When I visit the tiny frog pond in the warm months here at the edge of the Stornfelser Forest, it’s brimming with so much aquatic life that I sometimes visit in my mind the small pond that I swam and paddled in as a child, deep in a forest in central Massachusetts, where I had my first close encounters with creatures of underwater worlds. These memories are my treasures, though I haven’t by any means stopped collecting them.
Fish were food to me when I first got to know them, in the early seventies, but that was before anyone talked about things like sustainable fisheries, let alone aquaponics. I watched the fish whenever and wherever the water was clear enough, though that certainly wasn’t everywhere. Yet they were always there, even if I wasn’t there. I could count on them.
I’ll never forget it. I was about eight years old when I caught my first fish without any help. It was a shortish old rod with a cheap, plastic cap over the reel that had to be opened over and over again, because it jammed so often. At that age, I was definitely not allowed even to touch the good, fly-fishing rods and reels my grandfather stored high up between the crossbeams of our family hunting camp that stood at the edge of the pond, at the opposite end from the old tree stump that was my fishing spot. I got so frustrated each time that fishing line would tangle up that I wanted to throw the whole thing–hook, line, sinker, rod and reel–into the dark brown, icy cold, mucky water. But, inevitably, I gave it another try, and another, and another. I was determined to catch my own fish.
With each fruitless attempt, I’d used up another of the worms I’d dug out of the ground beneath the camp, til they were gone. “Y’hafta get y’rown,” my oldest sister would scold, refusing to share her supply with me. Her bucket still had lots. I took it all for granted, of course. Didn’t everyone get their worms from the crawl space under the cabin built by their grandfather on the bank of a picturesque stream in the middle of a pristine forest of hemlocks, pines, beeches and oaks, with blueberry bushes to the left and a cranberry bog to the right? To me that, and the lake in Maine we visited each summer, was just the normal order of things in life–at least it was when life was spent with my grandparents.
You might guess that this pond and hunting lodge were somewhere in the deep south, famous for its country folk. But you’d be wrong. New England, even to this day, still has its share of what I’ll affectionately refer to here as “hicks”, or people who live far from any urban areas, out in the “sticks” or the “boonies.” In NE, this usually just refers to the backwoods of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, away from any big town, and really far from any city. “Hicks”, for better or for worse, are just another part of a typically gorgeous countryside landscape, where uninitiated city people typically see “nothing”. City people often think of hicks as poor white trash. But “hicks” often know things some city people can’t imagine. For example, “hicks” know where and how to catch a fish.
By the age of eight, I was done watching other people catch and clean the fish. I liked to eat them and wanted to catch my own. The best-tasting ones were the brown trout, but these were harder to catch. There were three kinds of trout in the pond: brown, brook and rainbow. “Our” pond wasn’t stocked with any bass, which was a popular fish, nor pickerel, but it did contain a kind of catfish called hornpout. That would be ok, since they’re pretty tasty, too. Grampa had the pond stocked with these different species, though I’d had no idea until many years later that the fish had originally come from a hatchery. I was the youngest of his eleven grandchildren, always the last to be told things. At the hatchery, the fish were sheltered from the time they hatched from their eggs. Baby fish are called fry, and so they live in the fry pool. Then they move through a series of pools in accordance to their size, each one named for the growth stage of the fish: x-y-z. A series of pools is called a raceway. (MORE FISH FACTS HERE)
The worms I picked were thin and red. They were not easy to put onto a hook. But I got better with practice. My mistake had been piercing the worm in just one or two places, which gave the fish a great opportunity to snatch most if not all of it from the hook without even touching the metal. I really didn’t like hurting the worms, but I really wanted a fish! The lures in the tackle box just didn’t cut it, as they didn’t fool these fish. These fish were smart, and spoiled. I’d been feeding them worms for hours every day for days.
Then, all of a sudden, the red and white bobber on the other end of the line was submerged. And not just for a second. It was fully submerged, and it was not coming back up! The red and white ball swished from side to side under the water, almost disappearing into the deep, murky brown water. Whoohoo! I had a fish!
My grandfather stood up in the garden behind me where he’d be weeding as usual, this time around the asparagus bed, and watched. The reel squealed as I cranked it. I reeled the line in as fast as I could. Grampa said, “not too fast, or you’ll break the line.”
The line didn’t break. I had a fish on the line, so heavy that my rod was bent in a perfect U when I pulled it close enough to see it. It was big! A rainbow trout, maybe! Or… a bass, I thought, since I’d seen a lot people catch these from the lake where I lived with my parents. I didn’t care which. I was just so proud that I’d caught such a big fish, my first one ever!
Then my grandfather stepped up to the water, grabbed the line, hauled the fish up, and grasped it with his free hand. I saw its tail, fins, its scaly sides, its eye, its gasping gills, …its mouth. Its mouth was strange to me. Like lips that were soft and swollen up, not hard-edged and stiff like the mouth of a trout, or bass. Certainly not a catfish, it had no “whiskers” that could sting you, nor that flattened, squarish head. Within the span of a few seconds, Grampa dislodged the hook from the fish’s mouth and threw it into the garden. “Good for fertilizer and not much else,” he said about my fish, the first fish I ever caught. I went over to the garden, where it lay flapping and suffering in the air it couldn’t breathe, and saw it getting all covered with dirt as it flipped and flopped more slowly every second.
“Why can’t we eat him?” I asked, not wanting the fish to go to waste and die “for nothing.”
“Suckers don’t taste.” was my grandfather’s answer.
“Then, can’t I put him back in the water?”
“Suckers eat up what the other fish need to live. He’ll feed the garden instead.” Nobody argued with Grampa.
It was much later that I learned how valuable decayed fish was for a garden. When I was in my twenties, working as a recycling and composting education consulant for the state of Massachusetts, I found the stuff–fermented fish–being sold in bottles at a garden center. It was around the same time that I’d visited a fish hatchery for the first time as a field trip for campers in New Hampshire. There I was finally able fill a few more of the gaps in the knowledge I’d gained from my childhood adventures and misadverntures. Grampa knew what he was doing.
Although this tiny, rural village in central Germany, where I now live, has become my new home, I come originally from what was in the years of my childhood a fairly densely forested, semi-rural area in central Massachusetts. If you’re not sure where “Mass.” is, it’s in the far northeastern corner of the USA, and New England is everything northeast of New York State. Those woods, ponds, gentle hills and curvy lakes I played in and on were once well-known to transcendentalist philosophers and naturalists, Thoreau and Emerson. These two poets and thinkers would doubtless no longer recognize those places that they’d known, honored and loved. They would probably cry at that site of them. They might even regret deeply not having tried to avert the endless flow of newcomers to the region.
Over the past few decades, much of this same Massachusetts’ backcountry, where I once felt a million miles from anywhere, has filled up to a large extent with transplants from out of the biggish city to the east, namely Boston. Fortunately, although the cabin has fallen to ruins since my grandfather passed away in 2000, the forest, the pond and the stream running through the property have all been given far greater protection under the 2013 watershed protection act. The property still belongs to my family, but it’s forbidden now under this law to build anywhere within 200 ft (60 meters) of the water’s edge, among other restrictions. This is most certainly a good thing, in my opinion. Otherwise, the place would likely be surrounded by now either by farmland or industrial parks. Instead, it’s become a wildlife management area, where hunting is allowed, but little else. Wildlife, including bear, bobcat and deer, flourish there, as do the fish and all the other aquatic life. It’s become a true wildlife haven, right in the middle of Massachusetts.
Whenever I go back to visit, this place in Hubbardston is about the furthest south I care to go, since I’m interested in seeing the wild places more than anything. In constrast to Massachusetts, the two smaller states of southern New England, Connecticut and Rhode Island, have still fewer rural areas left to occupy, although they too have their share of wildlife sanctuaries, state parks and forests. Most of southern New England has long since been densely settled and transformed into suburbs, or so-called “bedroom towns” on account of their proximity to the biggest city of the northeast, the “Big Apple”, aka New York City. The countryside there belongs to the wealthiest of the population. It’s well taken care of, for sure. Just expensive.
The place where I live now, by comparison, isn’t very far at all from the biggest city of central Germany, which is Frankfurt on the Main. If starting from Frankfurt’s city center, we can be reached in about ninety minutes by car, two hours or less if coming by train. On clear days, we can even make out the famous Frankfurter skyline from the lookout point at the top of the giant rock that the village rests upon.
I grew up in a lot of places, each a station along a long sequence of moves from one home to another. My nomadic life has brought me to live in this beautiful spot among the rolling hills of central Germany, at the outskirts of a vast ancient volcanic region known as Vogelsberg. Here is where I plan to stay, for as long as possible. Do I miss my original home? Of course I do! It isn’t the same as it once was. In some ways it’s been lost, in some ways, it’s better.