The Trout Pool Paradox: The American Lives of Three Rivers

The Trout Pool Paradox: The American Lives of Three Rivers

by George Black



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618310807
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/07/2004
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

GEORGE BLACK is an avid fly fisherman who in light traffic can make it from his New York apartment to the banks of the Shepaug in just under an hour and a half. He has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. He is the author of three books on foreign affairs.

Read an Excerpt

1 The Trout Pool Paradox

The state of Connecticut covers 4,845 square miles. You could fit it, if you were so minded, about fifty-five times into the state of Texas. If you drove diagonally across the state between its most widely separated points—say, from the New York suburbs of Greenwich, Connecticut, to the northeast corner, on the Massachusetts line—you would, in Texan terms, be making a quick hop from Dallas to Wichita Falls.

Battle Swamp Brook lies in the hilly northwestern part of the state.
From my home in Manhattan, the odometer records the journey as eighty-three miles, and with light traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway, I can be on the stream in ninety minutes flat. Battle Swamp Brook is as wild a place as you can find in the state of Connecticut. Without thinking too much about their choice of words, a lot of people would call it a pristine wilderness. Pristine: “remaining in a pure state, uncorrupted by civilization.” That’s what it says in The American Heritage Dictionary.

Less than a mile from here, the brook enters the Shepaug River—“a wilderness gem,” according to the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.
The Shepaug is the second-largest tributary of the Housatonic, which winds for more than a hundred miles from the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts before it passes under Interstate 95 and flows sluggishly into Long Island Sound. Next valley over, barely ten miles from here, just across the forested hills, is the Naugatuck—the largest of the Housatonic’s tributaries, which joins the big river at tidewater.

I began to fish this watershed ten years ago, when our kids were newborns and we rented a summer place in the town of Southbury, Connecticut. Southbury formed the base point of a triangle. Fifteen miles and twenty-five minutes in one direction took us to the town of Washington, the crown jewel of the Shepaug Valley and a magnet for affluent New Yorkers, a kind of Hamptons-Without-the-Crowds (or the ocean). Fifteen miles and twenty-five minutes in the other direction, most of it on the interstate, and we descended into the valley of the Naugatuck and the town of Waterbury, past the red-brick chimneys of derelict mills, the spires of innumerable Catholic churches, and the Italianate tower of the old railroad depot, an exact replica of the Torre del Mangia in Siena. We went to Washington for riverbank picnics, watching as the kids waded out to net giant crayfish. We went to Waterbury if we wanted to do a big shop at the mall or if the car needed to make a pit stop at Midas Muffler.

I say that I began to fish the Housatonic watershed. To be more accurate, I’d have to say that I fished the Shepaug until Memorial Day.
In springtime, the river is like the Platonic ideal of a trout stream, as it rushes through places called Steep Rock and Hidden Valley. Sarah Griswold, the director of the little Gunn Historical Museum in Washington, once told me that during the thirteen years she lived in California, she never stopped thinking about the river for a single day. She told Californians that the Sierras had nothing to compare with Steep Rock. They told Sarah she couldn’t be serious, talking that way about some rinkydink place in Connecticut. She said, “I’m serious.”

It isn’t hard to see what Sarah Griswold meant. The Shepaug is a river to break your heart. Not just because it’s so beautiful, or because of the big brown trout and wild brookies that hide in its tea-colored runs, but because it has spent eighty years on the brink of extinction. In April and May it’s the river that nature intended it to be, and watching its hydrology, geology, biology, and hydraulics all pulling in sync is like watching the Guarneri Quartet play Beethoven.

But after Memorial Day the Shepaug becomes a shadow of itself. As the consequence of a 1921 agreement, which the selectmen of Washington signed in a moment of weakness, their industrial neighbor, the city of Waterbury, built a dam on the Shepaug and began to divert the river water for its own needs. So in summertime the rocks bake, the water temperature soars into the eighties, parents are afraid to let their children play in the river because of the risk of infection by E. coli, and trout are found floating belly-up below Roxbury Falls.

I’d fish the Shepaug, then, for a month or so each spring, knowing that I could almost always find solitude there, in a landscape of hemlock woods, shaded forest paths, and the scattered estates of gentlemen farmers.
For the rest of the year, I joined the community of anglers who stalk fat brown trout in the six-mile stretch of the Housatonic that flanks the town of Cornwall. But I never heard of anyone fishing the Naugatuck.
The name alone was a sufficient deterrent. The Naugatuck was to theNortheast what Ohio’s Cuyahoga was to the Midwest—a chemical sewer that was chiefly known for catching fire.

Topographically, this didn’t make any senseeeee to me. A geological map of northwestern Connecticut showed similar granite hills enclosing two steep, parallel valleys of roughly similar length—the Shepaug and the Naugatuck. It seemed therefore that the two rivers should have followed a similar course of settlement and development. Yet the divide was absolute.
The rain that fell on the west side of the Litchfield Hills flowed into a rural idyll. The rain that fell to the east fed an urban nightmare. One river was filled with polished rocks and water the color of Earl Grey tea, home to brown trout and mayflies; the other was filled with car tires and shopping carts. I wondered why this should be so.

From the small fieldstone bridge over Battle Swamp Brook, the trail winds sharply uphill from the dirt road. Off to the right, from a wooded ravine, comes the sound of running water. Through thick stands of hemlock and rhododendron, glints of the stream begin to appear as you walk uphill. It’s a small brook, no more than fifteen feet at its widest, its course defined by stairstep shelves of Precambrian bedrock. Each successive set of falls is lipped with white spray; the water drops away into the next short, deep pool, stained amber with tannins from the hemlocks.
The pools are studded with sharp-edged boulders, long ago scattered in random patterns by the departing glaciers.

On these small, glaciated New England streams, it’s never easy for the angler to maneuver into a good casting position. There are too many obstacles. The sides of the brook rise abruptly, and the dark canopy of hemlock branches waits to snag any careless backcast. But the fish are eager to flash at any morsel that drifts past their feeding stations, and within minutes I’ve caught and released three. They’re wild brook trout, six or eight inches long, with sleek dark sides that harmonize with their surroundings. The single male among them has an intense splash of orange on his belly, advance notice that he will soon be ready for spawning.

The best place to drop a fly is in the quiet back eddy at the foot of the largest waterfall, where helpless insects are funneled into a slow-motion whirlpool. This is where I’d expect to find the largest fish in the pool.
Even so, the jolting force of the strike comes as a surprise. The fish is full of muscular strength, and it takes me down over the lip of the pool and into the stony riffle below. In this confined environment, with a short, light rod, I experience the momentary illusion of fighting a tarpon. But it’s a brown trout, and a beauty, a quintessence of trout.

Those who write about the trout tend to strain for metaphors to describe its form. Yet it seems redundant to say that it’s torpedo-shaped, or football-shaped, or anything-else-shaped. All that really needs to be said is that it’s trout-shaped. The form is self-defining, an archetype, an ideal of natural beauty. This particular trout is fully eleven inches long, with strong, thick shoulders. The spots are bright roundels of a color that the English would call pillar-box red. I doubt whether the food supply in this small mountain brook—the sparse hatches of mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis flies; the blacknose dace and creek chub; the crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, and ants that are blown into the stream by summer breezes—could build a larger or healthier specimen.

Even so, the brown trout is an unlikely roommate for the native brookies. It’s a European immigrant that came to this country a little over a hundred years ago, at about the same time that millions of other immigrants were pouring in through Ellis Island. In this northwestern Connecticut drainage, in fact, Salmo trutta has not even been around that long; the first ones were introduced here only in the 1920s. So my brown is an interloper in a sense, not many generations removed from stocked fish that swam up this tributary from the Shepaug in search of spawning grounds. In this corner of New England—indeed, in most of the American Northeast—this type of wild fish, stream-bred but not native, will have to be enough to satisfy our longings for wildness.

By the time the trout has revived and slid back under its sheltering rock, the morning has grown warm. Time to eat. Crusty sourdough bread, a thick hunk of cheddar cheese, an apple, ice-cold water. At the edge of the pool, there’s a serviceable lunch table, a flat rock edged with dark, damp moss. A twenty-foot hemlock, as thick around as my thigh, has somehow contrived to anchor itself here, extracting just sufficient moisture for survival from the dense metamorphic rock. Its trunk arches out over the stream, and its roots snake across the rock face before burrowing into the small pockets of soil trapped in the crevices. The tracery of roots intrigues me, and I follow its path with my finger. Beneath the tangle, the crevices in the rock seem oddly regular, falling in unnaturally straight lines and right angles. Only by standing back a few steps is it possible to apprehend the larger shape—not a table rock at all but the grown-over ruins of a milldam.

Right here at my feet is what I’ve come to think of as the trout pool paradox. If you are looking for cultural archetypes, look no farther than the trout pool, where wild creatures of astonishing beauty swim free in the limpid currents at the base of a waterfall. The image pervades recorded American history. You’ll find it in the first engravings of the colonists and the prints of Currier and Ives, in the hand-colored turn-of-the-century post card and the sentimental Hallmark greeting card. The trout pool is a place for solitary contemplation, for romantic love, for a sense of reconnection with lost wilderness. And yet paradoxically, the pristine trout pools of western Connecticut nurtured the most noisome and alienating developments of the American industrial revolution—factory towns, foundries, mass production, the modern armaments and aerospace industries.

For millennia, before they were displaced and decimated by disease, Pootatuck Indians would have gathered their wigwams seasonally near this spot to intercept American shad and lamprey eels, and perhaps Atlantic salmon, as these creatures made their spawning runs up the Housatonic, into the Shepaug, and up this brook, perhaps as far as the small falls where I’m standing. When European colonists began to populate these rocky hills with their farmsteads in the early eighteenth century, they found that the means of powering waterwheels was close at hand. The building of the mills followed the imperatives of survival—food, shelter, and clothing. First gristmills ground the grain to make bread. Next, sawmills transformed the abundant forests into boards for farmhouses, fences for fields, and waterwheels and gears and dam planking for more mills, such as the fulling mills that would turn coarse woolen yardage into cloth. When these necessities were attended to, a secondary wave of mills made the axes, the barrel staves, the hard cider—an expanding universe of farm tools, household implements, and food and beverage. The raw materials were right there to hand, embedded in the rocks, ready to spawn a growing army of blacksmiths, ironworkers, and other specialized artisans who would turn the agrarian economy of the Housatonic Valley into an industrial one.

When I first chanced upon the ruins on Battle Swamp Brook, there was nothing to tell me what kind of mill had once stood here or why it had failed. But I thought it was a fair bet that the mill owner had stood at the center of the local social web. Given their strategic importance to the economy, millers came to be indispensable sources of information, power brokers, often a community’s first bankers and capitalists and politicians.
Only years later did curiosity take me to the local archives, in the town of Roxbury, where I found old maps confirming that the ruins on Battle Swamp Brook had once been a sawmill. A map from the 1860s showed the residence of a Colonel Albert L. Hodge next to the mill.

The colonel had left more than his name on a map. In addition to his sawmill interests, he was a “West Point alumnus, farmer, businessman, road commissioner, retailer, saloon keeper, iron mine director, church elder, state legislator, and Roxbury’s registrar of voters.” He had done enough to merit a biography, and he had kept a daybook, which the public library had preserved. Reading these volumes was like looking into a nineteenth-century stereopticon. They combined to show me a three-dimensional picture of a New England valley at the end of the Civil War, quivering on the brink of a heavy industrial future because of the energies that men like Colonel Hodge applied to the natural conditions they found here.

We tend to think of the Victorians as verbose, but Hodge was laconic in the extreme. The entries in his daybook rarely run to more than ten words. While the Civil War ground on, his main concern was farming.

April 5, 1864 Plowed my garden today.
April 11 Sowed clover seed and rye. Snow and rain.
May 28 Put manure on my tobacco ground.
May 29 Sheared my sheep.

Yet five years after the war, the daybook reflects very different preoccupations.

June 21, 1870 A fine early shower. To the mine and started a shaft.
August 1 Measured the drifts [at the iron mine] and made out the statement.
August 4 Took up the small bridge at the mill. Logan and Perkins came on railroad matters.

In the boom years that followed the war, Colonel Hodge and his fellow civic leaders were clamoring to use the Shepaug in order to become as filthy rich as the men of affairs of the neighboring Naugatuck Valley, who had turned the city of Waterbury into the world capital of the brass industry. Hodge’s days were consumed by the Shepaug Spathic Iron and Steel Company, which he dreamed would produce surgical-grade steel in Roxbury, and the Shepaug Valley Railroad Company, whose tracks would turn the sleepy valley into an industrial powerhouse.

But the dream collapsed. In Waterbury and along the Naugatuck, the boom and the filth lasted for another hundred years. Yet in Roxbury, Washington, and the other towns of the Shepaug Valley, the idea of an industrial future was dead within three. All that remained was the old abandoned railbed—the forest path that I used to hike from one Shepaug trout pool to the next. I needed to know why, and the first schematic histories I read helped me—up to a point. In this particular corner of Connecticut, I could quickly see, the symmetry between the elements of a healthy trout stream and the ingredients of an industrial sewer was almost uncanny, seemingly invented by someone wanting to make a didactic point about our culture. Over the course of two hundred years, the poverty of the land and the waterpower provided by fast-flowing glaciated rivers made this the cradle of the American industrial revolution.
Gristmills mutated into factories, and factories spawned factory towns.
Rivers were choked with sawdust and poisoned with industrial waste.
The old-growth forests that shaded and cooled the trout streams were cut down to feed the insatiable appetite of industry. People showed me old photographs to prove that a hundred years ago, from the top of Mount Riga, where Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York meet, you would not have seen a tree in any direction.

All of this was true enough as a broad-brush picture, yet it felt too overdetermined. The fact is that some sawmills went one way, and some went another. At the turn of the twenty-first century, here I was, fly- fishing over wild trout in a former mill setting that apparently had reverted to its pristine state. The Naugatuck had gone one way, but the Shepaug had gone another. The Housatonic itself could easily have become another Monongahela or another Ruhr. Falls Village, where the river hurtles over bedrock shelves in a spectacle that the first European travelers could compare only with Niagara, could easily have been overrun by heavy industry, like Pittsburgh or Duisburg. Certainly there was no shortage of entrepreneurs and investors who wanted to make that happen by bending the river to their will. But in the end it didn’t, and Falls Village remained a sleepy hamlet with a half-forgotten railroad halt.

As I ran my fingers over the tough roots of the hemlock, it occurred to me that if Colonel Hodge’s ruined mill had anything to tell us, it is that nothing is predetermined about the course of history. There are no guarantees, no fixed plan. Any river, and by extension, I suppose, the human society around it, can teeter on the edge as the Shepaug did. Which way it tips is the result of a multitude of factors—natural phenomena, human choices both harmful and benign, economics, timing, and sheer blind chance.

It’s hard to achieve intimacy with a river without at least a passing knowledge of many things: geology, hydrology and hydraulics, animal and plant biology, entomology, climate change, land use, economic and political power, human settlement and migration patterns. The list is endless. Each element has its own distinct part to play, and each conditions the others in a ceaseless dynamic of change, every bit as protean as the flow of the river itself. While no one can be expected to master all of these disciplines, it seemed to me that, as a fly-fisherman, I was at least presented with both motive and opportunity to learn something about each of them. Droves of technically adept fishermen, of course, remain blithely ignorant of all these factors, except perhaps for some basic entomology. Conversely, though, it would be hard to think deeply about these things and not emerge a better fisherman—if not in the technical sense, then at least in understanding what needs to be done if our rivers are to remain, or become once again, the kind of place where trout will want to live.

Sometimes the cause and effect of human action is blindingly transparent.
Fishing one stream, you may notice that the trout no longer rise to hatches of mayflies because, in accord with local zoning ordinances, a new mall was built, silting up the pool you’re standing in with the runoff from its impervious asphalt parking lot. Fishing another river, you may wonder how much the profusion of caddis fly larvae beneath the rocks has to do with the bankruptcy of a nineteenth-century investor, whose failure headed off the assault of industry. These examples are a little simplistic, of course. Most of the time, reading the water is more complicated, and the social, economic, and political food chain of the watershed is every bit as intricate as the ecology that creates the interdependencies of algae, invertebrates, and trout. Often the connections remain obscure, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since a river without secrets ceases in some fundamental way to be a river.

Long before I was a fisherman, I was a child, of course, and the things that really fascinate me originated in childhood, as they do for all of us. In a Scottish mining town in the 1950s, even in the midst of brown coal fogs and slag heaps that glowed with methane fires at night, the contested areas, the edgelands between industry and the wild, were never far away. Wild strawberries grew around the bogs that formed over collapsed mineshafts, and thick velvet carpets of moss submerged the stones of ruined castle towers, like the hemlocks that rose from the remnants of Colonel Hodge’s milldam. On the outskirts of town, the ugly detritus of the mines gave way abruptly to the rocky seacoast, where seal colonies flourished and Sir Patrick Spens lay buried with the Scots lords at his feet.
Last time we went back, so my children could see where their grandfather had grown up while he was still alive, the slag heaps had been leveled, the old pit rail bed looked as if it had been landscaped by Capability Brown, and there was trout fishing in the loch at the edge of town.

All this may explain why I find it more productive to think about restoration than preservation. In Europe as in New England, there isn’t a square inch of land that hasn’t been picked over and shaped and reshaped by human action. Talking about preservation feels like perpetuating an illusion, and maybe even a dangerous one. Perhaps this piece of graffiti, which utopian students daubed on the walls of Paris in 1968, is more accurate: sous le pavé, une plage—“under the pavement, there is a beach.”

Before a fishing trip, I used to have one of two recurring nightmares.
The first was a pretty conventional anxiety dream. I would misplace my fly rod, lose my car keys, take one wrong turn after another, hit red lights, slam the car door on my bamboo rod tip, race home, search frantically for another, drive through unfamiliar urban landscapes where the one-way systems took me farther away from the river, and end up at my favorite pool just as the last of the daylight was fading from the sky.

The second dream would take me deeper into these blasted cityscapes.
Cement-lined canals full of debris. A stagnant millpond by a half-demolished factory full of carrion crows. A scummed-up swimming pool.
Suddenly I’m aware that the biggest trout I’ve ever seen is finning quietly, wraithlike, in the water, sipping flies from the surface. Fumbling and sweating, I fire off a cast, landing the fly like thistledown. The fish turns to take the fly, but when I set the hook there is no resistance. I reel it in; it’s inert. And when the fish becomes visible, I see that it’s not a trout at all. It’s some unknown species, grotesque in form, made of some limp, rubbery material. And it’s dead.

For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the contest over our rivers was quite one-sided. Happily, that may no longer be the case. Although the battles are still often unequal, people are trying to unravel the trout pool paradox as they strive to save the contested areas of the Housatonic Valley—and other rivers across the postindustrial world.
Most labor in anonymity—biologists, hydrologists, land-use planners, elected officials in small communities, litigators, local historians, high school teachers, and just plain fishermen—each in his or her own way having concluded that a river fit for trout is a fine barometer of the general health of a society.

These people reaffirm my wavering faith in a certain notion of democracy, perhaps the kind that Tocqueville had in mind when he wrote, “What most astonishes me about the United States is not so much the marvelous grandeur of some undertakings as the innumerable multitude of small ones.” From these undertakings, a picture emerges of the future possibilities of the river.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s probably time to start at the beginning.

Copyright © 2004 by George Black. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Table of Contents

Contents B O O K I WATERSHED 1. The Trout Pool Paradox 3 2. The Edgelands of Alfaro 14 3. Foundation Stones 21 4. Subdue the Earth 34 5. The Cheering Rays of Civilization 47 6. Fire on the Mountain 63 7. Ydawaix and Oldphogiz 75 8. There but for Fortune 89 9. Dark Satanic Mills 95 10. The High Cost of Brass 108 B O O K I I BACK TO NATURE 11. Foundlings of the Finny Family 121 12. The Magic Bullet 134 13. Are Locusts Kosher? Adventures in Entomology 145 14. The Pilgrim Road 158 15. Toxic Politics 166 16. Row v.Wade 185 17. Reading the Water 197 18. The Call of the Wild 206 B O O K I I I LISTENING TO THE RIVER 19. Stakeholders 219 20. Fer Fightin’ Over 232 21. Floodwaters 244 22. Zero Discharge 256 23. Old and in the Way 264 24. The Ideology of Salmon 275 25. A Fully Fought Case 286 26. Riverness 295 Notes on Sources 307 Acknowledgments 326

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