A Cape Cod Notebook 4/8/08

listenThe Voice of Herring River

By Robert Finch

Last night at Paine's Creek I stood at the town landing and listened to the alewives come in. It wa s just dark when I arrived, and in the dying light the exposed flats were veined with black, shining water. An old cart track, used generations ago to reach the offshore weir nets, still wound its way through th e newly greening cord grass of the fringe marsh along the shore. Out beyond, on the flats, hundreds o f gulls sat on the edges of the outflowing stream channel, or paddled lazily in the shallow current. Some of the birds flew up when I got out of the car. They wheeled and screamed against the rosy afterligh t of the sunken sun, like ashes rising from the watery grave of the day's fire.

I walked out along the cart track towards the creek delta, and became aware of a flapping, swishing sound in the running waters of the stream beside me. It sounded like waves sucking back over a pebbled beach, but the creek bed has no pebbles in it here, only sand. In the thickening darkness I could see nothing but water. I thought it must be the voice of Paine's Creek itself, the sound of lo ose flapping tongues of sand and water flopping over themselves in the shallow ripples and swift outgoin g current. I might just as well have called it the voice of Stony Brook, as its upper reaches are call ed, or even Setucket, the old Indian name for this stream.

But there was a curious rhythm and respiration in the sound, coupled with a sudden urgency and movement towards the shore by the gulls. I flicked on my flashlight and shone it out over the creek waters. There I saw the white, slithering forms, edged in black, of running alewives, burrowing the ir way in across the shallow entrance bars of the creek. So it was the fish, not the water, that was t he source of the noise I heard in the dark.

The outflowing waters met the incoming tide, creating a turbulence that was only a few inches deep and must have been as much sand as water. But the fish, pushed by the urge to spawn, came on in hordes, like rounded riffles in a mountain stream. They swam with a persistence that seemed to say they did not care what substance or what texture they had to navigate. Water, sand, air - it did no t matter, so long as it would support their bodies and give them passage to the spawning ponds above. I felt that they would have gone through snow, if that was what they had encountered there.

Still, I had been right. It was the voice of the stream I heard, though not so much of this particu lar stream, or any of the individual identities assigned to it by Europeans or Native Americans over the centuries: Setucket, Stony Brook, Paine's Creek. No, this night at the landing the migrating alewive s anointed the stream with a more basic identity, one it shares with scores of similar waterways up an d down the coast. I stood in the dark and listened to the many-finned, many-tongued voice of Herring River.