Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork
“A jerk on one end of the line, waiting for a jerk on the other.” The literature of American fishing is large but not, on the whole, distinguished. It has three chief modes: the reflective-pastoral, the heroic, the technical. The reflective-pastoral descends from the ancient line of Izaak Walton, and is mainly about trout and salmon; the finesse of fly-casting, and the long time between fish, encourage reflection. Piscator is usually a semiretired surgeon with access to a vanity press, writing pensées so coy and homely that one wishes his waders, when they filled with water that day on the Gallatin River in 1957, had drowned him. Once in a while, however, the mode produces a book as lapidarist and admirable as Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It, published in 1976.
The heroic mode has the most difficult life of the three in America, because it began with one gnarled, inimitable masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Since so much dissection of Melville’s purpose has been done by landlocked symbol hunters whose acquaintance with “the watery part of the world” is confined to a trip on the Staten Island Ferry, it is not perhaps surprising that Ahab’s fiery hunt of the whale should have been taken for an allegory of almost anything from union with God to the psychoanalytic process, and not for what it mainly is, a fish story. Melville’s long shadow has intimidated almost all efforts at epic fish writing since. The worst case was Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in which the rituals of bonding between Man and the Unknown Adversary were processed into virile kitsch. It is to marlin catching what Little Nell is to death; yet even now, each Piscator who aspires to catch something bigger than a flounder must endure his colleagues’ suspicion that he is only striking a pose in emulation of Papa. As a result, one cannot attempt the genre without a sense of hubris.
The technical accounts are what the rod owner usually reads. They fill the pages of the sporting magazines, and are for the most part turned out to formula by amateurs and hacks. Occasionally they rise to real interest and seriousness as reportage, as in Striper, John Coles’s fine 1976 book on the striped bass; and still more rarely, to an unpretending but exact elegance that traces connections between society and the natural world, as managed by William W. Warner in Beautiful Swimmers, his book about the Chesapeake fishery of the blue-claw crab.
The latest and the best book in this vein—fishing as social activity rather than mano a mano existential encounter—is Men’s Lives, by Peter Matthiessen, on the baymen and surfmen of eastern Long Island. Its title comes from a line in one of Walter Scott’s novels, “It’s not fish ye’re buyin, it’s men’s lives.” Its aim is threefold: to tell the history of the South Fork fishery and of the men who work it; to set their hard and risky labors in small boats against the landscape and sea to which they belong, and the landsliding social changes they cannot stem; and to examine the lobbies and laws that threaten their economic extinction.
Matthiessen has lived on the South Shore and fished on and off with the baymen since 1955, learning their foibles, values, and skills. He has also made his living skippering a charter boat. He knows all sides of the issues firsthand, as I can attest, having fished with him in his boat and mine. Men’s Lives is not only an intensely felt elegy to passing relations between work and nature, but a precise and distinguished social history. For Matthiessen has a fine eye for nature, and especially for the sea.
Twenty years ago, after sailing on a schooner with a Cayman green-turtling crew to the Mosquito Cays off Nicaragua, he wrote Far Tortuga, a book with hardly a surplus word, whose emotional power and exactness of language make it the best marine novel I know of by an American since Melville. Two virtues carry over from the novel to this factual account.
The first is Matthiessen’s precise and respectful ear for spoken dialect. It enables him to set down argot and elisions without a trace of condescension. (Hemingway could rarely do this right; witness the quaint pidgin in which his Spaniards converse and the Old Man apostrophizes the fish.) He has listened to the Bonackers, as the local fishermen are called, as carefully, and as long, as Mark Twain did to his river people; he gets their speech straight, its salt and wryness intact. “I’m gonna put this goddamn oar over my shoulder,” a weary seine hauler snorts, “and head west, and the first sonofabitch asks me what it is, that’s where I stick it in the ground and settle.” Cap’n Bill Lester, elder of his clan, reflects that “there’s something beautiful about work, I don’t know why these younger fellers are so afraid of it. Fishin’s a hard life, but it’s a good’un…. All you need is a little ambition and some drive. Need some intelligence, too, I guess. But not too much.”
With this acuity of ear goes an equal sensitivity of eye. Since Walt Whitman’s day a lot has been written about the east end of Long Island, but nothing to surpass Matthiessen’s descriptions of the autumn beaches, the dories clambering up the swells, or
the quiet of the summer bay, the blue water and the hot sand shores with their acrid horsefoot smell and windrows of stout quarter-decks and light gold jingle shell that in other days was gathered up for oyster cultch; the gulls plucking scallops from the shallows, swooping upward, and dropping them on the old erratic boulders carried down out of the north by the great glaciers that formed the high moraines of “fish-shaped Pommanoc”; the ospreys lugging glinting fish across the sky, the bright lobster buoys and white sails, the yelp and crying of the nesting gulls, the screech of terns.
Such passages are as good, in their way, as Winslow Homer watercolors—each detail honestly named, the whole translucent. But Men’s Lives is mainly about the politics of fishing, a theme not common in serious writing. The basic problem has not changed since Thomas Bastard epitomized it in 1598:
Of exercises the most excellent,
Of recreations the most innocent.
But now the sport is marde, and wott ye why?
Fishes decrease, and fishers multiply.
The east end of Long Island is one of the richest fisheries in America or the world. Such is its abundance, even now, that those who did not fish there thirty years ago have difficulty seeing it as a system in slow decline, its marine population threatened by the depredations of long liners, ocean seiners, odd new algae, pollution, and selective pressure on fish species.
Yet the east end remains an encyclopedic museum of marine habitats, from shallow inlets where scallops jink like castanets through the eelgrass and drifts of hard-shell clams nestle in the ooze, to the tidal races where, from June to October, tiger-eyed bluefish gorge on millions of sand eel while gyring terns dive bomb the water for fragments. Flounder, mackerel, porgy, fluke, and weakfish inhabit, in their seasons, the Peconic bays from Shinnecock to Gardiners Island; striped bass patrol the rocks off Plum Island and the ocean beaches of the Hamptons; further out, past the tip of Montauk, begins the territory of the fall and winter cod and, in summer, the Scombridae—the long-finned albacore, the bonito, the yellowfin, and, most prized of all, the giant bluefin tuna. Among them are found the billfish, especially the Atlantic swordfish, Xiphias gladius—and sharks of all sizes up to the mako and the Great White, whose pursuit by sun-raw groups of day-charter fishermen, loaded with Dramamine and Budweiser, has become a grotesque manhood ritual. (The demonology of the shark, a creature that poses about as much threat to human life as the coyote, is one of the curiosities of American popular culture.)
Though the converse does not hold true, there are no fish without fishermen. Catering to sports fishermen is a seasonal mainstay of eastern Long Island, employing tens of thousands of people in tackle shops, motels, charter businesses, boat yards, and restaurants. The sport-fishing clientele is served at every level, from the child’s snapper pole to the fleets of Hatteras and Bertram offshore gin palaces which go beyond half a million dollars for the basic boat, not counting the Pompanette fighting chairs, the electronics, gin poles and outriggers, and of course the rods and gold Penn International reels, eight of them at $1000 apiece, trolling hula-skirted plastic squid known as Green Machines. With all costs factored in, a do-it-yourself tuna-fish sandwich is the most expensive food on earth, making Beluga seem like oatmeal.
Sport-fishing interests are large and vocal in this part of America; those of local commercial fishermen, small and obscure. Moreover the sport-fishing lobby has for years been implacably opposed to the South Fork baymen. There are only a handful—perhaps a hundred—of these full-time fisherfolk left. Their old nick-name of Bonackers comes from the Accabonac Creek in East Hampton. They fish from small boats, setting nets out into the surf from the Atlantic beaches of the Hamptons; they trap fish in the bays, and do seasonal work like clamming and scalloping. They have fished and farmed the South Fork for three hundred years. The Bonac accent preserves the cadences and inflections of Kent and Suffolk, from which their ancestors emigrated in the seventeenth century. Most of the Bonacker families—the Lopers and Lesters, the Millers, Dominys, Edwardses, and Havenses—descend from Sag Harbor whalers who became seasonal farmer-fishermen. They are clannish, gritty, and self-sufficient, never asking for (or getting) a cent in government subsidy, relying entirely on the work of their own hands. At a time when the American air reeks of feel-good patriotism, they seem to exemplify the ancestral independence that fat cats preach but seldom practice. Their attitude to work was summed up by one of them, talking to Matthiessen: “Independence costs you a lot of money. I starved myself to death for independence when I could have made good money at a trade. You ever see anybody yet get fired from fishin? No, no! You’re just glad to find someone stupid enough to go fishin with you.”
This way of life, precarious at best, has for years been pestered by bureaucracy; it is now menaced by the South Fork real-estate boom, which has raised taxes so far that the sons can no longer farm inherited land and sell out to condominium builders instead. On top of that, the Bonackers’ frail economy may now be given the coup de grâce by a law passed in Albany last July which forbids the catching and sale of their staple “money fish,” Morone saxatilis, the striped bass.