As American as salt fish

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An attentive reader kindly reassures us that a cow may be milked from her left side if we continue to do so, thus negating the age-old opinion that every cow should always be milked from the right. This seems to even out the bilateralism of the dairy industry, and with things well in hand, we can comfortably pass to another subject.

Did I ever tell you about Capt. Thatcher Soule's cat named Christine that ate salt fish? That was an inappropriate name, because Christine was a tomcat. Captain Soule detested a cat that was uppity and put on airs, and he surmised that a tomcat named Christine would be sensitive about it and would avoid thrusting himself into prominence and would not throw his weight around, as tomcats often do. It seemed to work: Christine was of moderate disposition and never overbearing.

Capt. Thatcher Soule was the last of a prestigious shipbuilding and seafaring family. When he retired, he opened a small fish-packing plant at Harraseeket Harbor to, as he said, "keep him out of trouble" and to amuse his cat, who would keep an eye on things. Since retiring to Maine, Christine had licked every dog in the state.

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The fish business owned by Captain Soule and Christine included two Lunenburg schooners, but they were used for transport only, as it was cheaper to buy fish than to catch them.

Alternating, each vessel made a monthly trip to Canso, Nova Scotia, to load fish at Madam Island, where Christine and Captain Soule had many good friends.

The salt-fish business was really a courtesy service to nostalgic customers who still hankered for fish balls in a world that got along without them. The day when every grocery store had a salt fish hanging around with his vest unbuttoned was well gone.

Perhaps I should make it clear that Christine's diet of salt fish was because there was plenty of it, and Captain Soule didn't give her, or him, anything else. Now, you mustn't knock salt fish. We Americans like the gilded fairy tales about piety, religious fervor, and zeal, and how high motives and noble purposes built our great nation. Those things may have helped, but what got us going was salt fish.

Four hundred years before Columbus was born, the Vikings were well aware of the Grand Bank. When Columbus sailed to discover America, he followed charts made by Portagee fishermen who had already been here.

In 1613, seven years before the Pilgrims arrived from England, Captain Argal of the British fisheries patrol pillaged the French codfish settlement on Nova Scotia to be rid of annoying competition.

In 1622, the hungry Pilgrims, who did not fish, sent their little shallop up to Maine's Damariscove Island to beg food from the prosperous fishermen here. Note that the Maine fishermen were rascals and pirates, and the most atrocious iniquities prevailed, but the Pilgrims got a load of food and the evil Mainers wouldn't take a penny! That's written right in the Pilgrim records.

By that time, the biggest settlement in the New World was the English fisheries station at Pemaquid. There, 800 fishermen had a bigger town than Quebec, and you could see Chief Neehanada of the Sagadahoc tribe with his ebony walking stick and the suit he'd had tailored in London. He'd spent a winter there and owned a few shares in the London Company.

You may have missed the part of the story where the Mayflower's skipper paused off Maine's Monhegan Island to let the arriving Pilgrims "take a few coddes" before going on to Plymouth Rock. He knew the place well. Had been there many times.

So Captain Soule's cat, Christine, was a patriotic American cat, ate only salt fish, and all meals were the same to her. To him. Otherwise, it was well established in fact that a housecat would never eat salt fish.

Christine was perpetually thirsty. This led to a remarkable consequence. Such was the extreme thirst brought about by his constant salt-heavy diet that Christine would leave the salt-fish factory now and then and go about a mile and a half to the Clancy Brook and drink great quantities of water.

This was a substantial stream, but it was tidal and had a run of salt water twice a day. So Christine had to go far enough to be above the high-tide mark. Then he or she, as the case may be, would drink and drink and drink and drink. Having done so, Christine would return to the fish factory and resume his or her managerial duties in his or her customary modest manner.

It was a gentleman named Homer T. Woodley, who lived by the Clancy Brook, who called attention to the curious behavior of the stream. Every so often, he told the town officers, the brook would cease to flow toward the ocean and would turn and flow inland, or uphill. He first noticed this, he said, in late June when he saw a school of salmon going downstream to spawn.

It wasn't long after that when the Sierra Club demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency take steps, and the Department of the Interior sent a task force to complete a comprehensive survey. That led to a documentary on TV under the auspices of the National Geographic Society.

It's been a long time since I've been that way, and I've no idea how things go along Clancy Brook these days. There's prolly been some changes, what with this and that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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