Posted by on Nov 13, 2012 in Nature | 6 comments

After searching the Town Beach in Narragansett (with what seemed like hundreds of other people) for any storm-tossed treasures, and finding only a surf clam shell, my stepson, Sam, and I decided to go for higher ground and find a place no other beachcombers had been.

The storm surge had gone a couple of hundred yards inland, so we headed in that direction, walking over to the small freshwater pond, called Lake Canonchet, behind the road and bath houses. Our mission was to search for anything interesting Sandy might have washed up. The two roads next to the pond were closed to traffic–they were covered in sand and cobblestones. I could tell Sam thought it was pretty cool to be walking on a road that normally is full of cars but now was full of rocks.

At the pond Sam found a red plastic shovel. The handle of the shovel was sticking from a mound of seaweed. Sam was delighted with his find, a real score, and went off searching for more stuff, running around like a Labrador in tall grass on a rabbit’s scent. Sam then found a tennis ball and a rubber cannon. The cannon had once been clipped to the side of a toy fort. The fort was nowhere to be seen. Sam raised the cannon into the air and made a deep chanting sound, as if calling his great army to battle.

“Sam check this out, a bench.” The bench was in a mass of cattails and dune grass, seaweed, twigs, branches and roots. Everything was tangled together, brown and dead.

“Did the bench come from over there?” Sam asked, pointing toward the sea wall.

“Yup. It sure did. Pretty incredible, isn’t it? The bench was ripped from the concrete and carried over here by the waves. Along with all these rocks. And the tennis ball and the cannon.”

Sam knew this. He’ll be seven this coming February. But even so I felt the need to tell him. I didn’t want him thinking the wind did it. I wanted him to understand the power of the ocean. That waves move and destroy things.  Sam both listened and didn’t listen. How can a parent compete against a cannon, or the possibility of more cannons, more toys, all free, all waiting to be discovered?

We kept walking. All along the pond I thought I was looking at plastic bags–and that didn’t surprise me. We all know how loaded the ocean is with trash, plastic being the most common. But on closer inspection, I saw that the plastic bags weren’t plastic bags at all, but were jellyfish. Hundreds of them. I was about to shout out my discovery, pleased to tell Sam that it wasn’t all garbage, but he beat me to it:

“Look John!” Sam came running up the bank. He’d been down the bank, down in the muck. In his hand was a fish. “What kind is it?” he said.

“It’s a juvenile bluegill sunfish, born this spring,” I said. “It lived in this pond.”

Sam had caught plenty of bluegills. But this was the first one he’d ever found dead. He turned it over in his fingers, giving it a close inspection, as looking for clues to the possible cause of death. Then dropped it in the grass.



After this fish, he and I began to find many. Some were dead, others dying. Sam watched the dying fish panic in the shallows. He asked if we could help them. I told him we could not. We watched a large sunfish swim on its side in a death spiral. Near the sunfish we watched a desperate largemouth bass gulp air. The living fish had no color. No reds or greens, nothing like what a healthy sunfish or bass would have. Just a uniform dull brown, the color of rice, from the tail of the fish to the head. And it was strange to see–the camaraderie of the dying– in water that was only a few inches deep, the largemouth bass bunched together with their bluegill prey.

“Why are they dying?”Sam asked.

It was a good question and not an easy one to answer. I know a few things about how a fish’s cell deals with water and salt; about how freshwater has a different density than saltwater, and about how this density difference causes water to flow through a fish’s cell membrane differently. The word is osmoregulation. But other than knowing the word–and a few things about the word–I had zero idea of how to explain the chemistry of why a freshwater fish when placed in the sea loses all of its water, shrivels up and dies. But another problem to answering Sam’s question is that not every freshwater fish dies when placed in salt. I have seen largemouth bass living in brackish water. And many trouts can live in the sea, salmon too; and some herrings can live in both salt and fresh, and eels and sticklebacks and killifish. Striped bass can live in both. The list goes on. So like many questions asked by children the answers are not always simple. But to answer the question fully, with all the adult fire power you can muster, you don’t run the risk of losing your child’s interest, you guarantee it.

“The ocean waves came into the pond,” I said.

“Yeah.” Sam said.

“So the freshwater became saltwater. But freshwater fish can’t tolerate the salt,” I said.  “It makes them very sick.”

“What’s tolerate mean?”Sam said.

“It means to handle, deal with.” Word definition for a six-year-old is tricky. I often over-do my definitions, way past the point of comprehension–his and often my own. “You can’t take a tuna fish and put it in this pond and expect the fish to live. For the same reason you can’t take one of these largemouth bass and walk it across the road and put it in the ocean. Each fish lives in its own place, its own kind of water. But these fish will be back. The storm didn’t kill every fish in this pond.”

“Could you put a whale in the pond?” Sam said and laughed.

He was fast losing interest in pond ecology after a storm. We moved on. I heard sirens and chainsaws and generators. A dump truck came down the closed road with a load of sand.   Sam found a shuttlecock and a waterlogged book with the cover ripped off. He found a moon jellyfish. I told him to try picking it up, that their skin feels like rubber. He asked if it would sting him. I said it’s a different species that stings. He picked up the jellyfish. He said he didn’t think it felt like rubber at all, it felt like jello instead.

On the way back to the car we passed over a lawn that is very popular with summer weddings. You have the sea and the sea wall, the gulls and the sailboats, a lobsterboat hauling gear. On a weekend in July there can be 200 rented white chairs all in neat parallel rows full of smiling guests, all looking their best. But as Sam and I walked across the spongy salt-saturated lawn all we could see were dead earthworms. Hundreds and hundreds of them. And the worms did not look their best, didn’t look like lush garden worms, fat and happy, but looked like they had been living in jars of formaldehyde.

“Gross. They stink. Can you smell them? Is that the worms that stink?” Sam asked, his pace quickening.

“Look at them,” I said. ” The storm drowned them all.”

‘They’ll be back,” Sam said. “I bet Sandy didn’t kill every one.”