Between Land and Sea|
The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England
Christopher L. Pastore
Harvard University Press, 2014, hc, 312pp, $35.00
Anticipating a dry, semi-geeky combination of history and biology I am very happy to confess that I jumped to the wrong conclusion. I zipped through this book as if it were a murder mystery. Pastore has an almost uncanny talent for embedding facts into narrative that makes this history of Narragansett Bay from the era of the arrival and settling of the area by Europeans read like a great novel. There are no individual leading characters...only waves of boatloads of settlers...for generations...mucking up the landscape.
Unexpectedly, Pastore introduces his discussion of the health of Narraganset Bay with a brief examination of the Gulf of Mexico. Oil was discovered in 1924. Adding insult to injury, the Army Corps "lopped off Greenville Bend and dozen other large meanders of the Mississippi River...and shortened it by 150 miles. One hundred miles of flood plain were lost. Floods were reduced but the lower Mississippi was turned into a fire hose...blasting sediment and nitrogen based fertilizers into the gulf...goodbye shrimp habitat.
Not surprisingly, over the centuries, approximately the same treatment was given Narragansett Bay which dominates the state of Rhode Island. Roger Williams, the "heretic" Englishman was basically kicked out of Plymouth colony and wandered his way by canoe to what is now the city of Providence in 1636. Throughout the 17th century the canoe was the most common mode of travel. During King Philip's War, the canoe was a tool of diplomacy.
Narragansett Bay was likened to the bogs of Ireland and, during the 18th century, had a reputation as a refuge for many men of "ill repute". Captain Kidd was one such fellow...so was Thomas Paine. It was widely understood that when pirates weren't allowed in Jamaica, they came to Rhode Island. 'The watery maze of inlets, islands, and creeks" was attractive to "the depraved and dissolute." Between 1730 and 1749 the population the population doubled. In 1749 a 58' wooden light house was erected on Beaver Point. Slaves from Africa were also present in large numbers. In 1708 the state's General Assembly charged a duty of three pound per slave. By the mid-1720s Rhode Island had the densest slave population in New England.
European settlers were farmers and fishermen until the industrial revolution when fabric mills took advantage of the rivers to produce power and float away waste. The bay was literally laid waste (as were most of the water bodies of any size in New England).
Basically, the last time the Bay was healthy was just before the first European sailed on it. The Bay has long been "civilized" first with factories and mills and then with seaside mansions. I think I liked it better in the old days. The history of the Bay is facinating, well researched and told by Mr. Pasture.