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Archive for July, 2009

“…Prayed for the moon to give him light, For he’d many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o.” Unfortunately, he never made it because someone shot him and gave him to my aunt.  She skinned him, tanned him, sewed a bag out of him, and mailed him to me.


Fox skin bag made by my aunt, Signe Toldstrup

Fox skin bag made by my aunt, Signe Toldstrup

I’ve never owned an animal fur.  In my mind furs have mostly been associated with such images as week-old baby harp seals being clubbed to death for fluffy white coats.  My fox-skin bag, I knew, was unlikely to have similarly disturbing origins, but still, a slight uneasiness made me call my aunt for more details.

Apparently, where she lives, disruptions to the ecosystem resulted in an over-abundance of foxes.  The animals got sick and passed illnesses among themselves and to other creatures.  The local government began paying hunters to shoot a portion of the fox population every year, resulting in a better ecological balance and piles of unwanted fox skins.

My aunt was raised on a small farm in Europe during World War II.  One could hardly imagine an upbringing more likely to create a practical, thrifty child, neither sentimental nor squeamish, indeed just the type to look at a golden-brown stack of discarded fox pelts and decide it was high time to learn the traditional arts of skinning and tanning.

So it was that my bag passed its test of moral worthiness, safely endowed with the deep ecological virtue of being made from a resource that would otherwise have been thrown out.  But ironically, to the uninformed eye my bag looked to be something altogether different.  For in our culture, what is a fur jacket, stole or bag, if not a symbol of all that has gone wrong with humankind’s connection to the earth?

The oftentimes needlessly cruel slaughter of baby harp seals for ladies coats is emblematic of our relationship to nature run amok.  We take more than we need.  We kill for vanity and greed rather than for food, tools or shelter.  We kill without respect, without every effort to avoid suffering, and without a duty to make full use of the lives we take.

Isn’t it curious, though, that fur, of all materials, should have come to have these negative associations?  Along with food, there is little more important to our survival on a most elemental level than warm clothing and shelter – which for all but the last little blip of history have been made largely from animal skins.

The great wealth of our society has allowed us to distance ourselves from the real requirements of survival.  We no longer have to rely on using the actual skins of animals to stay warm and we no longer need to look creatures in the eye before we dine on them.

This hands-off connection to the sources of our sustenance contributes to a sentimental view of nature that is not always conducive to protecting it.  We’ve drawn artificial lines between what is wild and everything else.  But our food and clothing still come from somewhere, and that somewhere is still connected to real animals, real soil, real land and real water.

Most cattle in the U.S., for example, are raised in gigantic over-crowded factory farms (called CAFOs, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations).  These farms, if you can call them that, generate prodigious volumes of manure that overwhelm the capacity of nearby farmland to absorb.  Consequently, the manure, which on smaller farms is a much needed fertilizer, becomes a toxic pollutant – contributing significantly to declining water quality throughout the U.S.

Raising beef in this way causes grave harm to the environment and is arguably inhumane for the animals, yet it’s very easy on the squeamish consumer – just unwrap the nicely sealed package, pop it on the grill, and voila, dinner.

Deer hunting, by contrast, makes many of us uncomfortable.  It challenges our romantic vision of cute wild animals roaming the woods and it challenges our idea that the only way to save nature is to enshrine it and leave it alone.

But, if you’re going to eat meat it would be hard to argue that eating beef from a large factory farm is better for the planet (or the animals) than eating venison from a Maine forest.  Likewise, it’s surely better to make bags from foxes that are too numerous to be healthy, than to make bags from nylon or polyester – both petroleum products.

Of course we’re not usually offered such choices.  My point here is simply that if our goal is to protect the environment, there is something to be said for having more intimacy with the natural world and with the materials we take from it.  Restoring this intimacy is one of the great promises of the growing movement to purchase local products.

Understanding a bit about what it takes to grow a carrot on a Merrymeeting Bay farm, harvest a tree from a Richmond wood lot, or raise a lamb on a Brunswick pasture, can only help us come to a better understanding of the bigger environmental issues with which are now faced.

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If you live far enough north you get extra points on the cosmic scoreboard.  At a certain latitude, somewhere between Boston and Maine, the light becomes thin enough, the growing season short enough, and the cold wearying enough, that at the end of the winter, you can rightly say you’ve earned some credit, redeemable in loon calls and beers on golden summer evenings.


Imagine if someday a person writing a column in a Maine newspaper would have to explain what a lobster was, or a chickadee.  Such is the case with this column and the alewife.  In the 1800’s it would have been unimaginable for a Mainer to not be intimately acquainted with this humble fish.


The alewife is a small fish in the herring family and was once the most plentiful sea run fish in Maine, pouring by the millions upon millions, into every single one of the state’s accessible rivers.  Like tourists bringing in money from away to boost the local economy, alewives brought in desperately needed nutrients from the sea to boost the local food supply for both humans and other animals.


Today, alewife runs in Maine are all but gone, largely owing to the number of impassable dams blocking access to spawning grounds.  However, the strongest remaining run in the state, at Damariscotta Mills, is thriving and growing, as the ongoing restoration of the fish ladder there has proved to be highly successful.


Alewives, it turns out, are a keystone species for the entire ecosystem.  They migrate upstream at exactly the same time young salmon smolts migrate downstream, thus providing cover for the baby salmon.  Because alewives far outnumber salmon, predators such as eagles, herons, and osprey, are far more likely to catch an alewife for dinner than a salmon.  Not surprisingly, salmon restoration works far better when alewives are present.


The same can be said for all other native species that have been studied: everyone does better with alewives around, including sport fish such as large- and smallmouth bass and brown trout.  There is also substantial evidence that alewives improve water quality in lakes where they spawn.


Before Hannafords, human communities also relied heavily on alewives for sustenance.  Nothing else appeared on the doorstep in such spectacular profusion with as little labor or risk.  Compare the effort needed to fish for cod on the open sea or grow a field of wheat on Maine’s hardscrabble soil to dipping a net into the water and waiting for alewives to swim in by the barrel full.


About the alewife, an early settler wrote: “It seems to be a sort of fish appropriated by Divine Providence to Americans and most plentifully afforded to them so that remote towns… have barreld y’m up and preserved them all winter for their reliefe.”  Alewives were eaten by the ton, smoked, salted and pickled for winter use; leftovers were turned into fertilizer or bait.  Indeed, so heavily fished were these creatures that laws limiting the catch appeared as early as the 1700’s.


I figured any creature sent by Divine Providence to Maine to feed the hungry should be on my menu at least once.  Thus it was that when I visited Damariscotta Mills a few weeks back to see the annual alewife run, I poked my head into a little shack with the sign: “Alewives caught and smoked on site.”


The building was dark and greasy feeling, filled with an even darker and greasier smell.  Rows of alewives shimmered along the dusky walls, suspended by long wooden skewers run through their gaping jaws.  The view was decidedly unappetizing.  


But these lines of dead fish were offering a challenge to a few of my most cherished commitments: eating locally, eating low on the food chain, and supporting my community.  One could hardly feed a Mainer using fewer of the planet’s resources than by scooping an alewife out of the Damariscotta River.


Ignoring my family hopping up and down in the background and fairly shouting, “Mommy, just buy one!” I purchased a string of ten fish.  As she handed me my bag, the fish lady gave me the following parting words of fishy wisdom, “Cook them in the oven for 15 minutes, rip the heads off, filet down the middle, and eat.”  That seemed to be all the help I was going to get.


Back home, I popped one in the toaster oven.  Black ooze bubbled out and crusted onto the pan.  “What is that smell?” family members mumbled in a worried tone.  The meat turned out to be quite tasty, but we were having a hard time getting past the ambiance to enjoy it.


Why did I have to buy ten?  That puzzled me for a week, as the remaining nine fish sat in the fridge, triple bagged, but still sending rank odiferous tentacles out into the air.  At least there was no danger I’d forget about them.


I couldn’t find any recipes utilizing smoked alewives, so I finally looked up a recipe for sardines.  I cooked the fish and cleaned them (I started by trying to cut their heads off, but the fish lady was right and by the third fish I was ripping away).  I discarded the bones and skin and let the sharp smell clear from the kitchen.  Then I mixed the meat with fresh cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, a touch of mustard and vinegar, and a scoop of mayonnaise.


My husband wandered by and sampled.  “Wow,” he said in amazement, “this is really good.”  And it was.

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