Monday, September 24, 2007

A Walker in the City: Plum Island Autumn



“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...”

Gazing beyond the dunes of Plum Island at the Great Marsh, bronzed in late summer light, I thought of that evocative first line of Keat’s poem, “On Autumn”.

It was the last weekend in September. Each year at summer’s end I love to walk the barrier beach of the Parker River Wildlife Refuge. There are no dwellings nearby; and except for those who fish the ocean’s edge for striped bass, few beachgoers after Labor Day. It’s a place where one is up against nature in the raw. I make it a point to visit the beach often during the year, observing the seasonal changes—the piping plovers as they propagate, the redwings that arrive by the end of February, the tree swallows who begin their pre-migratory flocking in mid-August, and the purple martins who leave by summer’s close.

But autumn is a special time for me. It’s the time of my birthday and therefore an occasion for reflection. It’s also the time when one prepares for the year’s declension into winter, a time of mellowness in the air, the light, as Keats’s poem suggests; a time of actual and spiritual harvest.

Stretching from West Gloucester to the borders of New Hampshire, the Great Marsh is a wonder. As I contemplate its vast fertility from the silent dunes of Plum Island, I think of those early settlers, who gathered beach plums here (hence its name) and took the shellfish. I think particularly of Judge Samuel Sewell, who in 1697 gave us this description of Plum Island:

“As long as Plum Island shall faithfully keep the command post, notwithstanding all the hectoring words and hard blows of the boisterous ocean; as long as any salmon and sturgeon shall swim in the streams of Merrimack, or any perch or pickerel in Crane Pond; as long as the sea fowl shall know the time of their coming, and not neglect seasonably to visit the places of their acquaintance; as long as any cattle shall be fed with the grass growing in the meadows, which do humbly bow down themselves before Turkey Hill; as long as any sheep shall walk upon Old Town Hill, and shall from thence pleasantly look down upon the River Parker and the fruitful marshes lying beneath; as long as any free and harmless doves shall find a white oak or other tree within the township to perch or feed or build a careless nest upon, and shall voluntarily present themselves to perform the office of gleaners after barley harvest; as long as nature shall not grow old and dote, but shall constantly remember to give the rows of Indian Corn their education by pairs; so long shall Christians be born there...and shall from thence be translated to be made partakers of the Inheritance of the saints in light.”

Those words were written three-hundred and ten years ago, yet they describe with perfect clarity what can still be seen and enjoyed today. While some of us may not share Judge Sewell’s prophetic religiosity, we can still marvel at the acute sense of place evoked in his description of Plum Island and its surrounding forests, hills and wetlands. We can marvel at this early ecological vision, at its appreciation of nature’s bounty.

Years pass as if they were days, places change and the people who inhabit them disappear. Due largely to the vision and commitment of the Essex County Greenbelt Association and the Trustees of Reservations, Mass. Audubon, numerous town land trusts, and preservation-minded property owners, Essex County has retained much of its austere beauty. There is no present without a past, as Judge Sewell understood. Yet today’s destroyers act as if they were the only people on earth, as if no one had been here before them, preserving what they cherished for us today. They act as if their greed were a right, instead of a sin against each of us and the land itself.

Tasteless “trophy” houses and out-of-scale McMansions spring up in fields and meadows once husbanded with meticulous care by our colonial forebears. Signs dot the oceanside warning natives, who have always had access to the shore, that the property is now “private.” Gates appear where once we all walked with impunity; and greed reigns. A heavily opposed public sewer system has been completed for the residential part of Plum Island, opening a floodgate to development, just as the controversial sewer did in North Gloucester.

The sense of Commonwealth our puritan predecessors bequeathed us, the belief that the land and sea were ours to use and enjoy together, to preserve for the next generation, has eroded vastly since Judge Sewell’s time. More than ever, it is our responsibility to secure this covenant once again. Otherwise, those who come after us may never enjoy the seasons “of mists and mellow fruitfulness” we have accepted as our birthright.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Dear Peter,

Thank you for this beautiful encomium to Plum Island. I once passed a glorious autumn afternoon there, and, indeed, if I lived nearby I'd be making that a habit too. I'm sad to hear about the McMansions and No Trespassing signs. Much the same here in Maine.

I was looking for an online text of Sewell's own encomium, to share with my students, and fell on this. And an interesting blog!

I also love the work you've done editing Olson's letters--Henry Ferrini sent me a copy of that volume last year.

Just remember, that the sea is mightier than the McMansion! It's our own eventual disappearance from what matters that we will be lamenting.

Best,

Jonathan Skinner
editor, ecopoetics