Wrinkles in the Rocks

A Naturalist's History of Penobscot Bay

Words by Kerry Hardy
Images by Jonathan Levitt

200 PAGES PERFECT BOUND 4 COLOR LITHO PRINTING FSC APPROVED PAPER PRINTED IN CANADA

200 PAGES
PERFECT BOUND
4 COLOR LITHO PRINTING
FSC APPROVED PAPER
PRINTED IN CANADA

 

From a small plane flying over Penobscot Bay, your eye always seems to catch one unmistakable ribbon of water. This is the Fox Island Thorofare; a graceful blue S curve that winds between North and South Fox Islands—or as they are known today, North Haven and Vinalhaven. Older than either of these sets of names is the Penobscot Nation’s place name Sibuessek, meaning “at the little river,” an apt description of the narrow, twisting Thorofare.

To a geologist, these islands and the hills that surround Penobscot Bay tell a complex and fascinating story. But once someone writes the word “geology,” the average reader is about 15 seconds away from falling asleep. So get ready for a 14-second explanation of why the entire natural and human history of Penobscot Bay is simply an extension of its geology.

Once upon a time, almost 400 million years ago, three continental plates (today’s Africa, Europe, and North America) smashed into one another. Before the collision, the layers of bedrock on each continental plate had been basically flat, but as they came together the subterranean heat and pressure became unbearable, and the rock turned plastic, which enabled it to absorb some of the shock by crumpling into folds.

The Penobscot people explained this corrugated landscape not through geology, but rather by a tale of a giant turtle being dragged down to the water by Glooskap, their culture hero—the parallel ridges and valleys were the drag marks left by the turtle’s claws.That, in a nutshell, is how a flat landscape became compressed into a corrugated one. It still required millions and millions of years of sandblasting by rain, wind, and glaciers to scrub away the broken surface of the stone, and to grind enough of it into a soil that could support life, but eventually everything fell into place. The first humans to settle here inherited a bay full of jagged islands, framed by a landscape of curving ridges and valleys—the remnant of those wrinkles that were formed so long ago.

 The Penobscot people explained this corrugated landscape not through geology, but rather by a tale of a giant turtle being dragged down to the water by Glooskap, their culture hero—the parallel ridges and valleys were the drag marks left by the turtle’s claws.That, in a nutshell, is how a flat landscape became compressed into a corrugated one. It still required millions and millions of years of sandblasting by rain, wind, and glaciers to scrub away the broken surface of the stone, and to grind enough of it into a soil that could support life, but eventually everything fell into place. The first humans to settle here inherited a bay full of jagged islands, framed by a landscape of curving ridges and valleys—the remnant of those wrinkles that were formed so long ago.

 

Paradise lost

“YOU WILL NOTICE MY USE OF THE PAST TENSE HERE; THAT’S YOUR FIRST HINT THAT THIS STORY DOESN’T HAVE A HAPPY ENDING.”
 

Why does this all matter? Because in each of those valleys is a river. It may be large, like the Penobscot, or small, like the Ducktrap. Look at a map of an ordinary coastline, and you might see one significant river every hundred miles or so. Look at a map of Penobscot Bay, and within a 50-mile span you’ll see the Kennebec, Nequasset, Sheepscot, Damariscotta, Pemaquid, Medomak, Georges, Ducktrap, Passagassawaukeag, Marsh, and Penobscot all pouring in.

Why do the rivers matter? Because each one of them supported the suite of anadromous fish species that lived in the ocean but returned to their freshwater birthplaces when they reached sexual maturity. Everything from 6-inch smelts to 600-pound sturgeons used these rivers, in numbers we can barely imagine.

 Mill privileges were granted to riparian landowners, allowing them to build dams completely across the rivers, thus blocking some of the finest spawning runs in the world. Ordinary residents quickly saw the error of this, and laws were passed requiring dam owners to provide passage for spawning fish. But the powerful men who owned mills had little trouble convincing governors and their commissioners that their businesses were more important than the fish, and so those laws have rarely been enforced.

Thus, the rivers that had once been Penobscot Bay’s arteries of life quickly became clotted off, and served only as conduits of waste. Since Maine acquired statehood in 1820, our executive branch of government has squandered the best river fisheries in North America, and with the decline of the river fish we have naturally also seen a collapse of the groundfish stocks that depended on them. The bottom of Penobscot Bay is essentially a ghost town now, populated only by a near-monoculture of lobsters that is artificially sustained by the fishermen who feed them, rear them to market size, and then harvest them in what is one of the largest aquaculture operations in the world.

For all of these reasons, you will perhaps forgive me for being unable to love the bay that we have made, and unable to forget the one that we have done our best to ruin. Yes, it’s still a beautiful postcard of a place, but it is no longer real in the way that it once was. It lacks dimension, and diversity, and resiliency, and richness.

It lacks life.

Why do the fish matter? The best way I can explain is by analogy: Imagine that the fish are cows. For the first few years of their life, the pasture they graze is the entire Atlantic Ocean. Then, magically, a shared simultaneous impulse drives them to leave the ocean and seek out the tiny patch of freshwater where they first changed from an egg into a fish. Basically, they fatten themselves on someone else’s pasture, and then wrangle themselves and return to the barn on their own! Nothing could have been easier than harvesting them with net, weir, or spear as they swarmed up the rivers, and for each one harvested, dozens more would survive to cast their spawn and make millions more of their kind. It’s miraculous enough that they even had the ability to locate these natal pools, but it’s somewhere beyond miraculous that they did it with such precise timing, and in such staggering numbers. You will notice my use of the past tense here; that’s your first hint that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. 

The dependability of this annual bonanza was the underpinning of human life in this area. It’s also why men from a fish-starved Europe risked crossing the ocean to reach Penobscot Bay, where the cod and halibut and striped bass grew long and fat, feeding on the millions of herring, smelts, alewives, shad, and tomcod that spawned in our rivers.  It’s why the first white settlers were able to eke out a living here, and it’s why boatbuilding flourished and supported the region. Fish supported almost everything that lived here—seabirds, seals, lobsters, porpoises, swordfish, tuna, and people—in one of the richest ecosystems on the planet. Penobscot Bay was a true paradise, and naturally the European institutions of land ownership, capitalism, and governance quickly found a way to ruin it.

 

Selling the earth

“PILES OF COBBLESTONES, covered IN A CENTURY’S WORTH OF MOSS AND LICHENS, CAN STILL BE FOUND IN THE WOODS.”

Let me return briefly to the matter of geology, because there are several threads of the story still to be gathered. At the heart of those earliest collisions, there was a zone where the heat and pressure was great enough to turn the rock into liquid magma. Depending on how quickly the pressure abated and the magma cooled, a variety of crystalline rocks were formed. Of these, perhaps the most remarkable is granite, because its internal crystalline lattice gives it the sublime quality of breaking into rectangular pieces. 

Naturalist History of Penobscot Bay-6.jpg

From the human perspective, this can be seen only as another gift from nature: a dense, durable stone that needs simply to be tapped on to break into perfect building blocks. It didn’t take long for settlers to figure out that there was money to be made by tapping out lots of these blocks, and soon every island and peninsula around the bay had its own quarries. They began shipping droves of blocks that would pave streets and build cities all up and down the East Coast. Experienced stone men, especially from Scandinavia and Italy, came across the ocean to work this resource, which is why family names like Laukka, Olson, and Mazzeo show up in our phone books.

This region also had the limestone needed to make the cement that would hold these blocks together. The lime from pockets in Camden, Rockport, Rockland, and Thomaston was of such high quality that architects all across the country demanded it in their building specs, and thus another lucrative industry sprang to life. Giant kilns in Rockland and Rockport burned around the clock, turning the rocks into pure lime, which was then loaded into barrels and shipped to cities up and down the East Coast. Feeding these kilns required vast amounts of wood, and in a few decades’ time the whole coastal forest had been cut and sold for kiln fuel; so much so that firewood eventually had to be imported all the way from Nova Scotia.

The granite industry died, almost overnight, in the early 20th century, when we learned to pave streets with macadam, and to make buildings from reinforced concrete. Piles of cobblestones, covered in a century’s worth of moss and lichens, can still be found in the woods of Vinalhaven. Their brethren lie under the streets of Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, but these granite pavers never escaped the island.

The landscape trade still has demand for granite pavers, but incredibly, the global economy has decreed that it’s cheaper to have villagers in the Himalayas cut granite cobblestones by hand, and then ship them across the ocean to America. As for the lime industry, it sputters on: The tallest building on the bay is the smokestack at the aptly named Dragon Products in Thomaston, and it sits just across the road from the biggest hole in the state, the lime quarry that feeds it. But again, there are other places in the world that can make cement cheaper. Unlike many, I’m grateful for these shifting markets, because I have no doubt that if there was any money left to be had, we would carve the islands right down to sea level for their granite, and we’d dig up what remains of Thomaston and Rockland if the lime was worth it—just as fishermen still bicker with the feds over each year’s catch quota, despite driving groundfish to the brink of extinction.


“That’s just the way America usually operates. Everything is a commodity, and if the price is right, we will pluck it and sell it.

Reversing the tide 

This brings us to the crux of this story: In the face of all this loss, what’s a person of conscience to do? What needs to happen in Penobscot Bay over the next few centuries?

One possibility, as always, is to do nothing: to stick our heads in the sand and hope that “the authorities” will do the right thing. I wish I could cite any evidence from the past two centuries of our state’s management of these resources that would justify such a hope. Instead, I see things like the state itself blocking alewife passage on the St. Croix River, for fear that the alewives will inconvenience the sport fishery of non-native smallmouth bass there. I see state commissioners being caught in bed with polluters on the Androscoggin, overlooking illegal discharges and looking for ways to continue them. I see immature American eels, a fish on the IUCN Red List of endangered species, still being netted as they try to ascend our rivers, because the Japanese will pay big money for them.

 
“IN THE FACE OF ALL THIS LOSS, WHAT’S A PERSON OF CONSCIENCE TO DO?”
 
Naturalist History of Penobscot Bay-2.jpg

 Another possibility is to actually take action—fancy that thought—to reverse the degradation. This spring, almost 400 people held a conference to talk about river and fish restoration, food sovereignty, recreation, industry, and the complex web of Penobscot Bay’s ecology and economy. At the center of it all was the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, an alliance of nonprofits that has raised millions of dollars to remove dams and reopen the river for fish. Representatives from the Penobscot Nation were there, along with groups like NOAA, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and even a few ordinary citizens like me. Tellingly, the executive branch of the State of Maine—the ones charged with protection of our fish and waters—was largely absent.

It is the dysfunction of state government that has forced this group to organize itself and pick up the reins of restoration. One of its recent triumphs is the Howland Mill Bypass (a complete diversion of the Penobscot’s main channel around an existing dam). It serves as a fine metaphor: The State of Maine is the dam, and the way around it is this new alliance of people committed to restoring the rivers, the fish, and the bay. I suspect that similar runs around similar state governments will be the only hope of reclaiming America’s rivers in the years to come.

I must confess that a third path pulls me even more strongly. I suppose you could call it fiddling while Rome burns, because even as I watch the bay dying, I can’t resist going there to feed my body and soul. There are clams to be dug, boats to be rowed, alewives to be smoked, mackerel to be caught, mountains to be climbed, seals and falcons to be photographed. This list could (and does) fill my days, but it also gives me the motivation to continue tilting against the windmills of bad government and false economy—and worst of all, the cultural indifference that creeps in when people have finally forgotten the riches they once had.

When you walk across the beach at Ducktrap, you can barely see some sticks and stones laid out on the beach in a curious pattern. These are the last remnants of the salmon weirs from the late 1800s, when there were still enough Atlantic salmon alive that you could catch them in this fashion. There was a special boat, called the Ducktrap salmon wherry, developed to tend the salmon nets and weirs; it was beamy enough that you could practically stand on the gunwales and lift the 20-pound salmon over the side, until the boat was so full you had to go ashore. These are the kinds of things we have all forgotten. Ask any Mainer under the age of 30 what a shad is, and you’ll only get a blank stare; they don’t know that the Penobscot River used to run black with them, all the way up to Millinocket.

The last thing I’ll say about our geology is this: It gave Penobscot Bay its surrounding mountains (or at least, the hills that we like to think of as mountains). All else being equal, land with mountains is a better place to live than land without mountains. Few of us would ever choose a life with no highs or lows, so why would anyone choose a landscape without them? There is no better way to sort out who you are, where you live, and what you should do, than to climb a mountain and look down on your world.

The more I study life in all its expressions, the surer I become that its signature is a sine wave. The wrinkles in the rocks, the ridges and their valleys, the peninsulas and their coves, the ebb and flow of 10-foot tides, the winters and their summers—these are the sine waves underlying life here on Penobscot Bay. The pulse of life is strong here still, but in bygone days it was a torrent, rich and beautiful beyond any words I can use to describe it.

I hope it has a future. The choice is ours.