Water Closet for September 16, 2016
[pullquote]”The humans from just a few miles inland had entered a new green world the long summer’s drought hadn’t affected. Seaweed and ocean smells joined those of the clam flats.” [/pullquote]Before colonization in Massachusetts, Giovanni da Verrazano, Samuel de Champlain, John Smith, and hundreds of early fishermen from the Old World sailed in tiny ships along the barrier beaches that protect the soft Great Marsh from Rye, New Hampshire to Rockport on Cape Ann. On passing the mouths of rivers they got glimpses of Whittier’s “low green prairies of the sea.”1 Beyond the marshes were gentle hills. In Indian times a few literate sailors waxed eloquently yet all too briefly in writing about the beautiful combination of dunes, salt grasses, and uplands. Unlike rolling prairies, our Northshore’s 10,000 acres of salt marshes are flat. They contrast nicely with knolls of ancient ledge and relatively young glacial drumlins. Our estuaries are characterized by horizontal strata unlike the verticals of mountains and cities. Beneath the sky are the low hills of the southern and western horizons as seen from Ipswich Bay. Below them out to the dunes are thin layers of the ever-changing greens and browns of salt grasses defined by the elevation of mean high tide. Supporting the grasses are one to thirty feet of their salt-pickled ancestors mixed with sediments deposited during the last 3000 years. Unseen beneath the peat are green-yellow-blue clays left by the glacier. We encounter these clays in places while clamming. And then of course there is the ever rising and falling water, its surface paralleling the other horizontal layers under a few miles of atmosphere with clouds. In the wide window between the dunes of Crane and Wingaersheek beaches, where the Chebacco River, now named Essex, enters the Atlantic, a view of lovely marsh can be seen from the sea. In the late afternoon of September 1st Stream Teamers and friends looked out that window from a cruise boat over a sill of bleached sand bars to ocean swells rolling over the shallows of Ipswich Bay. All these strata seemingly painted in water colors were peacefully with us in a fair westerly breeze.
The cruise company’s shallow draft vessel had meandered out a league from the Essex of restaurants and antique shops most now associate with that once important ship- building town. Not made for the open sea, at the river’s mouth the vessel turned round a buoy for home. The excursion had started on the ebb just below half tide. Shore birds, herons, cormorants and a few just arriving human clammers populated the increasing area of exposed mud and sand flats. A few minutes after getting underway the fifty passengers became relatively quiet. Diverse fair weather clouds, sun filters, made for that perfect late afternoon light photographers seek. The humans from just a few miles inland had entered a new green world the long summer’s drought hadn’t affected. Seaweed and ocean smells joined those of the clam flats. “Beautiful” must have been murmured a hundred times. The ostentatious Crane estate on Castle Hill was softened by distance. Choate Island, a beautiful drumlin closer by with one colonial house in a sloping field much caught our eyes. The old Closeteer and fellow clammers dig on an Ipswich flat called the Jennings Ground just to the west of Choate. This hill, also called Hogg Island, was where portions of the movie The Crucible had been filmed. Later, a microburst, perhaps fanned by fickle witches, cut a wide swath through the trees on its steep northwest slope. They certainly weren’t the earthy “Witches of Eastwick” of Jack Nicholson’s group who were filmed in a movie by that name at the Crane estate.2
As the passengers headed home the old Closeteer’s thoughts left the frivolity of movies and witches and went back to the days when Essex employed many men to build stout ships.3 He imagined oak framed schooners passing him in center channel on high tides. The vessels were being towed to Gloucester for rigging before joining the fishing fleet. An estimated 3500 to 4000 ships were built on the sloping banks along the river between 1635 and 1960 where tourists’ places now stand. At times in the mid 1800s fifteen yards were launching a half dozen schooners each month. Harold Burnham, of eleven generations of Burnham shipbuilders, now and then still builds authentic replicas of Chebacco boats and schooners in the old ways. At last count he had built three beauties that now take tourists, rather than fishermen, out for a sail.4
The fishermen of old with long lines and tub trawls gently fishing the bottom out of dories off schooners are gone. Draggers doing great harm have for a century harrowed the banks. The marshes, no doubt for their good, are no longer hayed. The flats passed by are still clammed in much the same way as the Indian women and girls had with forked sticks. Today’s clammers use steel forks with several tines. On return back to the dock the day-dreaming Closeteer saw Indians in dugout canoes, shipbuilders of old, haymakers, and women fishing for eel and flounder from the river’s bank. They were joking, sadly not together, in Algonquian and English. The next time you visit Essex leave the sea food places and expensive antique shops for a winter’s day. In summer paddle on the Essex River and its cricks at low tide. Let the children swim and play in the mud. As a small boy the salt marshes were the Closeteer’s favorite places. On hot days he and buddies would visit several times a day to swim and avoid farm chores.
1. A line in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Snowbound that describes the summer salt marsh in Salisbury.
2 .“The Witches of Eastwick” is a movie based on a novel by John Updike who, for awhile, lived in Ipswich.
3. The late Dana Storey, son of Essex shipbuilder Arthur Story wrote a delightful book entitled Frame Up about his father’s yard and the characters who worked there. We also recommend a visit to the Essex Shipbuilding Museum.
4.Harold Burnham has in the last 20 years built the Thomas E. Lannon following the lines of the early 19th century fishing schooner Nokomis and two pretty 18th century pinky schooners called Chebacco boats, forerunners of the schooners that followed. Burnham’s Chebacco boats are the Fame and Ardelle. Go on line for information about sailing on these three ships.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||June||July||Aug||Sep|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||3.95||3.89||3.37||3.77|
|2016 Central Watershed Actual||1.51||1.41||2.14||0.7**as of Sep 13|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Sep 13, 2016 Normal . . . 3.7 CFS Current Rate . . .0.14 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Aug.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for Sep.
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584