Like everyone else in New England, we have a romantic ache for the New England coast: more specifically, for New England islands. We have investigated, in addition to the larger ones popular with New York psychoanalysts, a number of smaller, more local ones. We have sailed around the Salvages and Straitsmouth, out of Rockport, and rowed the miles to Little Misery and Great Misery—poison ivy plantations, each of them—returning with our curiosity satisfied and hands blistered.
So when a friend offered us the use of his cottage on Baker’s Island, Massachusetts, last summer, we were delighted. Here was a local, habitable island, small and accessible.
Baker’s Island, lying off the to North Shore, when imagined, heard about, held in the mind, seems too good to be true. It is one of the small group of islands seen from Manchester, Marblehead, Beverly, and Salem, lying at the mouth of Salem Harbor, surrounded by the blue-green, deeply cold water of that area. It is a small craggy outcropping of rock on which there is a Coast Guard station, and on clear days it looms austerely in the cold blue haze. There are no cars on the island—and no roads. Instead, the terrain is one of meadows: sweet clover, wild roses, and timothy, with paths mown through the meadows running across the island, around it, and to particular scenic points along the shoreline. A small number of families maintain summer residences. In association, they run a ferry to Baker’s Island out of Salem: the ferry travels just in the summer. Only the Coast Guard is there the other three seasons of the year, during which the northeasters smash against the empty houses. Yes, there is poison ivy on Baker’s Island, but it is so outdone by the other pleasures of the island in summer as to seem almost selfeffacing.
We took the ferry from the Salem Willows Amusement Park one summer evening, after a drive to Salem through a heavy rainstorm, past the pizza parlors, Dairy Queen stands, drive-ins, used-car and stolen-car and new-car and auto-parts and foreign-car and junk-car lots that litter Route 1 North. Then we waited on the dock in the rain, inhaling the aura of fried clams, grease, damp bathrooms, and northeast wind that pervades boat landings.
On the charts, Baker’s Island seems to lie about four miles out of Salem. Less than halfway there on the ferry, mesmerized by the water, we noticed ahead of us a turgid, wide brown ribbon.
“What’s that?” we asked.
“Oh, that,” said the skipper of the boat, “that’s sewage,”
The other passengers, regulars on the boat, concurred. A few casual murmurs of “something ought to be done,” and then passengers turned back to other diversions.
Halfway out of Salem, sewage pours into the ocean, streaming for miles, to be dispersed back onto the North Shore, onto the beaches of Beverly and Salem and Lynn, Marblehead and Manchester, and as far up as Gloucester: a slimy thick track, brownish with half-dissolved turds and industrial refuse.
“There’s a pipe that comes up somewhere around here,” the skipper, a high school boy, told us.
We were through the main flow of the sewage in twenty minutes, but the water continued to include suspicious brown flakes and particles.
“Don’t the towns realize . . . ?”
“No, they try to hush it up. A lot of it comes up from Boston, too.”
We knew. We had tried boating in Boston Harbor.
“Often it’s worse than this. Some days when the wind blows wrong, you don’t even dare go near the beaches.”
The sun came out as we arrived at the island, and then proceeded to set splendidly. The meadows were fresh and sweet from the rain, the small white houses intimate with the sounds of supper cooking.
When the next day dawned, a heavy fog had rolled in, alternating with patches of sun. The rocks, which had been outlines the evening before, were gray and magnificent. From all points one could see the ocean; there were huge boulders along the shore and extending out. The water thrown up against them was a yellow-brown.
The coves of Baker’s Island are perfect shelters for sewage. We saw the same brown stream of gunk in the water, trapped and being thrown onto the shore. The sewage from Salem Harbor obviously accumulates at harbors and islands, trapped for days and lying sluggishly on the surface of the water. When we asked residents of the island about the sewage problem, they merely shrugged, saving they didn’t swim there anyway, so what did it matter. There seemed to be an attitude of hopelessness—what does the fate of a small island matter when compared with the sewage disposal of a metropolis?
Baker’s Island is small, and privacy is a problem. We searched for a place to ourselves. Facing due east, out toward the open ocean, was a cove in which wild roses grew. We looked down. There, in the mouth of the cove, lay an old wrecked automobile on its back. Pieces of rusty metal washed against the shore, nor could the action of die waves move the carcass off the rocks. Obviously, there had once been a car on Baker’s Island. And seeking the most obvious disposal method, someone had merely pushed it over the side. Now, like a giant cockroach, its overturned and rusted chassis shifted in the water.
We continued further on around the island to a point of rocks. We walked out, found a small shelter, and the sun obliged by coming out briefly. For a peaceful half hour we let ourselves be soothed and hypnotized by the foaming water. Suddenly our reverie was interrupted by a loud series of splashes, bangs, clinks, and clanks. We jumped up and looked around. Along the cliff a line of white-haired family men was advancing with bushel baskets and garbage cans. Bang! Splash! The daily island toll of refuse was being heaved over. Milk cartons, bottles, sardine tins, beer cans, and soda-pop containers went into the water.
“Just emptying the garbage!” a man called to us cheerily as he staggered up to the water with his bushel basket, dumping it and then coming hack to dump another, He was replaced by another man.
“Do all the residents do this?” we asked.
“Sure. Why not?”
We left the point. A few small children were wading near the ferry landing. In the water, the garbage of Baker’s Island, indestructible and inedible containers and trash, humped and floated despondently against the rocks. They mingled with the brown lumps and wisps of sewage, trapped and abandoned in eddies. Sea gulls that had been circling came down to investigate, were disappointed at the unpalatability of the stuff, and flew away without feeding.