,” she said.
The author’s history
Muir was born and raised in the small town of Old Lyme, Conn. She attended college at Barnard in New York City, where she majored in U.S. history. When she and her husband, Dr. Paul Appelbaum, came to Cambridge for medical school, she made writing a career. Her first book, “Thanksgiving,” was published 17 years ago. It’s a study on the development of the holiday from its beginnings as a regional phenomenon into a national fixture.
That book led to a second – “The Glorious Fourth.” She also has a pair of children’s books, “Cocoa Ice” and “Giants in the Land.”
Muir says her writing focuses on making potentially dry, scholarly research accessible and entertaining.
“I try to write intelligent, narrative nonfiction, and I strive to be accurate,” she said.
In her mind, narrative nonfiction – her preferred form – is underappreciated as a form of creative writing. Using a narrative form can draw the reader along, making potentially dry material interesting, she said.
If postings on Amazon.com, the popular online bookstore, are an indication, her efforts have been successful.
“Starting from a small pond in front of her house, Muir taker her readers on a wild and varied ride. There seems to be nothing this author does not know: from the habitat of flora and fauna you never heard of to industrial processes two centuries old to the economic principles of oystering, to Indian forest clearing techniques,” writes Alan Rockoff.
The Internet has helped Muir gauge the size and scope of her audience. Even with “Bullough’s Pond,” she’s getting feedback from readers in Canada and the United States. One of the Amazon postings is from Israel.
“A museum director at a fine clock museum in Connecticut called me, and he was thrilled because I had done a perspective on the role of clocks in industrialization,” Muir said.
That sort of feedback is how Muir judges her success. A spot on the New York Times bestseller list isn’t on her radar screen and a fat royalty check is gravy.
“It would be exciting [to make the New York Times list]; obviously, but I can’t say I expect it,” she said.
Muir, married and the mother of three children, spends her days writing and researching. She’s already begun her next book, but is reluctant to discuss her next effort.
“I like to give ideas more shape before I present them to other people.” she said.
This article appeared in the Newton Tab on June 1, 2000.