I imagine that many people might not even know what I’m talking about when I worry about whether we are losing the “old ways.” You see, I had the great good luck to grow up in a family where the old knowledge of the land and the sea, accumulated and honed over the years, had been carefully passed down through the generations. Because the old timers lived in much closer harmony with the earth, they, out of necessity, perfected the intricate tricks of self sufficiency, through the skills and knowledge they acquired over years and years of trial and error. And they passed that precious knowledge along to their children and their grandchildren.
I fear that much of that knowledge and many of those skills will be lost to subsequent generations if we’re not careful. Families are now spread far and wide instead of living nearby one another, children spend precious little time outdoors or with their grandparents, and “googling” has become the path to instant knowledge. We are losing those important connections and teaching moments that used to happen quite naturally between the generations. As one would expect, the traditional transfer of knowledge required that there exist adequate “intergenerational opportunities,” and to work as it should, it had to be a “two-way gift,” one that would connect the past to the future, and also the future to the past. Only then, would the old ways, established long ago, become the stories of the sons and daughters, safely preserved for passing along still further.
I have the unusual privilege of being the 12th generation in a link on the learning continuum that has passed down the knowledge from the “Old Comers,” who first set foot in 1620 in the area where I was born. Growing up in a place where your family has lived for nearly 400 years certainly engenders a feeling of belonging, and makes one quite aware of the connections across the centuries. I grew up working on the same land, and sailing on the same bay, as so many of my ancestors had. My brother grows oysters in the same waters that fed earlier generations of our family. And the family house that sits on a little spit of land, within a stone’s throw of Clark’s Island (which my ancestors, Myles Standish, John Bradford, Stephen Hopkins, Richard Warren and Edward Doty discovered one stormy December night), is a beloved gathering spot, and the place where we like to spend the Thanksgiving holiday together.
My father tells all sorts of wonderful stories about how he learned the ways of the ocean from Russ Harlow, one of the old Saquish lobstermen, and also from my grandmother, who always had a magical touch and a mysterious way of knowing. She knew when the moon said it was time for planting, the secrets of the tides, and all sorts of other seemingly (at least to a child) unknowable things. On the rarest of occasions, when the tides were exceptionally low, she would wake me up in the darkness of early morning, and off we would trudge to the beach, hand in hand, a large bucket in tow. We would walk out into the ocean, farther than one could have thought possible, to a rarely-seen sand bar (whose very presence seemed altogether mythical), and find the largest sea clams anyone has ever laid eyes on. I still have some of the shells.
One of my favorite stories my dad tells is of being on a lobster boat at her mooring during the 1954 hurricane (he was 14), with my very angry grandmother watching from the window overlooking the cove. (I can’t imagine that happening in this day and age, can you?) He describes it as hours and hours of using the engine to ride up the mooring line so that they wouldn’t break free. Talk about hands-on learning! My father can also tell you when the fish will start running, and where the lobsters are likely to be, and he can find his way home through the notoriously tricky channels in the bay – in pea-soup fog, and without GPS. In the vein of “my-dad-is-cooler-than-yours” stories, he once navigated the tall ship, Spirit of Massachusetts, into our home port, traveling through an area full of narrow channels where everyone said it would be impossible not to run aground. I grew up knowing those channels, too, but nothing like the way my father knows them. Genetic memory, perhaps? Over my lifetime, I’ve learned so many things from my father, much of it without the need for words; just being with him, and watching the way he approached a challenge has taught me how to live my life, both on the water, and on land.
But one can learn from non-family members, too. My friend George, trusted teacher and sailing partner, grew up sailing boats from the time he was 7 – he learned to sail on a converted Gloucester fishing schooner some 80 years ago, and from him, I have learned what it means to be a sailor. I’ve learned how to heave-to, how to sail safely and fast in all kinds of weather, and how to fix just about anything on my boat with 2 vice grips and a screwdriver. I have a compass on board, and I know how to use it. Through racing with George, as both crew and skipper, I’ve learned tactics and boat handling and sail trim. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that I learn something new every time we sail together — new lessons seem to pop up at the most unexpected moments, even if I thought (naively!) that we were just going out for a nice afternoon voyage. And every once in a while, when I get distracted for a minute by the beauty of the bay, I find myself being called to task for daydreaming and sailing off course — because if you know George, you’d know that he’s always racing. . .
I’ve learned so much from my father and from George, both expert seamen in their own right. They learned the ways of the ocean in a time before radar and GPS, using their wits, common sense, and quick thinking to deal with what came their way. I think it’s very much been a “two way gift” for us to be able to share this work together — for me, learning what they have grown to know through years and years of on-the-water experience, and for them, the satisfaction of watching me learn and dare and succeed. How lucky I’ve been!