The Swift and Wily Piscataqua
The Piscataqua region defies easy definition. Lord knows, I've tried in hundreds of essays, but the river overpowers me. Words fail from the start. Commonly used descriptors like -- estuary, drowned river valley, maritime history, architectural heritage, social capital, tidal basin, coastal wetlands, marine ecology -- are as bland as cottage cheese. Poets and painters have struggled, with some success, to capture the region piece by piece. Photographers have fared better than most artists, but it takes a lot of images to depict this changeable region.
That's because the seacoast here is so much more than the sum of its parts, and its parts are so diverse. We are rich, poor, rocky, sandy, fishy, farmy, woodsy, grassy, urban, rural, floral, barren, boggy, bushy, hilly, milly, mally, military, tacky, cultured, preserved, exploited, pristine, radioactive, historic, prehistoric -- and all in the shortest coastal span of any state in the nation. The region includes Great and Little Bay and the finger-like rivers that spawned nearly two dozen towns in NH and Maine.
So when UNH Prof. Jefffrey Bolster and a committee of editors began soliciting essays for a new maritime guide to the Piscataqua, I had my doubts. The proposed title, "Cross-Grained and Wily Waters," was descriptive enough, but didn't have the commercial ring of a best-seller. But with 41 other contributing authors, I submitted my assigned essay and waited for two years.
This week publisher Peter Randall slipped me an advance copy of "Wily Waters" and my jaw dropped. It is, without a doubt, the best single volume I've seen about this region, and I’ve seen plenty. At $28, complete with a luxurious fold-out map, it has to be among the most affordable. In 75 short well-written chapters, with 240 photos and illustrations, "Wily Waters" comes as close as a book can come to defining the essence of the Piscataqua. Typically, as the old saying goes, a committee starts out to design a horse, and ends up with a camel. Against all odds, Bolster and his team have produced a thoroughbred. This book has legs. This book is going places.
"It is designed to stand on the two legs of history and the environment," Bolster says. "Most people would have done a book on one thing or another. We wanted lots of short essays and lots of pictures of things that are meaningful to this region. It's that juxtaposition of elements that I'm most proud of."
At first glance "Wily Waters" may appear to be a mish-mash of unrelated topics -- eels, architecture, archeology, nukes, boats, forts, fish. There was the danger of it becoming encyclopedic, or just another coffee table curio. It could have come out horribly misshapen -- like a tourist guide grafted to a scholarly text. But the book holds its own, functioning on many complex levels simultaneously, changing with each chapter like the coastal rivers themselves. Underneath every page flows the swift dark waters of the Piscataqua.
"It's all about moving water," Bolster explains. 'Water running sawmills and textile factories, water bringing slaves to this region, water beckoning European settlers and modern tourists, commercial waterfowling, alewives running, ice fishing, the mast pine trade, sailing ships, the architecture of people who derive their living from the sea, everything is connected. It's about cycles of popular growth along the river and coast, ecological cycles too."
"Wily Water" is a sturdy oversized paperback. It's the kind of book you can get wet, Bolster says. The meaty content is arranged by town from Seabrook, NH through York County. Maine, a region linked socially, geographically, architecturally and economically. Yet every town, somehow, has its unique bond to the water. Locals know which town owes its image to clam flats or beaches, cotton or shoe mills, lobsters or shipyards, mansions or lighthouses, salt flats or summer camps. There is a sameness in the Seacoast that inspires regional loyalty, but sharp differences that turn each scrappy independent township into its own fiefdom. And of course, split down the center by adjoining states, are the nine rocky Isles of Shoals.
Surprisingly, we have big government to thank for this highly independent volume. The headwaters of the Wily Waters Project formed back in 1998 when the National Park Service announced federal funding for projects focusing on maritime heritage. Bolster and his steering committee coordinated funds from local, private, national and state sources. People who really knew what they were talking about -- historians, coastal researchers, state agents, academics. Local photographers donated high quality images. Researchers dug into local archives for historic images, many that I’ve never seen before.
"It’s all about community building," Bolster says. "The book was very collaborative in nature. My job was mostly pleading, cajoling, threatening, stroking."
Best known for his book "Black Jacks" about African Americans in the age of sail, Jeff Bolster is himself a sailor and a "salt water guy." He has written for Yale and Harvard University presses, the New York Times and other high-status publishers. This project, he says time and again, is a group effort that succeeded because so many different types were involved, from peacemakers and river pirates, to philanthropists and bureaucrats, he says. He continually names his associates – his wife Molly Bolster of the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, former gundalow pilot Mike Gowell, Carol Walker Aten, NH state architect Jim Garvin, Jeffrey Taylor from the NH Office of State Planning – and on and on
In the process, Bolster says, a real definition of the Piscataqua
seems to have evolved. It can’t be stated in terse dictionary style, but
it rises up from the pages of "Wily Water" through recognizable and
repeated themes of history and land use.
"What we’re really trying to do is connect people to place," he says by way of summary. "Not in a maudlin or sentimental way. We’re offering an informed reason why this region looks the way it looks. Without imposing draconian tactics, we’re offering readers the chance to then think about what it may look like in the future."
We may all drive cars on roads, talk on wireless phones, watch satellite dish TV and communicate via computers on cable modems – but most everyone who lives in the Piscataqua is here, for one reason or another, due to the moving water. Old residents know that’s true because their families depended on the rivers and the sea. Newer residents may not have made the connection – it’s all about moving water. Be careful, the book is saying between the lines – be careful or you may destroy this precious place.
The best way to truly understand the tenuous balance of the Piscataqua, that Bolster talks about – that juxtaposition of ecology, history and society – is by air. If you have the money and the guts, go to Rochester or Hampton or Portsmouth or Sanford and rent a small plane or helicopter and criss-cross the region. You will discover that half the Seacoast is water. The ocean, bays, coves, rivers, ponds and marshes glisten like a mirror in the sun, connected by tiny bridges and spits of land. If you only have $28, get yourself a copy of "Wily Water". It’s not quite as exciting, but close.
Don't miss the column by J. Dennis Robinson in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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