Monday, August 31, 2009

Hoosier Fisheries

Thirty seconds ago I was bid farewell by the host of the PBS show "Made in Spain." I need to look him up, he is a somewhat cartoonish, and fairly hilarious acting bear of a man, but the food he depicts reflects a kind of sensibility I don't see in everyone. Mostly just regional Spanish traditional food. I'll talk more about him some other time, I need to learn more.

It struck me while watching him eat barnacles (then collecting them off seaside rocks) and mussels, how dearly I'd love to see a resurgence of Indiana's fresh water fisheries, one day.

There was a time when eels, mussels, one hundred species of freshwater fish, even Salmon off Lake Michigan, all were part of what Hoosiers depended upon for a part of their diet: fish, and crustaceans from the capacious Indiana fishery. I need not tell you what happened next. It took time for the Ohio to experience the worst of our states industrialization, but even in the year of the Hoosier States admission to the Union, 1816, Chicago was casting about for a sewer, and Indiana's Northwestern riperian waters, being connected to the Mississippi watershed to which the engineers redirected the Chicago River, were eventually fouled by Chicago's famed slaughterhouse offal, and municipal sewage. Originally the Chicago River emptied into Lake Michigan. You'll never guess why they wanted to quit pouring viscera and feces into their drinking water.

It is astonishing, despite all of this, that even today the Chicago River itself is heavily populated by rich populations of fish and crustaceans (including tons of crayfish.) Needless to say birds enjoy this bounty, and so do we: human beings. I would not personally fish and eat from most any river in the Lower and Eastern Continental United States, though an occasional Great Lakes catch probably doesn't hurt me any more than the coal fired power plant that supports Indiana University, but somehow isn't reviewed to the same standards of air quality as the other coal fired plants around the state. If I can live with a coal plant seven blocks from my broccoli plants, I can probably ingest a few small fish from the Great Lakes.

But obviously what I dream about, and know will happen one day, is for the Hoosier archetype to look up from his/her golden hour glowing feed cap morning rounds about the silo, and remember the handiwork of the Good Lord. You know, the gifts of the land, and her bloodstream, her riparian waters. Almost any farmer, when you make a case for the fecundity of the land, will nod with the same appreciation, from their simple long reliance upon a constant watchfulness about the same. Perhaps staring out out at the freeway on the way to and from work has given you the same strong affinity for pseudo fossilized ancient forests: asphalt. Pretty amazing stuff, you know. If not, then I certainly understand. But the farmer, when they aren't giving up, or thinking about the hopelessness of their endeavor as an individual, has at least stared upon the land in a different fashion than you and me, and seen fertility and fecundity and sometimes even personality in the hills, and the plains, and the bottom land that pretty much summarize my more or less flat agricultural state. The farmer, might, at least agree that the land has a strange power. And I think it is a reflection of the financing of the farmer, and the trade organizations that have relegated what used to be works of love, like trade in seeds, and breeding of varieties, that eventually changed the farmers view (and the seed breeders) from one dominated by the mysteries of the land (or plant traits) to one dominated by the mysteries of Microsoft Excel.

Even the most seemingly conservative individuals in our midst, with the most inflexible of livelihoods to which they are attached, have none the less, the capacity to agree, on neutral ground, that the land is the thing, in the end, that is doing the heavy lifting. All the farmer wants... all she/ he wants is to get the seed in the ground, then get out of the way, to let the earth do its thing, God willing. Kinda interesting when you think about it, isn't it. Sure, there is cultivation (at least on Organic, or sustainable farms) and perhaps an herbicide and insecticide application, or two, depending on the crop. But, farmers know that the two actions that matter in the end, and which when delayed, or mismanaged will spell the difference between being allowed to continue farming, and becoming yet another civilian in the "work force", are planting and harvesting.

The rivers and estuaries (or tidal areas, if you'd rather) of the Hoosier State are shepherds and cultivators in their own right. They take from the still of the sun a dispersed sprinkling condensed of just about any water source, and direct that water to a long ago agreed upon compromise, a sort of controlled flood. As to whether the channel directs the water, or the water directs the channel: it's a temporal question confused by the quickness of our lives. The oxbow lakes seen from any plane flight over temperate lands will spell the evolution of a river, it's dance and change, it's supple acceptance of the rain's unliving promise: as long as the sun shines on water, and the sky kisses space, I will fall. You can understand not arguing with such an argument. It's hard to believe that the weather is animated by no intelligence whatsoever; it simply reflects gradients of heat in geofluids. Then again, gradients of heat in geofluids can be nearly as complex as some of the more basic functions of life. Without being too philosophical, it simply surprises me sometimes that rain is unliving. And that it's so damn old (as one of my poems suggests, a bit older than much of the Earth as we see it today, for sure.)

So rivers form and mold lands and deposit mineral salts in all manner of places different from their arising. Rivers bring the wet to the dry, and freshwater to the saltwater. They look arbitrary on a map (and I still sometimes can't believe that they can travel any of the four directions, the orientation of a map having nothing to do with their flow.) But there are geographic rules that have been observed, and can be relied upon more or less. By and large rivers dump from land into the ocean. They might instead dump into a freshwater lake, or into an ancient seabed (thus forming a freshwater lake, like the Salton Sea.) Or they might peter out from the thirst of the land that surrounds them, and end like they began, a mere trickle.

Rivers are usually surround by a boundary of riparian ecosystem, noticeably different from the flora and fauna even a somewhat short distance from the river. At the delta of a river, of course, this ecosystem expands dramatically, creating a huge swath of wetlands, that seasonably host drastically different habitat for the legions of creatures that learn it's habits. The most dramatic of these sorts of circumstances occur in the deserts of Africa, where nearly every animal becomes an extremophile for a portion of the summer, before the rain, and the return of the water, and green. No system in Indiana is anything like that, of course, but the seasonal rainfall none the less does effect the Hoosier States rivers and especially her ecosystems and ecology.

When the ecology movement turned away, in the 1980's from it's chief concern, being that it should be defended as a field of broad interest and many claims (and not simply "The Experimental Analysis of Distribution and Abundance" as one of my textbooks would have it.) the biologists who turned with relish back to the basics of their research in the field were astonished to discover that our enormously molested rivers (in America) were teeming with a massive diversity of species, despite their poor treatment. The rivers were far, far from dead.

This presented something of a problem for those who wished to continue efforts in clean water and air (conservatives and industry think tanks have had a field day painting the resilience of nature as shadow to the "paranoia" of conservationists. And human beings being what they are, it should surprise no one that protectors of the environment, are, sometimes wrong. So are Mom and Dad and the President and maybe even God. So what do you do?) In fact, our ecosystems, due to the clean water and air legislation of the seventies and early eighties, have rebounded significantly in many respects. Bird populations have soared straight out of near extinction for a number of the keystone species, which leads a person to believe that the underlying strata of habitat and species upon which the top predators feed, have had some stability, perhaps even success. This is in the face of an otherwise steady drop in terrestrial habitat for large animals, and sensitive pseudo wetland species like frogs, and salamanders. Riparian strips, on either side of rivers provide some habitat, but are famously popular with human civilization as well. So there is always the tension between civilization, and the complex unity of an ecosystem, usually not possible in your and my back yard.

My reasons for mentioning all of this is that there are many things I dream about that can come from rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands, here in Indiana, should we desire them enough to deploy a campaign of self recognition in my state: for the reestablishment of fisheries in Indiana. For the protection of the foods that were so long a part of our regional character: freshwater mussels (with what, can you guess that the native American mounds were made? Dirt? Wrong! Shells of fresh water mussels, and other species. Tons of them. I want them back.) Apple orchards that were established along the Ohio river, just as much a part of the National story of America (it's the Ohio, after all, and booze.) as a proud chance to point up, again and again, that we were always, since Jefferson, an integral stop on the Westerning dreamscape of our country. John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed came to this Indian Territory, and with a canoe sagging in the water from the weight of apple seeds, hit what today is our States soil with his bow. He knew a garden when he saw it (and even today you can feel the atmosphere of the Romantics, when looking upon that gorgeous glacial moraine that the Ohio both follows and defines. The hanging emerald forest and curved tobacco, bean and cornfields are enough to send a Calvinist straight to his hairsuit. The Ohio was the only thing that could stop the approach of the forest through most of history, save the fire of Native Americans, and the axe of the white man. For a very long time, a bird would have seen only The Beautiful River, in the wide ocean of knobby forest that the state seal of Indiana backhands, with it's frontier woodsman, chopping away, and a Buffalo jumping a log, still down the list for "extraction."

So, you can't give me a home where the Buffalo roam,
For even small ones require a fence;
But the waters are wide,
In this state I reside,
Wide enough, anyway, for fish.

I'm not kidding. It is fun to watch Spaniards falling all over themselves cartooning the delighted master of his domain. I sometimes pity my parents for having the desire to honor their own culture in this manner (and really, they go a long way toward this, but still..) but having to deal with the fact the Americans have done away with so much of the colloquialism of even our own local customs, that we sometimes can conclude that consumerism is the custom du jour of our people. It can seem that way.

This is not true, however. Americans when presented with an alternative view, to their own upbringing, or even self adopted habit, have in huge numbers sought a middle ground, again and again. Each generation wishing to gaze with Wendall Berry a bit closer to something less sentimental, but still muscular in this enormous gift we have from Sea to Sea. We have done the looking. We are not at the crawling stage, we are tinkering, we are hoping, we are changing, and sometimes celebrating. We will always have the insecurity of being only a few centuries old, and comprised of a recently integrated confederation of diaspora. Within such a confederation, one might find it difficult to bandy words about twenty generations of people on the same piece of land. Well, remember, we will have a fishery again in Indiana, not because of the careful preservation of a tradition handed down, but rather from the casting aside of assumptions and a placement of all of our hands on the yoke: for that's what we do; we move, with desire.

Then, maybe, go fishing.


1 comment:

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