THE STONE WEIRS
alison hawthorne deming
I first heard about the stone weirs from a young pilot, scion of the founder of Atlantic Charters, the small local company that runs Grand Manan’s island flight service. He had set up a table at the Farmer’s Market one Saturday morning in June. He was selling sightseeing tours of the island. A hundred bucks for a flyover of the whole twenty-five-kilometer-long forested rock pile. At low tide, you can fly low enough to see the remains of the stone weirs in Cow’s Passage, he said. I met the claim with skepticism. A stone weir seemed an unimaginable effort of hand-made labor. I’d seen no mention of stone weirs in the Grand Manan Museum’s history of island fishing, no remnants marking the shallows the way the poles of abandoned weirs can be seen ghosting up out of the water, sentinels of the island’s past.
Herring weirs, though in decline, have illuminated the island’s shores for centuries. Built from tall timbers and topped with birch saplings, strung round with black twine, Fundy weirs catch the light and the fog and swell as if their purpose were to be the fixed thing that makes you pay attention to all that changes. Brush weirs were built by aboriginal people in the region and have a history in the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia deep back in time. Native Hawaiians built fish ponds in shallow waters offshore. Most of the fishermen I asked about stone weirs on Grand Manan gave me the same skeptical look I’d given the pilot. It’s easy to feel herring weirs slipping from memory, knowing there were eighty-six weirs in 1939 and now there are only nine or ten in operation. Many islanders feel the loss as personal. Everything local feels personal on an island with 2,500 residents. When the ambulance blares down the island’s one main road, heads turn. It’s carrying someone they know. Death and injury are not anonymous in such a place. Ghosts abound and loss is shared.
One man I asked about the stone weirs shrugged.
“Who knows what else was once here that’s forgotten?”
One day on the ferry that connects the island to mainland New Brunswick, I was watching out the window through fog as we neared Flagg Cove.
“Are we almost there?” I asked a kid, maybe ten tears old, whose face was pressed to the window.
“Yeah. We are. See that fish thing?”
He pointed to the black stakes of the Cora Bell.
“That’s a weir,” I told him.
“It’s for catching herring. Each one has a name. That’s the Cora Bell.”
It was news to him. How could a local kid not know such a basic fact about his home?
Many islanders complain that they’re losing their heritage. when yet another old house or sardine carrier is smashed apart to make way for progress. Something once necessary to the place is no longer. Traditional fisheries were owner operated, small-scale, sustained with family labor and investment. “Traditional” fishery in Canada means owner-operated. And that means work that has dignity and meaning, shared responsibility for resources and shared suffering at their diminishment. Now fish stocks are depleted, waters warming, and salmon farming taking over the weir sites. Cooke Aquaculture runs the show, a corporation that operates fish farms in Canada, the U.S., Chile, Scotland and Spain. Cooke’s calls itself “a family of companies,” a nod to the family-based fisheries heritage that it helps to erase.
“What’s going to happen to us?” an island friend asked one day after we’d waded into these waters of lament. “We’ve always just lived our lives here. We’ve never had to think about it.”
The lobsters didn’t have to think about it either, when they moved north, drawn to colder waters. Their move was good news for the economy in the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy, bad news for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Current thinking says there are three reasons why lobsters are booming in the region. First, they like cold water and the habitat here remains hospitably cold. Second, many of the ground fish are gone from the bay—haddock and pollock and cod that were plentiful have been fished out. That means there is less predation on young lobsters insuring greater reproductive success. Third, with the lobster industry booming, more and more traps are set loaded with bait, offering constantly replenished feed stations for the young ones, who enter the trap, have a meal, and exit through the opening left to allow youngsters to go free until they are legal size for capture. So, it’s gold rush for lobsters in the northern waters and gold rush for the fishermen who catch them, millions of dollars’ worth hauled up and stored in state-of-the-art tank houses to be sold when market conditions are optimal.
Tank houses, huge climate controlled warehouses with metal siding, have replaced the old timber-built lobster pounds along the shore. Bigger and bigger lobster boats are laying out longer and longer trawl lines of traps. Digital marketing sends many of the biggest and best lobsters to China, which has an insatiable appetite for them. They use the giant ones, ten and twenty pounders that may be fifty years old, as centerpieces at banquets. Tank houses store hundreds of thousands of tubed lobsters in a grid of plastic condos flooded with seawater kept at temperatures just above freezing. In a torpid state, each lobster sleeps in its little tube, metabolism slowed down so that it will not molt, keeping the flesh firm and fresh for up to six months. Tank houses are crisp, clean facilities, the chemistry and temperature computer monitored and back-up generators at the ready in the event of power failure. The old lobster pounds built in water along the shore led to more loss. The water grew polluted and lobsters tore into each other, as is their cannibalistic manner in confinement. Tank houses have turned what was basically a hunter-gatherer fishery into an agro-industrial business. Technology has risen to meet the voraciousness of the marketplace. Grand Mananers have always been wily and pragmatic about adapting to change and getting themselves a good perch in the commercial market.
After two years of a wildly high lobster ride, the island felt the catch slacken in 2017. And at the start of the 2018 season, the catch was down and the seas rougher than ever. Still crews go out in all weather conditions, haul up the traps while the swell heaves the boat and waves slosh the deck. Twelve, eighteen, twenty hour shifts. Many crew members stoke up their staying power with performance-enhancing drugs. Coffee. Weed. Speed. Cocaine. And when they get back home, their backs and shoulders and knees beat to hell from heaving the wire-mesh traps, there’s beer or oxy or heroin. The fishermen, and now some women, work through the winter when waters rile. Plenty of them get seasick. That doesn’t stop them.
“What do you do?” I ask.
“You puke and then haul another trap. You puke again. Then you haul.”
Herring? There hasn’t been much to celebrate for the past decade. There are plenty of herring in the North Atlantic, but no one seems sure where they are, even the deep-water seiners that can chase the fish down. A few islanders continue to build weirs. I think they do so out of love more than hope. Every day before sunrise a weirman motors out to check his weir. He goes with the tide, one day heading out at 4 AM, then an hour later each day. He heads out of the harbour, rounds the lighthouse, leaves the other boats behind, and motors along the wild and quiet backside of the island, basaltic cliffs shooting straight up to spruce forest. He knows the currents and eddies he will meet and just where he will meet them. The swell may be gentle, but always the sea is alive with motion, as if a breathing animal beneath the hull were carrying him along. It’s the best part of his day, the morning’s rosy glow spilling over the water like a blessing, gulls and shearwaters following his wake or perhaps ignoring him as they have other business to attend to.
The Stone Weirs. Photographs by Peter Cunningham
"Go to the end of Shiloh Lane at low tide.” That’s what Russell Ingalls told me when I asked about stone weirs. He wasn’t sure when they had been built or who built them, but the remnants remain. He and his brothers and their sons continue the family line of work, as does his father now pushing 90. Herring, lobsters, sea eggs (sea urchins sold at Christmas to the Japanese), scallops. Each in its season. Russell also runs whale-watching and bird-watching tours and tends the Bowdoin Scientific Research Station on nearby Kent Island.
I joined Russell and his brother David for a circumnavigation of the island. I wanted to look for weir sites that we could identify, checking against the list of the 86 weirs marked on 1939 map made by Buchanan Charles as a fund raiser for the Grand Manan Historical Society. The Ingalls brothers knew just about every site listed, though mostly we saw empty water where the weirs had been. In a few sites we saw old weir stakes blackened by the sea slowly giving in to water’s eroding force—ghost weirs I call them. There used to be a herring weir every thousand feet all around the island. They told me that fishermen could navigate by weirs in dense fog.
There had been three just off the sand beach in Seal Cove: Seattle at the inside corner, Hawk further along, and Coon in the middle. A few water-blackened stakes from Coon are still standing. David remembers the Coon being built when he was eight or ten years old. He loved the sound of the driver setting stakes. The delay as the sound traveled fascinated him. Hawk, down by the Red Point geologic contact, has been gone since the 1960s. His grandfather built it. When he was in university, David wrote a paper and drew a map on the weirs. What I’d give to see that now—such a document of historical merit for this community.
“Coon wasn’t a very good weir. Seattle would get all the fish.”
I made hasty notes on the Island Bound as they talked me through the history, not wanting to miss any nugget of information. More than information, their knowledge was steeped in the experience of having worked for their whole lives on these waters.
--A good run in the 1940s and 50s, though slower during the war as men were taken overseas.
--1954 was a Hake year. Hake are aggressive feeders. Herring are terrified of them and run towards shore.
--The Admiral Hector had two bunts—only possible where the bottom is flat. The inside bunt was abandoned first.
--Turnip Patch just off the Long Pond sand beach was listed on the map. Rebuilt in the last two years after being down for fifty years.
--Sonny had stood off Wood Island; Goose close to the Good Luck.
--“Good Luck gets the herring. We get shit.”
--Red Cross was among twenty-five in and around Seal Cove. Dolphin. Teaser. Admiral, Imperial. Bread and Butter. Nubble. Jack Tar. Pat’s Cove. Toe Jam. King George. Hardwood Cover. Shag Rock. Oatmeal.
--Some guys just carried a watch not a compass or used “three cigarettes” was a measure of distance. There were four weirs along the Ross Island Shore. Two low water weirs in Grand Harbour—one stone weirs you can see at low tide. It’s a square. Go down to the end of Shiloh Lane. That was the original method. There was one at Three Islands until 1961. They went in at low tide and gathered fish into carts.
--There are super weirs, Mumps and Pat’s Cove. Brown Bread & Beans. They could close off the whole of Pettes’s Cove and get a very large harvest. Used to be a weir below the campground in North Head. Gone. Another at the point. Gone. Hardkeepers. Storms demolished them.
--Challenge had been torn out by jelly fish. They drift in on the tide, block the twine, until it falls down from their weight.
--Some guys tried to build a herring trap at Beal’s Eddy, lugged rock all summer long. Was that 80 or 100 years ago?
--“They had herring scales in the eyes. They were brilliant just to survive.”
--Money Cove, a very lucrative weir with a pound, a “kingfisher.”
--Some guys tried to build a steel weir. Pipe Dream. The steel pipes broke off. Couldn’t take the weather. They rebuilt it with Doug fir stakes 80 feet long. That’s what brought giant leopard slugs to the island from the Pacific Northwest. Actual name was Ladders.
--Stakes appeared on the western side of Nantucket Island. That may have been Hencalm. By the end of the day circumnavigating Grand Manan, we clocked eleven weirs operating 2016:
As word got out that I was interested in stone weirs, texts and Facebook messages rolled in.
“I think there’s one on Nantucket,” wrote Wayne, who’d gone there to pick periwinkles.
“Maybe there’s one off the beach in Castalia,” said Elton. “Could that be one in Whale Cove?”
Barry Russell reported, “They were all over Cow Passage. Used to be hard to get a boat through there, there were so many. They’d take out the dories, let them bottom out at low tide, fill them with fish and wait for the water to come back to row them ashore.”
Once you started looking, the stone weirs were everywhere. And so were the Atlantic herring for two-hundred years of the island’s industry. Whether the herring swam into the weirs or not, their migratory urgency drove them into spawning grounds in the Bay of Fundy. This was their territory long before it had become a fishery.
In John Hay’s The Run, his beautiful book on alewives, anadromous cousins of herring that run from ocean to river for spawning, he wrote that the sight of migrating shoals captivated the imagination of other species. Sometimes a little perch or sunfish would follow along the shoals of alewives: “These motions must be catching, communicating to other lives and races than those in which they originate. All have their way stations, or orbits, along a route that is being followed with primal grace and power.” Alewives had even gotten into the water supply of New York City apartments after the Kensico reservoir was built up the Hudson River. The New York Aquarium had investigated complaints of fish coming out of faucets. They found that landlocked alewives had spawned in the reservoir and their tiny offspring had been so eager to follow the migratory imperative of their ocean ancestors that they slipped through the 5/8-inch mesh of screens at the reservoir outlet and shot through the pipes all the way to Manhattan.
"Go to the end of Shiloh Lane at low tide.” Alder and hardhack scrub leaned into the lane, the smell of fallen apples, cidery ferment and funk, slipped into my car window. Maple and birch leaves still hung on, but crab apples were rotting to seed. Deer had come out of the woods at night to feast on pungent fruit, their hoof prints cut into muddy tire tracks. The lane dead ended at the water, two sheds, one built onto a small pier, one planted on land. All quiet. Small pre-fab ranch house. No dogs in the yard. A van and pickup parked side by side in tall grass. Flat tires. A large rusted boiler had become a breakwater to sturdy the shore against tides, relic from the long-gone lobster canning factory in this harbor. The shore line on a fishing island is a landscape of work. Lobster traps made of plastic-clad wire were piled behind the shed, more stacked on the lip of the wharf. Like the vehicles, the gear looked like it had not been put to work for a season or two--none of the orderly care given to coiling ropes just so, tidying up the parlor and kitchen of the trap.
Grand Harbour is a wide and shallow bowl—more like a plate than bowl—in the middle of Grand Manan’s eastern shore. It was a major port during the sailing ship era, though the larger vessels could not safely enter the harbor without grounding. They had to moor and launch smaller boats to come shore. A hundred years ago the harbor would have been bustling with skiffs and dories, curing and smoking sheds, no end of work sheds and wharves stacked with wooden lobster traps, the lighthouse at Fish Fluke Point guiding mariners away from hazards obscured by fog. All of that industry is gone. Even the lighthouse has fallen to ruin. The quiet harbour stretches out, silky ripples stirring its surface.
The tide was low when I arrived--among the biggest tides of the year, that happen when the moon is closest to Earth in its elliptical orbit and lined up with the sun, sun and moon pulling together on the seas. Spring tides. Mud flats ringed the harbour below the rockweed line, a slight slope extending where water had drained from the land. Mud, mud, mud. A few barnacled rocks. I stood at the shore, scanning, hand to forehead to shield the falling sun, scanning for any sign of a stone construction.
The red pick-up slid up behind me—a monster truck like the ones most men on the island drive. For F-150 or Ram. Salty-haired driver, white t-shirt, window rolled down, gave me a quizzical look. I stepped up to the window.
“Sorry to barge in. I’ve been looking for the old weir sites. Russell Ingalls told me there was a stone weir around here. People look at me like I’m crazy when I say that. What do you think?”
“It’s here.” He nodded with a hint of a smile, introduced himself as Burtis Green, got out of the truck and pointed southeastward down the shore.
“See that rock and line of rockweed? That’s the fence. You can see the whole ring when the tide’s out.” He scanned the shoreline. “Coming flood now. Come back tomorrow at low tide and you’ll see it. You can take some good pictures. I’ll be down there picking wrinkles.”
Rocks and rockweed. That’s all I saw. But one ridge of rockweed seemed to run in too straight a line to be natural. Archaeologists say look for straight lines if you want to find something manmade. Nature doesn’t do straight lines.
We settled into conversation. He’d sold his boat last year, wasn’t feeling well and thought he’d better make provisions for his kids. He’s better now, picking dulse and periwinkles. Not for the money. He just likes being out here. The sweep of an arm says where. Open water, open sky. Geese feeding in the eel grass. Gulls gathering for their talk.
He said, “The geese tell me when the tide’s coming back in, tell me to get out of there.” He laughs. “Of course, that’s probably not what they’re saying, but I like to think they are.”
“Used to be a lobster factory here.” He has a photo of it. “Ought to give it to the museum, but not ready to. I’ll bring it down tomorrow, so you can take a picture of it.”
He’d fallen off his roof one day. In a body cast for months. Doctor said he’d never fish again. Day the cast came off, he was fishing. Started working when he was twelve-and-a-half. Worked at a fish stand, staking herring and loading them on the herring horse to carry to the spoke stand. Married at seventeen. He knew it sounded like a hard life, and I might look down on him for it.
“Wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else.”
The talk flowed. A man at peace with his life and his work and his place. Matters worth sharing with a stranger. He undersoond that such equanimity with one’s fate was rare. He wore blackwatch-plaid pajama pants and slippers. The clean white t-shirt thrown on to make himself presentable, I imagine. I’d disturbed him from a nap or TV, while he was waiting for the tide to be right.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. I won’t bother you if you’re working.”
“I’ll throw wrinkles at you if you do.” Big smile. Warmth going both ways.
According to the Dictionary of Archaeology, the earliest fish traps date from 8000 years ago in Denmark and the Netherlands. Others have turned up near Moscow dating from 7500 years ago. A stonewalled fishtrap for catching eels was built 6600 years ago at Lake Condah in Australia, according to radiocarbon dates from the excavations. Japan’s earliest weirs date back about 4000 years, when hunter-gatherer society was becoming agrarian. A stone weir is part of the Band e-Dukhtar irrigation works of the Persian Empire from 2500 years ago. In North America the oldest fish weir may be the Sebasticook Fish Weir in central Maine, where a stake was carbon-dated to 5770 years ago. In 2014, archaeologists used an unmanned robotic vehicle to explore what may be the earliest evidence of human habitation in Canada. Dating to 13,800 years ago, under four-hundred feet of water in the Hecate Strait off the coast of British Columbia, they found what appears to be a fish weir, probably for corralling salmon. The area would have been dry land 14,000 years ago when water was bound up during the last great Ice Age.
Maliseet and Passamaquoddy people along the Atlantic coast built fish traps on rivers and shut-off weirs in coves long before the European arrivals. They probably did so for thousands of years. The earliest written record I’ve found of the aboriginal weirs in the region comes from Captain William Pote, an Englishman commanding a merchant vessel heading from Boston to Nova Scotia. He was captured by a Nation of Indians he called “herons” (historical records say Mi’kmaq and Maliseet) in 1745 during the third of four French and Indian (or “Intercolonial”) Wars. England and France were fighting for supremacy in North America over who would gain the wealth to be had in furs and fish. Pote was held captive by the Nation for two years, imprisoned and tortured until his release in 1747. When about to be freed, he gave his journal to a female prisoner “to carry under her petticoats” for safekeeping. On a forced march during his captivity, he tells of the band setting up a brush weir:
This day as we was padling up ye River we pased by a Small Cove and
perceived at ye head of ye Cove, there was Sahnon playing in ye Cool
water, at ye head of ye Cove, we Landed verey Carefully, and Cut Bushes
and Brought them down to ye Entrance of ye Cove, and wile Some of us
was Im-ployed, with perches and our paddles &c. thrashing in ye water,
to hinder the fish from Coming out of ye Cove, Ye others built a ware
across ye Entrance of ye Cove, with Bushes and our Blanketts &c. and
we Caught In this Cove fifty four Salmo[n] which was So Exceptable to
us at that time that I Shall never forget ye joy I was filled with
The band was on the move, so they dried the salmon over fire and carried the jerky along for sustenance as they continued their prolonged march.
I would not want to have lived in those times, but what I’d give to know the manner in which Native and European populations learned from each other about how to reap a life from the land and water. Surely some fishing heritage came with the immigrants who crossed the Atlantic. Surely the indigenous had bountiful knowledge about the methods and materials best suited for fishing in the region. History gives us the woeful story of war, captivity and violence. The stories that were lost in the blood and suffering are the stories of the makers. Surely men and women met on the northeast shores to discuss the migratory patterns of herring and salmon, the brush best suited for building weirs in the streams, how best to dry the fish in foggy weather. Surely such conversations have been ubiquitous in the human story—have been among the reasons to learn one another’s language. I refuse to believe that human history has been made only in the story of conquest. The warmongers, the haters, the oppressors, keep unmaking the world. I wish some anthropologist would write A Maker’s History of the World.
Moses Henry Perley was a lawyer, naturalist, entrepreneur, and surveyor in colonial New Brunswick who traveled extensively in the province to study ocean and river fisheries. He covered over 900 miles, 500 of them by canoe. In 1851, he published his Report Upon the Fisheries of the Bay of Fundy, with a section on Grand Manan that makes for lively reading. He circumnavigated the island, documenting fishing practices in remarkable detail and recounting a contentious meeting held with sixty fishermen to discuss his findings and make recommendations for improving the success of island fishermen. The Bay of Fundy, he wrote, was for fishes “a favorite place of resort where is food in abundance.” Cod, Pollack [his spelling], hake and herring made up the bounty. He found in Cameron’s Cove (now “Pettes’s Cove”) one J. B. Pettes, an American citizen, who had set up a retail fish operation “purchasing green fish” and curing them on the premises. Perley didn’t like what he saw.
At day-break, the fishing boats returned to shore, when the fish were thrown out upon the beach with a pitchfork. Soon after sunrise, the
newly-caught Hake were lying on the gravel beach, sweltering under
the heat. There were no splitting tables, as in a well-conducted establishment, but the fishermen set up pieces of board upon the open
beach in a temporary manner, on which the fish were split; they could
not be said to be cleaned, as no water was used in the operation. The heads and entrails were separated from the bodies of the fish, which,
being split in a clumsy manner, with uncommonly bad knives, were thrown down on the gravel; thence they were carried off on hand barrows, upon which they were tossed in a heap, three or four at a time, with pitchforks. From the barrows the fish were pitchforked onto the scale to be weighed; from the scale they were again pitchforked upon the barrows; and being carried off to the pickling casks, were once more pitchforked into the pickle; by this time the fish were perforated in all directions, and looked little better than a mass of blood and dirt.
Perley reported boats off Long Island with torches flaring off their bows for driving herring. This small offshore island of Grand Manan had only one resident, a Mr. Ingersoll. About forty fishermen from Nova Scotia were encamped there with thirteen boats. What fish they caught were sold to Grand Manan for processing. At “Bencraft’s Point” Perley found three large brush weirs and a fourth being built. Weirs so filled the channel, he wrote, that it was somewhat difficult to navigate among them. Tiny High Duck Island had a warehouse, two fish stores and two large smoke houses. In 1849, they packed 5000 boxes of smoked herring. In 1850 only 175.
At the entrance to Grand Harbour, Perley learned, it was customary for two men to take seven or eight quintals (hundred-weight) of cod in a day, but in 1851 there was no line fishing there. Perley concluded that the shoals of small herring, on which the ground fish feed, had been destroyed by brush weirs. Peaks and troughs, boom and bust. The rhythm of fishing. Lobsters were so plentiful in Grand Harbour, that Perley’s crew could take all they wanted with a gaff in two or four feet of water lying over the mud flats. All in all, Perley reported twenty-seven herring weirs around the island built in shallow water with several more under construction.
Perley found much to critique in the island’s fishing practices. No regulations nor even the pretense of regulations. “Every man cured and packed his fish as he pleased.” Dull knives. Filthy beaches and work sheds. Gurry thrown anywhere and everywhere fouling the waters. Fish put into the pickle with blood and dirt and slime and extra salt added—“a bushel of salt being used for each quintal of fish; every effort appears to be used to make the fish weigh as heavily as possible.” He found the smokehouses insufficiently ventilated, the fires made too near the fish, locals at war with non-residents who came to fish “usurping a privilege” that they saw properly belonging to islanders. In 1849, there were “one hundred or more” fishing vessels working off Southern Head. Boats with old scythes attached to their bottoms were rowed swiftly among the nets to destroy the competition.
Already in 1849, warnings rose among the island’s settlers. Perley reported: “The fishery, they said, was continually falling off, and would eventually be destroyed, from the reckless manner in which it was prosecuted, and the place being over-fished.” Within six weeks of publication, Perley’s report spurred the New Brunswick legislature to pass a law banning fishing of herring on the Southern Head spawning grounds between the fifteenth of July and the fifteenth of October. Perley also introduced islanders to “excellent Sheffield knives used for splitting and dressing fish in the Bay of Baleur” and “long-shanked hake-hooks used by Jersey fishermen, which are very superior, for that fishery.”
I waited on the rocky shore for the tide to empty. Some crows in conversation. Gull squawk. Gray immatures working the tideline. Not much to eat in the bay that summer. Some gulls starving. Puffins too on their nesting island. Few herring. Lots of butterfish, too big for the nestlings to eat.
Across the harbour, the collapsed lighthouse at Fish Fluke Point offered bleak testimony to the erasures of time and neglect. Under foot, barnacled rock. Periwinkles scattered thick. Rockweed black-green at the base where attached to shore with longer fronds of greenish-gold swayed in high tide and lay flat at low. Three wrinklers had already begun picking on the far shore, though the tide had yet to hit low. They looked tiny clomping over the rocky shore to pluck snails into their buckets. Burtis arrived on his buggy to meet me. He too was on his way to go wrinkling. White t-shirt and jeans. Warm, tanned face of a man who works outdoors, a face that said something good about neighborliness.
He showed me where he used to work at the fish stand. Pointed across the harbour. Over there. No wheels on the herring horses in those days. Men were the horses. Men were the diesel engines. A weirman once told me that in those days it took six to eight men to work a pile driver, “running the whip” to raise the pig for pounding weir stakes into the ocean floor. It was, he said, “a hard day at the office.”
“See that?” He pointed to a line of rockweed covered stones. “That’s what we call the fence.” He pointed to the high point on the beach, a seam of rocks sloping down off a ledge, low point descending into the water. It looked like Andy Goldsworthy’s “Storm King Wall,” a sculpture disappearing into nothingness.
“That’s the center fence. This one isn’t in the center and the weir doesn’t have a mouth. The fish swim in at high tide. Then they close the gap on the side and at low tide haul the fish out with carts.”
He’d brought the photograph of the lobster caning factory that used to stand on this shore.
“It’s on the front seat of the truck. Take a picture then lock the truck.”
Like most islanders, he loves the past, the hard work of his ancestors, shared memory that lends meaning to his days. People look to family history for a sense of continuity. Continuity sits in places. We shared that love.
“I wish the old people could take a spool of all they know out of their heads,” he said, shaking his head at incomprehensible loss.
He headed off, four-wheeler jouncing along the weedy meadow at the top of the beach.
I stood waiting, squinting at the water’s glare as tide receded. One minute a watery plate serves up its reflections. The next minute rock cobble and mud flats lie drying in the sun. Lowest tide for the year. Lowest tide in 18 years. The seam of rock—each about the size a man could carry with effort in his arms--ran down toward the sea extending into a line that drew a square about the size of one-car garage. A two-foot gap stood on the seaward side. It was not really a stone wall, rather a collapsed rubble about three feet wide that defined the shape. The shape the stones made was like a flag on a flag pole. No nation to claim it but the nation of work, the nation of makers, who labored here in the days when herring, stemming the tide, raced into the harbour, a mass as numerous and unified as a murmuration of starlings.
Perley wrote about the kind of ballasted weirs he saw during his 1849 visit. The bottom of this weir is composed of framed timber of large size, sunk in about six feet of water at low tide, and ballasted with large stones of a ton or more in weight. Above the strong frame work which forms the bottom of the weir, there is the usual light wicker-work of poles with twigs interlaced, sufficient to retain the timid Herrings, but altogether unfit to retain other small fish of bolder character. The Herrings will no go out of a weir unless the opening is of large size, while all other fish will dash and struggle through any opening sufficient for their passage, even with much squeezing.
This method of building weirs with woven brush served well in the early days of Grand Manan’s herring fishery, before pile drivers made it possible to move the weirs into deeper water offshore and in places where the tide was so strong it would collapse the nets. The ghosts of these structures appear at the year’s lowest tides: rings of stone with stories to tell. Historic engravings made from photographs by T. W. Smilie for the United States Commission on Fish and Fisheries are available through the Smithsonian Institution that show a variety of brush weir structures used near Eastport, Maine in 1887. It’s safe to assume these images represent methods used on Grand Manan at the time. A cribwork of stout saplings holds the stones in place. Leafy brush, a material that sufficed for twine, was woven into two or three horizontal bands ringing the weir, top brush with leaves pointing upward and bottom brush with leaves pointing downward.
That’s it. Stones, saplings and brush, materials upon which a community was built that became the Sardine Capital of the World. It makes for a bizarre kind of joy to see the stones slowly reveal themselves as the tide recedes, like the unveiling of a lost work of art or the discovery of an archaeological ruin. I walk the perimeter of stones, filled with a bounty that has left us, but feeling its presence as an echo of the great inventive spirit of those makers, feeling too their depth of learning from their place, reading the rhythm of tides and moon, the habits of hake and herring, and what the rocky forest might contribute without complaint.
alison hawthorne deming
is the author of five books of poetry and five of nonfiction. This essay is from her forthcoming Lament for the Makers, which was her Guggenheim Fellowship project. She is Regents Professor in Creative Writing and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona.