De Piscium Natura

THERE was one woodcut in the primary geography which alone was well worth the price of the book, and that was “Indians spearing Salmon.” There were other woodcuts of decided merit; exempli gratia, the view of a “ civilized and enlightened ” nation, wherein a severely stiff gentleman is taking off his bell-crowned hat to a short-waisted lady in a coal-scuttle bonnet. But “ Indians spearing Salmon ” was a great deal better. Two of them there were, with not much clothing save a spear, wherewith they were threatening certain fishes that, like animated shoe-soles, were springing nimbly against a waterfall. An almost mythical romance overspread the scene ; for Indians and Salmon are long since lost to us, and only a vanishing form of them still lingers in the half-breeds and the sea-trout of Marshpee, just as the alligator now brings to mind the great fossil saurians he so degenerately represents. Yet our woodcut is not at all mythical, but really historical. Does not excellent Gookin inform us of the notable “ fishing-place ” at Wamesit, where Reverendus Eliot “spread the net of the Gospel” to fish for the souls of the poor Indian pagans? Alas! all this is replaced by the High Honorable Locks and Canals Company, and the turbine and other not easily understood water-wheels, of Lowell. Not that we have anything against the High Honorable, the only old-fashioned corporation we know of that invites official persons to dine, — a praiseworthy custom, followed not even by the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Office ; although some of the insurance companies keep crackers, and others ginger-nuts, whereby certain worthy old gentlemen, who have not more than a million, or, at the outside, a million and a half, make a clear daily saving (Sundays excepted) in the matter of luncheon. Rut the High Honorable gives you a real dinner chez mine host Mr. T., no less a man than the discoverer and owner of the celebrated “ Blackhawk,” — and yet so little puffed up by this distinction, that, with his proper hands, he will bring in the breaded pigs’ feet for which his house is noted. Also he has invented a safe, which, like the Union Deposit Vaults, is to be forced nec igne nec ferro; for, being asked how he secured the Oleroso Sherry of the High Honorable, he replied that it was in a place where no harm ever could come to it, — to wit, under his bed. Is it not a pity he cannot serve a Salmon taken in its season, glittering, from Pawtucket Falls?

When the apple-trees of our thrifty forefathers were bursting into blossom on the banks of the Merrimack, and the land was furrowed for the corn and the pumpkins, and the pleasant river itself was running swift and full, then the great silver Salmon, fresh from the salt water, would leap and tumble as they drove up stream, bound for the cold brooks of the Pemigewasset, or away beyond it to those of Franconia Notch. With them came great battalions of Shad; and hosts of homely Alewives, that forced themselves through every little rivulet as they crowded to their breedihg-ponds. The Shad held soberly to the main stream till they came to the Winnipiseogee River, where they said an revoir to the Salmon, and turned their heads toward the lake. That lake knows them no more, yet there is a fish therein that still is called the Shad-waiter, who perhaps regards his friend as a sort of “ Malbrook,” and who yearly repeats to himself, “ Il reviendra au Pâque ou à la Trinité.” Yes! the two Indians of the woodcut have gone, and their Salmon have gone. We don’t want the Indians back again, but we should like the Salmon ; we should like to stand on the Dracut shore, and hook a twenty-pound fish, without the risk of having our scalp nailed to the gates of the Massachusetts Cotton Mills.

When we asked Mr. Madder Spinney why there were no longer fish in the river, that enterprising mill-owner replied, that it was “owing to the progress of civilization ”; whereupon we were led to wonder, whether, if we should cut all the belting in his mill, Mr. Spinney would say the machinery stopped by reason of the progress of civilization. Spinney junior is getting his education at Harvard, and there he will probably learn enough to understand that the fish were not taken care of, and therefore disappeared. If compelled to write a forensic on the subject, he might get enough information to tell the following sad tale of the destruction of the Autochthonoi.

Less than a century ago people were seized with a beaver-like desire to build dams. They called themselves slackwater companies, — which referred, perhaps, to their finances. These dams bothered the fish, for no way was given to help them over, notwithstanding the old Crown law, and notwithstanding learned decisions, as in Stoughton versus Baker; for the beavers cared not for Crown law, and took no kind of interest in Mr. Stoughton or Mr. Baker. So the Salmon and Shad were diminished, yet not destroyed. Now ingenious gentlemen used to go up to Chelmsford and Dracut, and gaze at the river. Perhaps they considered how slack the water was. At any rate they soon began to resolve great things. If, thought they, a mill-pond will turn a wheel to grind corn, why not also a wheel to spin cotton ? and why not thus spin a great deal of cotton ? So they began ; while the merchants looked on with horror at this prospect of several thousand yards of cloth to be cast, in one vast flood, upon the market.

Next year the sober Shad, making their usual rush at the sloping face of the Pawtucket Falls dam, had a tough thing of it. Some got over, and some had to fall back, all out of breath, and take another run. Never had their dignity been so tried. The fact is, the dam had been raised. It is true the Salmon made nothing of it. The lazy ones went up the sloping part, while the more lively jumped the steeper portions ; and one active fellow, incited by his lady-love, who was peeking over the crest of the fall at him, made such a frantic bound at the “ corner,” that he threw himself ten feet out of water, and came down, slosh, in the mill-pond above, to the delight of the females, though his own sex said anybody could do it who chose to try. The fishermen looked with apprehension on these increasing difficulties, and threatened to pull the dam down ; but the gentlemen, from being ingenious, as aforesaid, now became defiant, and expressed themselves to this effect, namely, that they should like to see the fishermen do it. This was sarcasm ; and though Whately says sarcasm should be used sparingly, in this instance the effect was good, and the dam remained.

By this time, what with seines, pots, dip-nets, spears, hooks, dams, and mills, the fisheries were in a poor way ; and the old New Hampshire lady who used to spear Salmon with a pitchfork could do so no more. The fishes whimpered, and would have whimpered much more had they known what was coming.

Certain Pentakosiomedimnoi of Athens determined to put a hotbed of manufactures in a corner of Andover, on the Merrimack, and to grow mills, like early lettuce, all in four weeks. They spoke

“The words that cleft Eildon hills in three,”
“ And bridled the Tweed with a curb of stone ” ;

and, when the Salmon and the Shad came up the next spring, they ran their noses against a granite scarp, twentythree feet high, from whose crest fell a thundering cataract. The Shad rolled up their eyes at it, waggled their tails, and fell down stream to Marston’s Ferry. The Salmon, springing and plunging, eagerly reconnoitred the position from wing to wing. At last one lively grilse cried out : “ Here is a sort of trough coming down from the top ! but it’s awful steep ! ” “ Stand aside,” shouted the hoarse voice of an old male Salmon, whose glorious hooked jaw penetrated his upper lip, and stood out two inches above his nose. And with that he rushed tête baissée against the torrent. An old fisherman who was standing on the abutment suddenly exclaimed: “There was a whopper tried it! He got half-way up ; but it ain’t no kind er use. I told them County Commissioners that the only way they would get fish up that fishway was to hitch a rope to ’em. But they was like all folks that don’t know nothin’,—they thought they knew all about it.”

The Lawrence dam and its noted fishway (constructed “to the satisfaction of the County Commissioners ”) made an end of the Salmon, because they can hatch their eggs only in the mountain brooks; but the Shad could breed in warmer and more turbid waters, and they therefore continued to flourish in a limited sort of way. Time went on. Children who ate of the last shad of New Hampshire waters had grown to man’s estate, and the memory of the diet of their youth seemed to have died within them ; but it slept only. In the year 1865 they rose as one man and as one woman, and cried : “ Give us the flesh-pots of our youth, the Salmon and the Shad, and the Alewife, and the fatness thereof! or we will divert all the waters of the great Lake Winnipiseogee into the Piscataqua, which runs down to the sea over against Portsmouth ! ” These cries came to the ears of the Pentakosiomedimnoi, the High Honorable Locks and Canals, and all the Mandarins of the Red Button that are in and about Franklin Street. They took counsel together. “ Do nothing about it! ” said the Mandarins. “ Pay them,” suggested the Pentakosiomedimnoi. “Dine them — Blackhawk — pigs’ feet,” murmured the High Honorable. Here the echoes seemed to say “ Fishways! ” This was a dreadful word, because to them a fishway (other than that of a County Commissioner) was a big gap to let all the water out of a mill-pond. They appeared in force before the Legislature with a panathenaic chorus.


O honorable Areopagites
Io! Io! —
Zeus the earth-shaker,
Poseidon, heaver of the waves,
Send us water ; —
Hephaistos, the iron-worker,
And his much skilful Kuklops
Give us power :
Do not those wretches who cry
Fish! Fish !
Strive against the immortal Gods?

The Legislature did what everybody ought to do who has any responsibility namely, first, not to assume, said responsibility ; secondly, to gain time ; thirdly, to get somebody else to do the work. The somebody else took on the form of two commissioners, — the very “ official persons ” already referred to. These proceeded to collect information. They cross-questioned the oldest inhabitants, and got crooked answers; they entered into the mysteries of flashboards, and investigated the properties of garancine ; they wandered on the river-banks after the manner of the spotted tatler {Totanus macularius); and at last they made a report only fiftypages long, the brevity of which proved two negative points : first, that the commissioners were not congressmen; and, second, that they had never written for newspapers or for periodicals. Thereupon the Legislature, gratified beyond measure, said: “ Good boys! now work some more. Build some fishways. Breed some fish. And here is a check to pay for it all.” Thus encouraged, the official persons did build fishways, especially a big one at Lawrence in place of the singular trough already referred to. But, when they came to Holyoke, on the Connecticut, the Wooden-Dam-and-Nutmeg Company there dwelling were inclined to the papal aphorism, Non possumus, which is equivalent to Mr. Toodles ’s “ It’s not quite in our line ; and we really can’t.” The fact is, the Nutmegs had a “ charter” which they held to be a sovereign balm for fishways, and which they fulminated against the official persons, as William the Testy fulminated his proclamation against the Yankee onion patches. This, and the high water of that summer, retarded the development of the fishway for the time being ; but meanwhile important incubations were going on just below the dam, — nothing less, indeed, than the hatching of Shad by an artificial method. All this is something to be explained, and deserves a new paragraph.

In the times of the later Roman emperors, to such a pitch had luxury risen, that a mullet was often sold— No! this is a little too bad ; you shall not be bored with dreadful old stories of Heliogabalus and oysters, or of the cruel gourmet with his “in muranas.” Well, then, start once more: In the Middle Ages, when Europe was overshadowed by monkish superstition, the observance of Lent rendered a large supply of fish necessary; fish-ponds were therefore — Oh ! there we go again, more prosy than ever. Come, now, let us get at once to Joseph Rémy. Joseph Réemy, a man of humble station and slight education, but of studious and reflective temperament, was one of those instances, more common in America than abroad, where a man, without the external advantages of culture or of fortune, rises by his own efforts to a welldeserved eminence. He was a—yes, and all that sort of thing. The fact is, Rémy found he could squeeze the eggs out of fishes, and hatch them afterwards ; and so can anybody else who chooses to try, and who will take pains enough. We have had Columbus and the hen’s egg; now we have Rémy and the fish egg. As to the exact manner of hatching fish, is it not written in the report of the Commissioners for this year,2 and in the report of the United States Commissioner of Agriculture for 1866, and in the “Voyages” of Professor Coste, and in five hundred books and papers beside ?

From this fish culture, if we will only make it a real industry in this Commonwealth, may come important additions to our bill of fare. Many things are more pleasant than paying as much as we now do for animal food. Fish, flesh, and fowl are all as dear as dear can be; and, what is worse, they are hard to come at, for our back-country people, during the hot weather. We have two goodly rivers in Massachusetts, and plenty of streams, brooks, ponds, pools, and springs. We cultivate corn and potatoes on the land (and lose money on every bushel); why not cultivate fish in the waters, and make money ? There are two secrets at the foundation of success. First, fishes must be taken from the domain of game, and become property. Secondly, the fishes must be fed for nothing ; and the way to do that is to breed multitudes of herbivorous or of insectivorous fishes to feed the carnivorous fishes, which, in turn, are to feed man. Thus, if you have a thousand Trout, do you breed for their diet a million Shiners; and these will take care of themselves, except in the matter of getting caught by the Trout. So much for domestic culture, — our fish-coop, as we may come to call it. Then, as to the encouragement of migratory sea-fishes, — the Salmon, Sea-trout, Shad, Bass, Alewife, Sturgeon,— if you would have children, you must have a nursery ; if you would have fish, you must extend their breeding-grounds. Open, then, the ten thousand dams that bar our streams, and, with care and patience, these waters will be peopled ; and we, whose mother earth is so barren, will find that mother sea will each year send abundant food into every brook that empties into a stream, that flows into a river, that runs to the ocean.

  1. Those who have studied the useful metrical works of our universities will know that this is an iambic trimeter acatalectic in pyrrichium aut iambum Those who do not know this are to be pitied.
  2. * House Document No. 60 (1868).