When I reached the age of ten, I was judged old enough to accompany my father on Captain Harold McLaughlin’s 70 foot wooden trawler. By then, I had watched the Marise enter the harbor of refuge at Stonington many times. Protected on three sides by massive granite breakwaters, the port was home to one of Connecticut’s few remaining commercial fishing fleets. You could identify the Marise well on the breakwaters’ seaward side because she was the fleet’s only trawler with parallel masts front and aft instead of a mainmast and a diagonal sprit.
McLaughlin would jockey Marise into position – parallel parking style – next to the Bindloss Dock ice house and unloading site. Then I’d watch crane jaws disappear down into the Marise’s hold and emerge – like a gynecologist’s forceps delivery – cradling wooden barrels of the catch and transferring them into the fish shed on their way to Fulton’s Fish Market in New York.
My mother was responsible for the friendship. Before my father and McLaughlin knew one another we would sometimes tour Stonington as part of a Sunday outing. One day my mother struck up a conversation with Mr. Bindloss, the dock’s owner, and after exchanging pleasantries he offered to give us a tour of his sparkling yacht tied up at the end of the dock. Sensing after a while that my father was more of a fisherman than a yachtsman he offered to introduce him to “the finest damn fisherman in the Northeast” and a lifelong friendship began. Being a skilled carpenter my father pitched into the endless repairs on the hard working trawler and treasured the opportunity of going out on the Marise several times a year in exchange.
For me, trips out on the Marise were a summer highlight. Shaken awake in the 3AM dark I’d doze on the ride to the dock and then rouse to the smell of fish and diesel fuel – the latter giving way to clean ocean air as we left the dock but the former a permanent part of the voyage. McLaughlin would keep the Marise at half speed within the harbor but even below in the galley one knew we’d passed the breakwater as the engine pitch increased and the boat encountered the rhythmic swells of the open Atlantic.
Since it was usual for the boat to encounter them at an angle other than ninety degrees the resultant combinations of pitch, roll and yaw were irresistibly soporific- up and down, side to side, speeding down and forward , slowing and sliding back – movements mirroring those our womb-borne primate predecessors must have experienced as their mothers brachiated from branch to branch. I’d sleep again until another sudden change in engine speed signaled we’d reached the fishing grounds.
Up on deck and firmly advised to stay out of the way I’d watch the set. As the Marise crept forward in a gentle arc, the heap of tarred twine net piled astern was hand fed overboard by the one man crew. Then as her speed increased, the chains connecting the still floating net to two huge oaken “doors” tightened, the doors lifted up and over the sides and the huge drums holding the steel cables attached to them began to unspool. It was at that point that the interface was breached – the doors splashed beneath the sea’s surface and, dragging the net down behind them, disappeared.
Their descent and disappearance was magical and would send my imagination into high gear. What was it like on the way down – light dimming and pressure mounting as the doors, affixed on a tilt, drew open the nets entrance, the air-filled floats holding the top edge up, the leads and chains pulling the bottom edge down and the giant maw beginning to swallow fish even on the descent. What was it like as the chains finally hit the bottom and were dragged like the edge of a giant hoe along the sea floor scooping up bottom-dwellers like flounder, crab, whelk and lobster; bushels of kelp; small boulders and the occasional upperworldly oddity like a boot or World War II shell casing? What was it like to be a finfish suddenly finding itself crowded with thousands of others along with the occasional shark and ray into the bag at the net’s cod end ? Was there fear, panic or just a reflexive impulse to swim away. And what did it sound like; were there shrieks of despair and cries of desperation? Did the fish moan in pain at the end of the drag as the net was pulled upwards, water pressure fell and swim bladders burst?
Interfaces do that – they get your imagination going. It’s the mystery of it. Much of the time they represent inaccessibility. Like crime scene tape. Or gated estates. Or the event horizons of black holes. You can’t help but wonder what’s going on on the other side.
Sometimes I’d slip back to age six or seven and become the skipper of an airborne trawler dragging its nets across farms and forests, the net’s chain-bottom edge uprooting trees and corn and outbuildings and along the way collecting rabbits and raccoons and packing them in with the occasional bobcat at the cod end and leaving behind a tornado-like swath of devastation. As their homes exploded into splintered clapboards on the net’s ground-scouring weighted edge did mothers grab their children and run desperately forward, though hardly fast enough to escape?
Not a happy picture at all, but when you think about it a pretty accurate reflection of what we’ve been doing to the ocean environment for decades. Little wonder fish populations have crashed.
The most daunting interface, the most forbidding one – unbreachable, actually – and one readily overlooked is one for which we don’t even have a proper word. Ego, identity, sense of self, consciousness, I-ness: they all circle the target but miss the mark. None connotes the unbreachability of the border separating us from everybody and every thing else – everything in the universe! A person who is colorblind can’t even know what a fire engine looks like to someone with full color vision any more than we can ever really know what an other person thinks, let alone what a bat thinks or, God forbid, what or even if a galaxy thinks.
Renee Descartes observed that “I think, therefore I am” thereby setting off a couple of centuries of speculation that since one’s “I”ness is the only thing one can be certain of then everything else might simply be a hallucination. Thomas Nagel took on a followup question posed by his famous essay “What is it like to be a bat?” and ended up answering with a resounding “it’s impossible to know!” And just recently British author, historian and birder Richard Smyth in his book A Sweet Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing reminds us that although bird song is given meaning in poetry, literature, film and music it is always the meaning which we and not the birds attribute to it.
We may strive mightily to bridge the gap, to fully connect with an “other”. We may guess that we connect. We may pretend. But let us be honest. The gulf, even between I and the most cherished and intimate Thou, remains.
In spite of the present apparent inaccessibility of any mind-entity other than our own, I can’t imagine that bats think nothing, that they have nothing resembling our mind, that behind that furry face dipping and diving and uttering complicated squeaks and clicks there is not anything at all resembling thought or feelings. And even though I tremble at the notion of disagreeing with a bonafide philosopher of Nagel’s stature I think it is wrong to claim that bridging the gap is impossible. I suspect that Plato would have described as “impossible” ever being able to call up thousands of pictures of bats with a couple of finger twitches on a computer keyboard.
Drags on the Marise usually lasted for an hour or two and the most exciting times by far were when most of the net was hauled in by hand, a couple of turns of rope around the top of the cod end were hooked to the winch and the net’s bulging “bag” was lifted over the rail. McLaughlin, as skipper, always was the one to reach under the dripping tonnage and pull the bowknot – sending a torrent of thousands of fish out onto the Marise’s deck while we, standing knee deep in the squirming flopping multitude, began sorting out the “keepers” and tossing the “trash” overboard. At the time I gave no thought to the devastation of the seafloor environment we’d left behind or what it was like to be a flounder slowly suffocating in the hold below. Sixty-plus years later, looking back, it’s a different story.