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Tom Andersen begins by describing the dramatic events of the summer of 1987, when a condition called hypoxia (lack of dissolved oxygen in the water brought about by a combination of pollution and other factors) killed large numbers of fish and lobsters in the Sound. He discusses how scientists first documented and explained the development of hypoxia and how research and cleanup are now being carried out to restore the Sound. Interweaving current events, natural history, and human history, Andersen presents a cautionary tale of exploitation without concern for preservation.
Long Island Sound was born fifteen thousand years ago, the progeny of ice and rivers and the surging sea. Geologically, it's a current event, but its birth was the culmination of a force that began about three million years ago, when, century after century, the earth's cooling climate prevented snow from melting in the far north and allowed it to build into a mass of Arctic ice that exerted so much pressure on itself it began to flow south. The Pleistocene Ice Age had begun. In the ensuing years at least four and perhaps as many as sixteen glaciers descended and retreated over much of North America, each ice sheet cataclysmically grinding and scouring the landscape. At least two-the Illinoisan and then the Wisconsinan-crept as far south as Long Island Sound.
Twenty-six thousand years ago, the Wisconsinan ice sheet began plowing slowly across Connecticut. Its leading edge was an irregular wall of ice, perhaps two miles high, that eventually would span the breadth of North America, from Nova Scotia to Washington. It inched forward with awesome power. On its descent the glacier scraped soil off the bedrock and dragged boulders across it, ripping off chunks of the bedrock itself. It sheared forests, softened the sharp contours of the river valleys, and gouged out depressions near the rivers. It crossed what is now the coast of Connecticut and New York's Westchester County, and swept over a lowland that had been sculpted by rivers and the earlier Illinoisan ice sheet.
Then, just like that (in geological time), weather conditions at the face of the ice changed, and, by twenty-one thousand years ago, the glacier had advanced as far as it would go. Ice kept flowing from the glacier's northern source, but only enough to keep pace with the melting at its southern terminus. The wall of ice held its ground. Water poured from its face. The air was milky with mist. Rivers of sand, rock, and soil that had been locked in the ice flowed in torrents of meltwater. The debris piled up, forming a long, lumpy terminal moraine that, on the east coast of the United States, now emerges from the ocean at Block Island, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket Island, and lies across much of central Long Island and its South Fork, where it is called the Ronkonkoma moraine.
In another two thousand years, the ice sheet retreated slightly and paused again, dumping out sand and gravel continuously. When it stopped, it spread another moraine-this one a recessional moraine-north of the terminal moraine. It forms the north shore and the North Fork of Long Island and is called the Harbor Hill-Roanoke Point moraine. Sail past the steep bluffs of eastern Long Island's north shore and you're looking at a rough mirror image, its focus softened by centuries of erosion, of the glacier's face. East of Port Jefferson the bluffs stretch virtually without indentation for forty miles, dropping into the water at Orient Point. The moraine slithers east through Plum Island and Great Gull and Little Gull islands. It drops under water at the Race, the eastern entrance of the Sound, and forms a submerged sill that forces the tidal current to ride up and over it, causing the roiling water that is so notable in that section of the Sound and gouging out depressions that are almost three hundred feet deep on either side of the sill. The moraine rises again at Fishers Island and forms the barrier beaches of Rhode Island and, eventually, Cape Cod. West of Port Jefferson, beaches and bluffs form the mouths of a series of harbors that cut deep into Long Island-Oyster Bay, Hempstead Harbor, Manhasset Bay, Little Neck Bay.
Over the next fifteen hundred years the glacier retreated north from the Harbor Hill-Roanoke Point moraine, leaving smaller recessional moraines in the Sound itself and along the Connecticut coast as well, near Norwalk, for example, and in Milford at the mouth of the Housatonic River, and between Madison and Old Saybrook at the mouth of the Connecticut River.
As the glacier receded, its melt water settled into the lowland that the ice had helped to create south of New England. The moraine acted as a dam between Orient Point and Fishers Island, and a cold lake-glacial Lake Connecticut, almost three hundred feet deep-covered what is now Long Island Sound. For a thousand years, the land just north of the lake was little more than exposed rock and glacial debris, whipped by cold winds off the glacier's face. The glacier's melt water swept a vast amount of sediment into the lake. It drifted down and accumulated on the bottom, nearly filling the lake with two hundred feet of clay deposits.
During these centuries sea level was two hundred and fifty or three hundred feet lower than it is today because of the amount of water locked in the glacial ice. The coast of North America was one hundred miles south of present-day Long Island, at the edge of the Continental Shelf. As the ice sheet melted, sea level rose and the water approached the moraines.
Wind and water eroded the dam, enlarging a spillway at the Race, and Lake Connecticut drained steadily. By 15,500 years ago it was empty, leaving a network of rivers and streams to crisscross the lake bed. Five hundred years later the sea had risen sufficiently to flow in through the same breach that had drained the lake, sending salty water across the old lake bed and mixing it with the freshwater of the region's rivers. The Long Island Sound estuary was born.
The ice continued to melt north, and south winds began to dominate. As the climate moderated, the tiny, boggy plants of the tundra took root. The first trees to return were the spruces, followed a thousand years later by the first deciduous trees, the alders. The sea continued to encroach and was well-established in the old lake basin by 13,500 years ago. Eventually it filled beyond the basin, creeping up into north-south valleys, creating the drowned coastline that characterizes the Sound's north and south shores. The rising water delineated the Sound's harbors and bays. It flooded river valleys, creating smaller tidal estuaries in the lower reaches of freshwater streams. "Native Americans recognized the important difference in the character of these rivers," wrote Michael Bell, author of The Face of Connecticut; "the syllable 'tuck' and its corruption 'tic' contained in [their] names mean 'tidal river'"-examples being the Pawcatuck, the Mystic, the Niantic, and the Saugatuck. The Indians settled the area and eventually thrived for the same reason that Europeans would: because it was a benign environment, protected from the vicissitudes of the ocean by Long Island and containing ample fresh water in its rivers, whose valleys were fertile and whose waters became the easiest roads to the interior.
The rising sea also surrounded higher points of land, creating many of the islands along the Sound's north shore. The Fish Islands, off Darien, are but bedrock hills that were too tall to be covered by the sea. Some islands are glacial moraines-the Norwalk Islands, for example, and the Captain Islands, off Greenwich. Falkner's Island, off Branford, is a drumlin, a hill of debris dumped by the glacier, which, in its uneroded form, is shaped like an upside-down spoon. The debris that forms Falkner's, though, was left by the Illinoisan ice sheet, not the Wisconsinan, one hundred and fifty thousand years ago. The Thimble Islands, just west of Falkner's Island, are bedrock knobs topped with glacial leftovers.
Some of the scoured bedrock was not high enough to form significant islands but not low enough to be completely underwater. Lighthouses were built on at least two of these exposed rocks in the nineteenth century. One, Stepping Stone Light, sits among a string of mostly intertidal knobs running between City Island and Little Neck Bay-knobs that can be disastrous for unwary speed boaters. Another, Execution Light, marks the perilous Execution Rocks off New Rochelle. Local legend has it that, during the Revolutionary War, Tories chained traitors to the rocks to await drowning when the tide rose. In truth, though, Execution Rocks was named because it is a dangerous shipping area. The lowest tides still expose the remains of wrecked vessels.
The south shore of the Sound, by contrast, has no islands. The glacier smothered the bedrock with the sand and gravel that make up Long Island. It also dumped thousands of offshore boulders, glacial erratics like the rocks in the fields and woods of New England and New York.
Ten to twelve thousand years ago sea level was still significantly lower than it is today. (It did not rise enough to form the Sound's present-day coastline until about four thousand years ago.) Islands and peninsulas were mainland hills; shoals and sills were islands. The moderating temperature around this infant estuary invited settlement by creatures from the warmer lands to the south. Among them, probably, were human beings, elk hunters who also may have grown a few crops. Assertions about those people are necessarily conditional. They left behind scant evidence. There is no doubt, however, that as the centuries passed, the population of those people grew and prospered. They developed closely related languages. They established well-defined territorial boundaries. They lived a life governed by the rhythms of the natural year, synchronized with the migrations of wildlife, attuned to the vicissitudes and benevolences of climate and weather.
They were a people who were keenly aware of their place in the natural world. It was a wild creature, they believed, who gave rise to their forefathers. An old Indian called Jasper, who lived on Long Island in the seventeenth century, explained their origins to European visitors by drawing an oval on the ground and adding four paws, a head, and a tail. "This is a tortoise lying in the water around it," he told them. "This was or is all water, and so at first was the world or the earth, when the tortoise gradually raised its round back up high, and the water ran off of it, and thus the earth became dry."
Jasper stuck a straw into the middle of the tortoise's back. "The earth was now dry, and there grew a tree in the middle of the earth, and the root of this tree sent forth a sprout beside it and there grew upon it a man, who was the first male. This man was then alone, and would have remained alone; but the tree bent over until its top touched the earth, and there shot therein another root, from which came forth another sprout, and there grew upon it the woman, and from these two are all men produced."
Descended from trees and supported by animals, the people prospered on this island that was the back of a turtle. For centuries they lived in relative peace, isolated from and utterly ignorant of the fantastic technological changes burgeoning half a world away as Europe emerged from the Middle Ages-changes that would first lead to the extinction of the native population and later put the Sound itself on the brink of disaster.
Excerpted from This Fine Piece of Water by TOM ANDERSEN Copyright © 2002 by Tom Andersen. Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction: The Sound||1|
|Prologue: The Sound Is Dying||9|
|1||The Birth of the Sound||15|
|3||Adriaen Block and the First Explorers||35|
|4||The American Mediterranean||56|
|5||The Industrial Age||67|
|8||Strangling the Sound||116|
|9||The Brink of Disaster||127|
|12||The New Sound||202|
|Afterword: Dead Oysters, Dead Lobsters||227|