“Men’s Lives” by Peter Matthiessen

On a Friday afternoon in Manhattan, I sat across the table from a grey-haired financier, having lunch in warm summer sunlight.  The restaurant, rustic in design, but posh in location and clientele, was bustling with the giddy spirits that accompany fine weather and an impending weekend. While discussing the state of farming on the North Fork of Long Island, he stated innocently, “it’s amazing that such an endeavor is even profitable.” I shrugged – considering the economic logic that could argue noble men out of existence – and began to labor through a response. What I should have done was given him the cliff notes to “Men’s Lives” by Peter Matthiessen.

To be clear, “Men’s Lives” is about fishing, not farming, but the problems facing both industries are the same. In this instance, if I were to begin to use terms that differentiated “us” and “them,” If I tried to justify the rights that “locals” have in preventing others from enjoying the same natural spoils they themselves cherish, I could just as well have thrown my drink in his face and declared all out class warfare. I could argue for both sides and would probably ending up losing on either.

The slow, inevitable migration of Long Islanders eastward is as natural as the ebb and flow of fish populations through the centuries. Such a migration drove up land values, and by extension property taxes, while the natural splendor of the “Twin Forks” sparked the birth of a resort economy. Soon the value of one’s land surpassed that of any products reaped from it. The push to sell would seem like a no-brainer as time passed, but what the “outsider” doesn’t understand, what the “financier” wouldn’t understand, is that you aren’t selling land, you are selling a livelihood.

“Men’s Lives” is a sad elegy to a lost way of life, a scathing criticism of the lobbyists and misguided bureaucrats that helped destroy it, and a lively, informal history of the shore-fishing industry on Long Island.

Some chapters read like interviews, with little in the way of editing esoteric fishing terms or the informal “Bonacker” language. (The Bonac accent is said to be akin to the spoken language of the working class settlers who came from England in the 17th century; once proudly touted as a method for identifying “true” members of the fishing and farming community, it has now been rendered nearly extinct by the speech patterns of New York City). While at first it may be difficult to fully envision details and movements of crew members when a Cap’n is recounting events to Peter Matthiessen, it is nothing a few internet searches and some contextual reading can’t help overcome. For instance, there are three occasions where a particularly harrowing shore launch is recaptured in vivid detail and by the third re-telling, the reader has a better sense of how adverse “sets” or winds caused a dory to topple over, launching some crew members to shore while others were trapped in the undertow for several minutes. If the pace is too slow and the subject matter somewhat bland, you will at the very least learn something about net fishing – a few phrases, or just how it differs from casting.

Concentrated within the first third of the book titled “The Old Days,” some of the most powerful passages come through these interviews. When the elderly reflect on simpler times, wringing weather-beaten, scarred hands, you feel like you missed out on something special as well, no matter how easy it would be to swear off such wistful recollections with a simple “everything golden in retrospect.”

“In them days money was real scarce and food was cheap; fish, clams scallops, farm crops, and always plenty of potatoes, cabbage, left over in the fields, and homemade canned fruits, pies, nothing but the finest…This was the life, and time and money didn’t seem to matter as much as livin’ close together and bein’ friendly with everybody, not dog-eat dog like it is today.”

Indeed, from the earliest days of recorded history, when Native Americans enacted loose peace agreements with Dutch and English settlers, to the flourishing of fishing families such as the Havens, Conklins and Lesters, you get this overwhelming sense of bounty, of plenty, of open space and unkempt men.

The discussion of fish population levels through decades is set against a change in tourist population that moves in a single direction – up. While the “Baymen” are rather sanguine about the cyclical nature of fish prevalence – the cherished striped bass being sparse for over a half century, from the 1880s to the 1940s – it does not make the present-day scarcity of fish any less heart-wrenching given an already-volatile environment onshore. Tourists’ attitude towards the haul-seining crews becomes ever more intolerant, while reel-and-rod “sportsman” begin to push for legislation that is non-uniform in application.

The transformation of Eastern Long Island from a small, somewhat self-sustaining economy to one of second homes and beach-side resorts takes place over the latter two-thirds of the book, in sections titled “The Fifties” and “Modern times.” The hook that eventually snagged the haul-seining industry completely came from an increasing number of anglers, who had been lobbying the State Legislature at Albany for the passing of a ”bass bill” designed to prohibit commercial fishermen from netting altogether. In 1983, the first concrete steps were taken when a controversial size limit was passed as law.

Matthiessen openly criticizes the anglers, who used conservation as their fashionable flag of convenience although little scientific evidence suggested that seining/netting was an important factor in the annual fluctuations of the bass shoals. The author argues that applying size limits on catches would lead costs to fall disproportionately on net-fishing crews, who have to ship their catch as full-bodied fish to city markets, whereas anglers would fillet an illegal fish on the boat and take it home or sell it locally.

While the groups of “outsiders” are plentiful, the story-line is the same. When people, from all walks of life, fight over the same stretch of land, when we are forced to deal with beautiful, yet scarce resources, some group has to lose.

True, you could easily call the author’s own “authenticity” into question. A city-born, Yale trained writer who identifies with the first hordes of writers and artists travelling east in the 1950s, Matthiessen subtly tries to separate himself from those wryly referred to as “Upislanders.” Matthiessen had the luxury of working as a fisherman for only three years before departing for more exotic locales, enjoying a rather successful career as a naturalist, award winning fiction writer, journal editor and short-term CIA agent.

But the author’s admiration of these noble men seems genuine and his access to the often clannish world of commercial fishermen was extremely valuable; few other writers could put together such a moving and detailed historical account. The Baymen seem to confide in Matthiessen, fighting to make sense of a hard life in moods that alternate between somber and blithe.

Independence costs you a lot of money. I starved myself to death for independence when I could have good money at a trade. You ever seen somebody ever get fired from fishin? No, no! You’re just glad to find someone stupid enough to go fishin with you.

..I’m gonna put this goddamn oar over my shoulder and head west, and the first sonofabitch asks me what it is, that’s where I stick it in the ground and settle..

In the end, arguing over whether these men trusted Matthiessen because he had actually been a fisherman is useless. “Men’s Lives” is a labor of love, produced by an accomplished and talented author. If Matthiessen didn’t write this book, the poetry in such voices may have never been heard.

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