The Founding Fish, by John McPhee

A recent post in Atlas Obscura on the man who wants to make eating shad a fad again brought to mind this splendid book by John McPhee and a review of it I wrote back in 2003 for the late, lamented I am a major fan of this writer, and am convinced that his shopping lists are writings of surpassing elegance and interest. It was published by  Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 10, 2003), it’s apparently still in print. This, for you, is very good news indeed.

A new book by John McPhee is rather like a prize in a blind lottery, you never really know what you’ll find inside. Over the years, I have followed McPhee into strange places and have met strange people. I know that South Pacific oranges are green (they need frost to color up) because McPhee told me so. I know the rivers of Alaska because McPhee took me there. I even know what diabase is and how it came to be. His subjects didn’t necessarily interest me before, but they became interesting because they interested McPhee, and he brought to them a bright curiosity, a tenacious mind and a seductive facility with language. Listen, for example, to this description of a river as heard through a hydrophone:

A 0-1,000-hertz hydrophone is so sensitive that it can hear sand grains in motion, even in very quietly moving water … A relaxing and soothing sound, not unlike the recorded surf played above the cribs of infants, it was audible geomorphology — you were listening to mountains on their way to the sea.

Many of McPhee’s elegant discourses were published in The New Yorker in its heyday. Finding his name in the Table of Contents always brought a jolt of pleasure, especially if the article’s title indicated that it was just part one of what was to come. In these lesser days his name has appeared infrequently: editorial styles have changed, the long, multipart nonfiction piece appears to have been put aside in favor of shorter, punchier articles. I thought perhaps McPhee had hung it up, retired from this traveling and writing business, and that no new McPhees would be forthcoming. I am delighted that I was wrong.

This time, it’s fish.

That McPhee is a fisherman is something I had gathered from his earlier writings. I did not know the extent of the malady until I opened the pages of The Founding Fish. In particular he fishes for shad, the subject that gives this book its name.

But wait a minute. In my youth I fished for trout in the cold, clear waters of the High Sierra, but was never very good at it. (What fish I caught sacrificed themselves to me more out of pity, I think, than through any skill of mine.) I like to eat fish. I keep tropical specimens and enjoy visiting aquaria. But that’s about it. My interest in reading about fishing for shad is just about nil. Still, I have learned over the years to trust John McPhee. My trust has not been misplaced.

McPhee is always present in his books. Perhaps because shad fishing is so close to his heart, he is even more present here. He’s good company, whether we’re losing shad off the hook on the Connecticut River or hobnobbing with maniacal shad fishermen like Willy Bemis, the ichthyologist who dreams of establishing a Massachusetts Museum of Natural History featuring a tremendous collection of fish skeletons (on behalf of which he paces the docks of the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo in shorts and sandals, cadging donations of tremendous fish from the competitors). We hang out with Boyd Kynard of the S.O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center (anadromous fish return to fresh water to breed — shad are anadromous fish). We see roe and milt collected by fish breeders who seed rivers for private and governmental agencies. We eat a lot of shad, part of whose Latin name, Alosa sapidissima, means “very, very tasty. Yes indeed.”

Anadromous fish have suffered at the hands of western Europeans in America, from the damming of their spawning rivers (as far back as the 18th century) to such fierce pollution that long sections of rivers have been effectively stripped of life. McPhee shows us that, along with the heartening effects of the 1972 Clean Water Act and the even more heartening push toward the destruction of dams in American rivers. We visit the Bay of Fundy, where young shad spend summers feasting on zooplankton; we spend time in Florida at the southern border of shad territory; and we visit the vigorous descendants of the shad who were lovingly hand-carried across the country and seeded in western waters in 1871 by Seth Green of the New York Fish Commission.

At the turn of the last century, shad were perhaps the most eaten fish in America. “It may safely be said that the veritable king of food fishes is a denizen of our waters, for there is probably no fish on earth that surpasses the shad in all the qualities that go to make up an ideal food fish,” said Charles Minor Blackford of Virginia in 1916. But the shad’s popularity, McPhee tells us, has fallen. He ascribes this, in part, to the fact that the shad is a particularly bony fish, and remembers his grandfather saying to his cousin Billy, who hated shad, “The density of thy ignorance is appalling, child. Don’t worry about the bones. Forget them. The fish is good.” But it appears that Billy’s dislike presaged a general downturn in American regard for the shad. This has not lessened my desire, next spring, to search out a shad and eat it.

Look, I’ll be honest with you: I am about 50 pages from the end of the book and reading with increasing slowness. I don’t want it to end.

I have, on my shelves, six books by John McPhee that I haven’t read and resist reading. They are my emergency fund, saved for that proverbial rainy day when life is bleak and American arts and letters have gone to hell in a handbasket. When that day comes, I will reach for one of those six, and sink into a vigorous and literate world that here on the outside, I don’t even know exists.

review date 10/29/03, The Readerville Journal


Marta Wrist-Wrestles Ernest Hemingway

At last it was afternoon. The clear light rang down from the hills, filling the small square where the people gathered, watching. The man named Papa had been drinking the rum, the strong good rum of the hills, since daybreak, but he was a rugged man and he wobbled only a little as he took his seat. The woman called Marta had not drunk any of the rum, for which Papa had derided her, issuing the challenge that filled the new morning so many hours before and which was, now, to end in the hot, sunfilled square among the people who had gathered to witness this ending. But she was tired, the woman was, tired of the heat, and the flies, and the buzzing of the people, and the stench from Papa’s armpits as he braced his elbow on the table and reached for her hand. His big hand covered her small, woman’s hand and the people sighed. But the woman named Marta ignored them, concentrating on Papa’s bloodshot eyes, the red lines running through them like the blood of bulls and matadors on the sandy ground in the Plaza de Toros on hot Sunday afternoons.

They had each won a round. He had won the first one and she had won the second, taking him by surprise, pinning his broad wrist to the table in less than a minute so that his supporters cried that she had cheated. He had thundered deep in his chest, a dark thunder with some amusement in it, and waved them to silence. And now, after Papa had drunk yet more rum, they met again for the third and final match under the hot Cuban sun.

Their arms trembled, straining for movement and advantage. They stared into each other’s eyes, his blue ones in a web of blood and her brown ones, deeply brown under drooping lids. She had surprised him, forcing his arm back toward the checked tablecloth. Sweat gathered on their foreheads and dripped over their eyebrows, dripped into the blue eyes and the brown eyes, and slowly his arm started to move, so that the movement was like the trembling of the earth when the bulls begin to run, away at the edge of the village. Slowly, then, his arm rose toward the sky, the densely blue Cuban sky, until at last it surged upright once again but, at the end, he could not find the strength, the power, the will to counteract her last thrust, pure and strong, and his arm fell like a tree, like a felled mast, like the bull as it staggers and comes to its knees in the hot, clear sun of the Plaza de Toros.

The table moved.