9. Men's Lives

by Peter Matthiessen

To celebrate friend Jarret's recent milestone birthday, we sailed on Priscilla, the fully restored late 19th century fishing boat on the Great South Bay.  The crew that operates this boat daily recommended Matthiessen's tribute to the once thriving Long Island fishing industry and the men who for generations made their meager livelihood from the sea as surfmen and baymen of the South Fork.

I love the book.  Having done some growing up on Long Island, and spent a number of my teenage days as crewman on lobster boat out of Mount Sinai, I couldn't put this one down.  It speaks of very real, imperfect people who sustained their lives by cultivating the land and fishing the sea just off the coast of Long Island. It also speaks to me personally as a romantic, a man who truly longs to make a life outside.  We die sooner at desks.

Matthiessen manages to write lovingly about these poor but very independent people, and yet unflinchingly explores the varying environmental impact of the commercial fishing industry over time.  I also enjoyed his attack on the "sport fishing" industry, which apparently has been responsible for nearly 80% of the fish sold to the major fish markets on the eastern seaboard for a number of decades.  Matthiessen wonders, page after page, why the world of politics has invested billions over decades focusing on commercial fishing when so-called sport fishing has hauled millions of pounds of fish annually for nearly a half-century.  Nor have politicians had the courage to deal with the pollution of our major rivers, which have fouled the bays (fish spawning beds) for over a century.  Somehow it's easier to attack the little guy and ignore the more significant causes. But the little guy has done his damage too.

A damned good book, but probably not a "page turner" for everyone.

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