Archive for the ‘Under the Pier (my novel)’ Category

The Post – Under the Pier: Creature Features – Naked Gobies

July 27, 2008

The Naked Goby, alias Gobiosoma bosci

Naked Gobies live in the shallow marshes, mud flats and oyster reefs of the bay’s waters. Bottom-dwellers, they resemble small lizards. They are small fish, about 2 1/2 inches long, with large eyes, dark green tops and pale below, and 8-9 vertical bars along the sides. Their pelvic fins are used as suction cups to hold them to rocks and shells. Since they have no scales, they’re called “naked gobies.”

They live in the bay all year, feeding on worms, and amphipods (such as sand fleas), and being eaten by eels, sand shrimp and larger fish. Though there are many gobies living in the bay, they are often not noticed as they are solitary reclusive fish. They will often hide in empty, still-hinged clam and oyster shells, or in human trash, such as cans, bottles, and tires.

(Reference: The Uncommon Guide to Common Life of Narragansett Bay, 1998, Save the Bay)

For this first effort, I did both the oil painting and the pen & ink/watercolor wash drawing, trying to figure out what works best. I still don’t know. The oil painting is richer and I have greater control over nuances and color. The pen and ink allows greater control when sketching details, but less control with color in the watercolor washes.

The other aspect is the following artwork is more “a book scene” – with the fish shown in the context of the scene’s location. Actual glossary entries should be more restricted, showing just a closeup of the creature. So in the future, I’ll probably stick to that. But for now, I introduce, Naked gobies.

The Post – Under the Pier: Creature Features – Introduction

July 27, 2008

As mentioned previously, one strong theme in my book is the sea life of Narragansett Bay, a deep deep love of mine. Many critters are scattered throughout my book and the only dilemma is that people may not know who they are.

In an effort to solve this problem, I am creating a “visual glossary” of the sea life. I will provide some text from one of the sea life reference books to give some background on this fish, and an illustration. I am trying to decide which medium works best to create this illustration – either an oil painting or a pen & ink drawing with watercolor wash. So in the following entries, I may provide one or the other, or both.

Coming up next – installment number 1 of Under the Pier: Creature Features

The Post – From the Almighty: “Incoming!”

April 10, 2008

“If I bore the sins of all in My agonized heart…on Calvary, then when you seek to punish others whom you despise, you punish and despise me.”

From the April 3rd reading in God at Eventide

This one caught me off guard the first time I read it years ago. It was one of those entries you read, swallow hard, remember how many times you were guilty of this, and you hope nobody else finds out because you feel like a jerk.

Then there’s that moment of fear, that “I mere mortal, have probably pissed off God” and you start looking over your shoulder for the incoming lightening bolt.

The truth is, the God I believe in, is not about vengeance. A God of total love doesn’t need to have vengeance. Humans often want it, but a being of total love can’t even comprehend that. So, I don’t expect there’ll be any cries of “INCOMING” from the Almighty.

Frankly though, after I thought about it, I almost wanted the lightening bolt. Instead of anger, what I heard in those words was sorrow. God helped somebody, set them free, and I came along and dumped all over everyone. Who wants to admit making God feel bad? Makes you almost want to volunteer for hell, just to make God feel better.

The reality is that’s not the answer, and hell isn’t even a creation of God. We create it. It’s within. There was joy and love until I came along like the rain cloud and crabbed at someone. I did it thinking I’d feel better, in the end I felt worse. I created my own hell….and spread it around.

So, I guess, maybe the answer to prevent pain for both me and God, can be found in the Buddhist idea of “come back to the breath.” As you open your mouth to retort, instead of letting words out, first, breathe in. At least it will take you a couple seconds longer to say something you’ll regret later. And who knows, you might even say something you won’t regret as much. I don’t imagine God expects miracles. He might actually smile to hear a few less insults thrown. You count your progress where you can…. 🙂

The Post – Under the Pier: Let’s Get Technical, Part II-Environmental Issues

April 7, 2008

Let’s Get Technical, Part II: ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

Okay. We’re going to get REALLY detailed now, but I happen to LOVE the ocean, and in particular Narragansett Bay. There’s a lot going wrong, and a lot going right. It’s a passion of mine. So for those of you who want to know about all kinds of environmental things relating to salt marshes, bays, sea creatures, oil spills, global warming, and what man does RIGHT to fix things, keep reading.

And for what it’s worth, though I am speaking here of Narragansett Bay, these programs are going on in many coastal areas all over the US and the world. So this information is as relevant to people in North Carolina, Texas or California as it is to New Englanders.

The story involves, among other themes, a love of the bay, it’s creatures, and the very survival of those things. One of the character’s, Jerry, is passionate about “her critters.” Throughout the story, her “mantras” repeat like a church litany:

“It’s all about the critters.”

“No critters, no future.”

“Gotta save the critters!”

And she reminds people that the only way to achieve these things is to:

“Educate and Rehabilitate”

Is she over-reacting? Here’s a recent evaluation on the state of Narragansett Bay:

From the 2006-2007 Save the Bay’s STATE OF THE BAY Assessment and action plan:

“Six years have passed since we first answered the question “How’s the Bay doing?” in the landmark report State of The Bay 2000. While we have made tremendous progress toward our mission, new challenges to water quality and ecosystem health offset the gains of effective protection and restoration programs.

This edition shows that, despite considerable progress in some of the indicators, the Bay has declined slightly from an overall score of 4.5 in 2000 to a 4.3 today. The negative trend is driven by sharp declines of fish and shellfish resources, and a spreading area of low dissolved oxygen and unusually warm water temperatures creating a “dead zone” on the bottom”

So, the bottom line is that in spite of a lot of efforts, the trend is still somewhat backward. What’s going on?

According to Save the Bay, some of the problems are:

Eelgrass loss due to disease and pollution. This is significant, as there’s been a 40% decline in the grass since 1960. The importance of eelgrass in the bay is described on University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Habitat Restoration website:

“Rhode Island’s primary seagrass is eelgrass. Eelgrass provides many ecologically valuable functions. It produces organic material that becomes part of the marine food web; helps cycle nutrients; stabilizes marine sediments; and provides important habitat.

Many species of fish and wildlife depend on eelgrass. Eelgrass beds provide protection for bay scallops, quahogs, blue crabs and lobsters. Tautog and other fish lay their eggs on the surface of eelgrass leaves, and young starfish, snails, mussels, and other creatures attach themselves to the plant. Waterfowl such as brant feed on eelgrass. Studies in New England have documented the occurrence of 40 species of fish and 9 species of invertebrates in eelgrass beds.”

Nutrient Pollution: Primarily from storm water runoff and waste-water treatment plants, which result in too much nitrogen. This causes:

phytoplankton blooms, overgrows, can cause disease in fish and humans; when they die off, they sink to the bottom and can cause oxygen depletion resulting in fish kills

overgrowth of seaweed to several meters thick; blocks light and depletes oxygen in lower layers of water; excess seaweed washes ashore and rots, creating foul smelling, unpleasant beaches

precious eelgrass dies since light cannot penetrate to bottom of bay through all the phytoplankton and seaweed; without eelgrass, flounder and scallops disappear as do other invertebrates who need the eelgrass for homes and protection

Cesspools -The RI Dept of Environmental Management estimates there are 50,000 cesspools in the state, all substandard. Some date back over half a century. According to Save the Bay, “Many of these cesspools—underground pits or tanks into which untreated human waste pours—overflow into backyards and leak contaminants to groundwater, contributing to dangerous bacteria and nutrient loading into the Bay and drinking water sources. Cesspools have been linked to recent clam and fish kills, and nutrients from their overflow contribute to the floating sea lettuce mats found in open water, as well as the increase in green slime and stench that invades coves and inlets.”

Wastewater: aside from the hazards from raw sewage being discharged into the bay, some of the water treatment plants themselves are substandard, or at or near capacity.

Other problems include:

Oil spills, such as the Prodigy Oil Spill, and North Cape oil spill. Not only were marine life killed, and fishing grounds contaminated, and but the eggs and larvae of fish and invertebrates were affected. Fishermen and lobstermen lost considerable income as well as they were unable to fish in their usual areas.

Trawler damage to the sea bottom habitat and fishing stock depletion – Newer trawling gear and more powerful boats allow areas of the sea bottom previously inaccessible, to be fished. In addition, the gear can often collect much larger numbers of fish and by-catch (the other creatures not desired, that were caught along with the species being sought). Fishing stocks are depleted, areas that used to shelter baby and juvenile fish and shellfish are being scraped clean, and the very bottom structures and normal flora are being changed or destroyed in the process. This topic will be discussed in the next section on commercial fishing.

Dredging, or rather, where to dump what’s dredged up. Many harbor areas require periodic dredging to keep the channels open to shipping. Natural processes in these quieter waters results in the sediments being deposited so that over time, the channels would close up. A big problem is that many of the sediments in the area may be contaminated with heavy metals, man-made chemical compounds and other serious pollutants. The real issue is “where to dump what is dredged up.” In the past these were just disposed of close to the site of dredging, usually wetlands, marshes, etc.

Toxic waste sites that leak contaminants into the land around the bay and the bay itself. Rhode Island Superfund sites include a large one at the Newport Naval Education/Training Center. It was used as a fuel depot since 1900, and the 11 acre portion known as McAllister Point accepted wastes that mostly included domestic refuse, acids, solvents, paint, waste oil and oil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). This went on from 1955 to the mid-1970s. Sludge from fuel tanks was dumped on the ground or burned there, and there was groundwater contamination and ocean water disposal as well. Related sites nearby were also contaminated.

Global warming : Rhode Island House Bill 7884, The Rhode Island Global Warming Solutions Act, introduced in January of 2008, Chapter 83, 23-83-2 (a) states that the general assembly finds and declares global warming to be a threat:

“Scientists predicted global warming will exacerbate air quality problems, decrease or eliminate the habitat of indigenous plants and animals, trigger accelerated beach erosion and sea level rise resulting in the displacement of businesses, residences and key infrastructure like bridges and drinking water and wastewater treatment plants, damage marine and freshwater ecosystems and the natural environment, and increase the variety and incidence of infectious diseases, asthma, and other human health-related problems.”

Save the Bay’s Baykeeper, John Torgan, testified before the legislature about the global warming effects, and added the following specifics:

“Narragansett Bay’s average water temperatures have increased more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century; severe storms have increased 88% in Rhode Island in the past 60 years. Warmer waters have fundamentally disrupted the natural balance of the Bay’s ecosystem and have dramatically changed the assemblage and distribution of plant and animal species. Shellfish and lobster diseases, once considered a problem only in more southern estuaries, have now found their way into the Bay at problem levels. Reproduction and recruitment failure of oysters, mussels, lobster, winter flounder, scallops, eelgrass, and other species correlate with these increases in temperature. Nutrient pollution and low dissolved oxygen levels, nuisance algae blooms, and related water quality problems are similarly exacerbated by higher temperatures. Disruption of the traditional plankton bloom cycle impacts the very currency of life in the Bay. Sea level rise and storm-related coastal erosion threaten our beaches, shoreline, and coastal properties and businesses. “

Salt marsh depletion and poor fish runs to spawning grounds. Some of the bay’s many salt marshes started forming as long as 3500 years ago. Currently about half of those marshes have been filled in. Salt marshes serve not only as habitats for a variety of creatures and breeding grounds, they also clean and filter water, protect shorelines from floods and storms and can keep up with rising sea levels to offset those effects.

Fish runs are an important part of maintaining fish stocks in the bay. Save the Bay’s website explains the evolution of the current problem:

“River herring, Atlantic salmon, rainbow smelt, sturgeon and American shad depend on fish runs for survival. They are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in freshwater rivers, streams, brooks and ponds but mature and spend their adult lives in Narragansett Bay or the ocean. Each spring, these fish instinctively fight their way upstream to return to the freshwater rivers and streams where they were born in order to spawn. The journey to spawning grounds is not an easy one – along many streams and rivers in Rhode Island, dams and culverts act as barriers, preventing fish from swimming upstream to reach spawning habitats. Furthermore, the instinct to return to a particular place of origin is too strong to allow them to choose another river, creek, or stream. Narragansett Bay previously supported commercially valuable Atlantic salmon and alewife (river herring) fisheries. However, the Industrial Revolution combined with overfishing created havoc with the migratory patterns of these anadromous fish. The Blackstone and Pawtuxet Rivers each ended up with one power-producing dam for every mile of river by the middle of the 19th century, and therefore many fish runs simply disappeared. The Atlantic salmon was completely eliminated from its Narragansett Bay spawning runs by 1869…There are 18 existing fish runs in the Narragansett Bay watershed but most of these existing runs are in need of further restoration. Historically, at least 45 runs existed in the Narragansett Bay watershed Among these are four of the most significant freshwater tributaries of Narragansett Bay – the Taunton, Blackstone, Pawtuxet and Ten Mile rivers.”

Because many of the dams no longer serve the useful purpose for which they were built, they have been allowed to decline into a serious state of decay. This not only threatens public safety, but makes it just about impossible for fish to make their way upstream.

Shellfish loss: Bay scallop numbers are low, due in part to the loss of eelgrass in the bay. Lobsters, clams, scallops, and oysters have had their numbers seriously depleted due to oil spills and water quality issues.

So, is there any hope for the bay? Are there any ‘educate and rehabilitate’ efforts happening? Or should Jerry just give up and move to Alaska?

There are a number of very active forces working hard to save Narragansett Bay. Some include:

· Save the Bay
· Narragansett Bay Estuarine Research Reserve System
· Narragansett Bay Estuary Program
· University of Rhode Island Environmental Data center
· SeaWeb
· Rhode Island Sea Grant (on resources page) see bookstore re fishing dredging info
· University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute

Some actions include:

Eelgrass restoration: Both Save the Bay’s Eelgrass planting program and the URI’s Coastal Restoration Program are actively trying to reverse the loss of this precious plant.

Salt marsh restoration: A number of salt marsh restoration projects through Save the Bay are in progress. Their site also explains how to restore a salt marsh.

Fish runs: A very recent set of projects to restore fish runs have begun. To learn more about these restoration programs click here.

Shellfish RestorationSave the Bay’s Scallop Restoration project uses seed scallops from a local aquaculture farm, and distributes them not only in salt marsh ponds, but now into open areas of the bay. The North Cape Oil Spill restoration project included considerable restoration of quahogs (hard-shelled clams), oysters, and bay scallops . Seed stock for these shellfish were obtained from upweller sites in the state. Upweller sites take advantage of tidal currents in their aquaculture setups. Aquaculture itself, is the art, science, and business of farming aquatic plants and animals, including shellfish.

Aquaculture and upweller information can be found in the booklet, Rhode Island Aquaculture Initiative PDF, as well as at their main initiative site. Other sources are: the University of Maine Sea Grant site , Coastal Aquaculture Supply, the upweller page for the town of Bourne, MA (on Cape Cod), AND…..

****For any YouTube enthusiasts: check out this You Tube page with live underwater footage of an upweller operation!!!!

Creation of Coastal Buffers: Save the Bay is working to educate the public in using bay-friendly landscaping and yard techniques for watering and fertilizing plants on properties bordering the bay. Also they are planting trees and bushes that would serve to be a buffer between built-up areas and the bay, which can prevent erosion and inhibit storm water run-off

Dredging sediment regulations: Since dredged up sediments can represent an environmental hazard, new regulations have been enacted on where materials from dredging sites can be dumped. For example, in 2004, the US EPA designated a site nine miles south of Point Judith, in Rhode Island Sound, to be used as the designated dumping site for all harbor and channel dredging in the region. The site will be regularly monitored by environmental officials and could be used for about 20 years. Monitoring of such sites now includes research on how the materials will affect local wildlife, and may include “capping” the sediments dumped there with clean sediment to isolate the material from the surrounding wildlife and sea water.

Brownfields Restoration is another way to restore formerly polluted landfills and waste sites, by converting them to non-polluting uses, such as golf courses, parks or commercial buildings. The Save the Bay Center construction project is an example of such a conversion.

Oil Spill and Toxic Waste Restoration programs: Projects, such as the North Cape Restoration Program , Prodigy Restoration Program, and the Newport Naval Eductation/Training Center call for things such as eelgrass planting, re-establishing shellfish beds with seed clams and oysters from aquaculture farms, capping waste sites to prevent rainwater from seeping down through hazardous wastes and getting into groundwater, removal of waste drums, and constructing a golf course over a formerly contaminated site. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Narragansett Laboratory, which conducts research on changing environmental conditions, growth and survival of fish stocks, also is the Restoration Center that oversees some of these projects.

Global warming: Save the Bay’s global warming program includes working with the state legislature on a regional greenhouse gas initiative, promoting green building technology, using biodiesel fuel on their education craft, and educating the public.

For those of you who love Google Maps and want to SEE some of these projects and places, check out this recent email I received from Save the Bay. They’re now on Google Maps and you can see a map of the area, or zoom down with a satellite image to see ground level, the places they’re working at.

We’ve put Save The Bay
on the Map

Get a better look at our efforts to Protect, Restore
& Explore
Narragansett Bay and its watershed

Thanks to Google Maps, the big picture is just a few keystrokes away. Remarkable technology allows you to zoom right to ground level to check out our restoration sites, policy hot spots, programs and event locations. To get started, just click anywhere on the map on the right. When it loads, click on a map pin or search for what you’re looking for in the index on the left side of the page.

Save The Bay on Google Maps


The Post – Under the Pier, The Emotions of Narragansett Bay

April 6, 2008

What does standing next to Narragansett Bay feel like, and what do I feel inside?

Okay, first no wisecracks like “Narragansett Bay feels wet.” I’m serious here. I love the ocean. I LOVE Narragansett Bay. I could stand there all day long….just stand there, watching it. Every day. Hour after hour. No swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, windsurfing, fishing. Just stand there watching each wave come up, flex its fury, fling its body full force against shale and granite, slide down off the rocks defeated and broken, then drift out to sea. Yes, I could watch it all day long.

I figure at this point, you’re either ready to throw a net over me, or declare me the most boring person on earth. Who LIVES, to stand there and watch water move around. I do.

There is something primal, spiritual, vulnerable, deeply human, that I feel. First, we spend our first nine months of life in utero, sloshing around in a primal liquid. The sea is the womb of all life, from the microscopic to whales. Life started there, and in a spiritual way, it still does. We left God and entered the current world through the portal of water. It’s where God meets Earth.

I go to the ocean to find God. I know He is everywhere, He is within us. But as I stand there watching the raw power of something beyond me, I feel small, vulnerable, simply human, dwarfed by a majesty I could never create, control, or be part of. I go to the ocean to be awed. And I am.

I know I am not alone in this. Henry David Thoreau knew what this meant. He captured it beautifully in this excerpt from his book, Walden:

“We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land & sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

So…he understood we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, and need to see our own limits transgressed and life going on where we never see it. I think deep down, we WANT nature to win. We’re like a two-year-old having a tantrum, and actually being relieved when the all-powerful parent comes in and says, “That’s enough,” and takes over. I think what Thoreau described is God, and I think it is those moments standing at the shore watching waves do things beyond all our control or power, that we “see” God.

I think any place at the shore, no matter the location, carries this sense for me. The thing my soul finds special about Narragansett Bay is that it also has my other loves in life….rocks, and sea creatures. Unlike the serenity of open sandy beaches, rocks get in your face. They are confrontational, they raise the stakes. A wave rolling up onto sand is relaxing. But even on a sunny peaceful day, a wave crashing defiantly against granite boulders is raw battle. Each shoves back against the other, flexing their own power in a match to see who will win. The rocks blunt, dissipate, and obliterate the power of the waves in the short-term, but the waves wear down and obliterate the rocks over the long-term.

Rocks feel solid, safe…a taste of the eternal, and so again, they feel like God. Many cultures over the millenia have considered rocks part of their spiritual rituals and altars. They are another unfathomable power where our limits are transgressed. Just try and lift a boulder. It is like trying to lift the earth itself. It represents safety, strength, permanence, as noted in the following comment for the book, The Art of Spiritual Rock Gardening:


“Simon Dorrell is one of England’s premier garden painters.” —The Blue Guide to Museums and Galleries of New York

“To find sanctuary in the permanence of stone may give us needed respite from a seemingly chaotic, ever-changing world.

The rocks that form Narragansett Bay did not all originate there. They were deposited there, by the raw slow-moving power that were glaciers. Large bodies of ice gouged, carved and dredged out these “pockets” that later filled with sea water. Just to see the size of the boulders strewn around the bay is to again witness limits transgressed, God.

And then the creatures – the infinite variety of everything from algae to crabs, to clams to sand fleas to whales.

The combination of all three humbles me. Takes me out of my comfort zone. Awes me. To walk across the rocks near the shore’s edge, is to feel “precarious.” Your feet though on solid rock, are by no means taking “stable” steps. The rocks are coated in a slippery slimy film of black algae that renders sneaker treads useless even when you’re not being soaked by the spray of waves hitting the shore. The rocks jut and abut each other at odd angles with crevices and open pits between them that make traversing a pile of boulders in search of tidepools, a business requiring total concentration. You can’t look “cool” picking your way across a rocky point. It’s all you can do to stay upright as you leap from rock to rock and not break your neck if you miss.

And the periwinkle, barnacle, and blue mussel coated boulders ring pools of sea water left behind from high tide, pools that house and nourish an abundance of varied life beneath their surfaces.

So, I could stand there forever and watch ocean wave fury, feel the solidity of immovable rocks, and have great joy and gratitude for nature’s abundance. And all of it is thrown right there at my feet at the shores of Narragansett Bay. I feel small, dwarfed, insignificant. For once in my life, someone else is in control, and I like that.

For your viewing pleasure some shots of the “tide pool” level in Narragansett Bay:

The Post – Oops

April 5, 2008

I realize in my introduction to Narragansett Bay, I left out the most important thing…what does it feel like…and what do I feel around it.

That I will address later today or tomorrow. I’m off to a pastels class…..

The Post – Under the Pier: You Know, I Never Properly Introduced You to Narragansett Bay

April 5, 2008

I realized that I’ve talked about a lot of the book characters including the crustacean, Carpus. But the biggest natural character, Narragansett Bay, I’ve failed to introduce to you. So before I get into the next book’s post about the Environmental Issues of Narragansett Bay, I should probably tell you a little bit about the place.

Many of you have probably never heard of it, unless you are old enough to remember Narragansett Lager Beer commercials from the 60s and 70s where they talk about making their beer on the shores of Narragansett Bay. But even if you remember the beer, you probably still didn’t have a clue where Narragansett Bay was.

So where is it? How big is it? And where did it get that weird name?

For some vital statistics, including such riveting things that only I find neat, like average salinity and flushing time of the bay, click here. (And by the way…29-31 parts per thousand, compared to the ocean which is 35 ppt; and 26 days)

If you’re a map kind of person, go to the Narragansett Bay Home page. There are maps for surfers, maps of eelgrass geographic data, restoration maps, lobster migration maps, maps of oyster disease prevalence, bay sediment distribution, and fishing areas, and my personal favorite, a series of maps showing the “house counts in South County Salt Ponds Watershed, from 1939 until 2003.” It’s a nice green map that gets redder over the years as the number of houses increase. So if you have nothing to do on a Saturday night, here you go! Actually, there’s lots more there than just maps, but that happens to be my favorite.

For satellite images you can zoom in and out of as well as road maps, go to Google’s map page for Narragansett Bay

Those of you who like your visuals more at “sea level” here’s the web page for Google images of the bay, including this really neat aerial view (as opposed to satellite) of the bay.

There is a great book online that covers everything from the bay’s history – ie people history: Indians, settlers, rumrunners etc., to its geological history – what the glaciers did to form it, what rocks the glaciers left behind, etc. It’s called: Narragansett Bay: A Friend’s Perspective. Again, if you’re like me and like tweaky obscure facts, go for it.

For those who are interested in Narragansett Bay and it’s survival, here’s some resources to check on:

· Save the Bay
· Narragansett Bay Estuarine Research Reserve System
· Narragansett Bay Estuary Program
· University of Rhode Island Environmental Data center
· SeaWeb
· Rhode Island Sea Grant
· University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute

Save the Bay blogs: Curt( executive director), Abby (Explore the Bay education staff), John (Baykeeper program)

Oh, so you still want to know where the weird name came from? It’s from the tribe of Indians who lived in that area for thousands of years, the Narragansett Indians. Yes, I did say, thousands. The tribe’s website indicates that archaeological evidence, rock formations, and oral history establish their existence in the region more than 30,000 years ago. Click here for the tribe’s website. In any event, the bay is named after them.

Ah, yes, last but not least, the BEER.

Narragansett Beer was made by the Narragansett Brewing Company. A bit of trivia – the Robert Shaw character in the movie, Jaws, apparently was holding cans of Narragansett Beer. Apparently the Falstaff Brewing Company bought it out in 1965, and it changed hands a few times over the years before closing its doors. Short version, the brand was bought back by a small group of investors in 2005 and is now available locally in the Southern New England region.

Now that you’ve met Narragansett Bay, I can return to the Technical posts for Under the Pier. Next up: The Environmental Issues of the Bay. Until then:

I leave you with this link, which is a picture looking out at a buoy on the bay at sunset. Pull up a chair, crack open your Narragansett Beer, and enjoy.

The Post: Under the Pier – Let’s Get Technical, Part I

April 1, 2008


What grows on a pier piling? What are rockhoppers and how do fishing trawlers use them? Why are fishing areas being closed off? How do you restore an oil spill or toxic waste site? What happened to all the eelgrass that used to be in Narragansett Bay? What in God’s name is an “upweller,” and is a robotic octopus arm powered by artificial muscles, science fiction or truth and why does the military care?

There’s a lot of technical detail that went into this story. Some of the story involves science researchers working with the environment or the military. Half of the story involves a world of animals under the pier. The things presented in the story are based in fact – they exist already, are in development, or are at least plausible. When a story involves technology, it has to first, be accurate or your readers will lose faith. It also has to have a richness of detail. The technology is a character in itself and the rich details are the characterization that brings it alive.

I’ve put the technology topics into one of five categories: Physical Details, The Environment, Commercial Fishing, Techno-whiz, and Miscellaneous. For today, let’s talk about “The Physical.”

And just an FYI – before I’m done with this series on this novel, I will compile a bibliography of the books, DVDs, research papers, websites, news articles etc., that went into the writing of this book, whether on technical subjects, writing techniques, Narragansett Bay, New England, diners, ghosts, or whatever.

THE PHYSICAL: Seeing the world under the pier.

We’ve already talked about how to see a fictional town. You take the things you know and expect to be there, arrange them in an imaginary location, then use your imagination from there. Something similar needs to happen under the water.

Though the story that takes place under the pier is fiction, the wildlife that live there, and even the main characters, aren’t. You may have put your reader inside the “fictional” mind of the hermit crab, but everything around that crab is nonfiction, and has to be accurate. How do you do that? Start with questions. You can’t know what that animal might feel, do, or respond with, if you don’t even know what he looks like or has for body equipment.

As the hermit crab – how do you walk along the bottom? Do you hop? Step sideways? Slither? What do you see on the sea bottom as you step across it? For that matter, how do you see? Do you have eyes? Can you blink? What is your range of vision? Do you have teeth to eat with? How do you breathe?

I found a lot of the specific scientific details and descriptions in nature guides, such as the National Audubon Guide to North American Seashore Creatures, Fish, Whales, and Dolphins, Birds, etc. By knowing that the average size of a long-clawed hermit crab is about ½ – 1 inch long, I know I can’t have Carpus fighting off sharks or out-swimming whales. From the descriptions in the guides I know that he has two eyestalks that can swivel around in all directions or be pulled back down to protect them. There is an open eye at the end of each, and two different-sized sets of antennae nearby for sensing and smelling the world around him. I learned that he eats a variety of things including the rotting flesh of long-dead animals. I know that he is most likely found in a periwinkle shell and that a moon snail shell is probably too big for him. He breathes through gills and chews up food with mandibles near his mouth.

Take this process and expand it. Who else does Carpus run into under the pier? What do they look like? Who does he fear? What is the ground like under his legs? Where can he hide?

From Narragansett Bay: A Friend’s Perspective, I learned the bedrock in the area is mostly sandstone and black shale, with some coal, graphite, granites, and schists scattered around. The average depth of the bay is 26 feet, it’s an estuary meaning it is a place where freshwater and seawater meet, and the bottom is a mixture of sandy plains and gravel. So I now have a pretty good idea that the area under the pier has a similar composition.

From the Peterson Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore, I found a detailed description of the New England tidal zones and a great chart showing what creatures lived at what point down the length of a pier piling. This told me who Carpus would encounter as he climbed down the piling, to the sea bottom below the pier.

From the Uncommon Guide to Common Life in Narragansett Bay, I discovered who else Carpus will meet on his travels as well as what plants or seaweeds are around for him to eat or hide in. Also, since he is pretty low on the food chain, he has a LOT of creatures to fear, including the lobster.

From The Secret Life of Lobsters I learned that a lobster loves the dark, finds prey and mates by sniffing the water with its antennules, and shoots its urine out its face at its opponents or prospective mates, to identify itself. Hence I can determine Carpus isn’t safe from a lobster just because it’s dark out, and I can tell how the lobster is going to act in a given encounter with friends and foes.

From the Marine Animals of Southern New England and New York, I found photographs, sketches, identification keys and thousands of bits of technical information on just about any creature Carpus might stumble across.

In addition to books, there are nature websites including Narragansett Bay specific ones, such as the Narragansett Bay Biota Gallery done by the US EPA, the University of Rhode Island Office of Marine Programs, and the Narragansett Bay Commission. The site covers everything from seaweed to seals, with pictures and information. Organizations such as Save the Bay and the Narragansett Bay Estuarine Research Reserve collect and publish information on all the wildlife in the bay area, as well as perform wildlife counts, monitor the health of the bay and do scientific research studies.

I have to say that my ultimate favorite was to curl up with a DVD I purchased from Hamilton Marine, a discount store in Searsport Maine specializing in equipment for professional boatbuilders, commercial fishermen and lobstermen. The DVD is: The Realm of the Lobster. It was filmed in the Gulf of Maine in 2006 and you are basically right there with the anemones, sea urchins, lobsters, crabs, wolfish, and kelp. You get to watch how they move, who they fear, who hunts who, and what the world at the sea bottom there looks like.

Once you accumulate a bunch of technical details about the environment, plants, animals, geology…you have a start. You know you have pincers to work with not wings, so you have some facts to know “what physical options your animal has at his disposal” in any given situation. The next step is to figure out as best you can, how would the main characters feel and respond to anything from a good meal to nearly being eaten. Here the process requires a mix of emotions, extrapolation, and imagination.

Do you know what if feels like to fear for your life? To run from a bully or a mugger? To eye a stranger with suspicion?

Do you know what it feels like to choke? To be so exhausted from fear or running that you can’t keep your eyes open, no matter how hard you try or how dangerous the situation?

Do you know what it feels like to starve and grow so weak you can barely keep going?

Even if you haven’t experienced all of the above, chances are you know someone who has or you have read news reports about someone who has. The point is, you combine the technical details of the creatures and their world, with the technical details of your world, and use your imagination to extrapolate what you might see, feel, and do if you were a hermit crab about to be eaten by a lobster.

For example, to guess what it might feel like to be a hermit crab in cloudy water where sediment particles are choking you by clogging up the fibers in your gills, imagine what you would feel if you were in a desert, the tissues in your throat are dry, stuck together, and sand particles keep rubbing against them every time you try to swallow. Or what did it feel like the time you choked on a pill? What would you be feeling right at that moment, emotionally?

Now imagine what it feels like if the hermit crab suddenly falls into a pail of cool clean seawater that saturates its dried-out tissues and flushes its gills clean. You can visualize something similar, like drinking a tall cool glass of iced tea in that desert situation. Suddenly all your throat tissues soften, stop sticking together, the passages open, and overheated mucosal linings feel cool and refreshed.

So the point is, find enough technical details to know what the animal has for equipment, how it uses them, then put the animal in different situations. Try to imagine how the animal would move, fight, eat, breathe, hide, and then try to extrapolate from your own moments of terror, illness, hunger, or fatigue, how you would feel and act. From there, it’s all imagination.

Next up: Environmental Issues

The Gift – An Under the Pier Extra: Why Rosa Hates Dean Martin

March 30, 2008

Even though we all know by now that Rosa hates “that bum Dean,” of course the rest of us don’t necessarily have to feel the same way. For those of you who love Dean Martin, here’s a blog site I came across from a reader who wanted to know what Rosa had against Dean Martin. The website is “Ilovedinomartin.”

And for anyone who wants to know why Rosa hates Dean, well, my answer to the person who wrote me was:

“You know, that’s probably an ‘age has its privilege’ thing. Rosa is old and opinionated. I suspect she must have liked Jerry Lewis and blamed Dean Martin for the duo’s breakup. And being Rosa, she is very loyal to those she loves. So in her eyes, if Dean crossed Jerry, he crossed her, plain and simple. ) Thanks for the note and rest assured, Dean is not banned in my house.”

The bottom line is that you can never know what your characters will like and dislike. You just have to respect that they have their own minds and won’t always agree with their authors. 🙂

And by the way, credit where credit is due. It was a comment of my husband’s that first clued me in to the fact that all was not well between Rosa and Dean….

The Post – Under the Pier: So How DO You “See” a Fictional Town?

March 28, 2008


I am a visual learner so I need to see it to “know” it.. How do you “see” a fictional story location? For me, I started with the “real world.”

Travel magazines and postcards of Rhode Island, Cape Cod and Narragansett Bay were a help, but not enough. So I spent one Christmas break compiling a 3 foot by 4 foot topographical map of Narragansett Bay. I found it on the web on a geological survey site and proceeded to print it out, quadrant by quadrant. Then I taped them all together until I had the complete topographical map of Narragansett Bay, including all the islands and the surrounding land areas. My husband did question if it might not have been cheaper and easier to just buy the map, but frankly, I don’t think I could have bought the entire map that I ended up with. In any event, this gave me a “visual” of sorts to know what the land around the bay was like. I could tell that while the area is not that far above sea level, there most definitely are hills and ridges, marshes and sand dunes.

The next thing I had to do was make the imaginary town a real place to me. I started by printing photos of diners, stone warehouse buildings, rocky coastlines, Fort Adams, docks and wharves, and even that building at Woods Hole with the sailing ship model jutting out from the stone wall above the doorway.

Once I had an idea of the kinds of items and places my town included, I created a map of the town. Now I could “see” where Max’s house stood in relation to Carbone’s Auto Body shop, the diner, the rich uptown area, Lighthouse Point, her school, and the downtown dock areas. I could see how much area the Naval Research base took up on Lighthouse point, where the pier and research labs were in relation to the haunted carriage house and the Yacht club, and how far of a walk it was back to the town and the diner.

Next I needed to see Max’s house and yard. I grew up in those three-family houses, so I had an idea in my mind of how they would be set up – back staircases, front and back porches, attic rooms with slanting walls, stone wall cellars that spooked you every time you had to go down there. I did a map of Max’s neighborhood, and a blueprint of both hers and Noah’s house, showing all three floors in each. I wanted to “see what she saw” when she looked out her attic window. From the map-making kit I had as a kid, I knew about doing room plans, so I could tell where the kitchen stove was, how many couches were in the living room, and if they had a computer desk. With these, I could now see Max’s house, her backyard, her neighborhood, and how it connected to everything else in town.

Rosa’s Midway Diner is such a big part of the story that it required equal attention. I have been in a number of diners over the years, so I had some mental images. I found a number of good books on diners, and consulted the American Diner Museum website. I even went to the local diner here in town (Cary, North Carolina) and with the permission of the owner, took a couple hundred interior shots of tables, counters, stools, equipment, pass-through windows from the kitchen, plates, etc.

From all of that, I created a blueprint of Rosa’s Midway Diner. I drew up the “diner of my dreams,” the one I would build if I had the money. If this book ever sells big, I swear I’ll build it. It has regular booth seating including the large back semi-circular booth that Rosa uses for her Friday night poker games. It has a large window behind it made of those glass blocks, and all tables have roses in the vases. There’s an extra long counter with stools, another counter in the front of the diner where you can sit, sip your coffee, read the paper and look out on Main Street, and a large take-out area for walk-in business. And of course, there is the new drive-through being installed as part of the take-out area.

The diner itself is a character in the book. As such, I have created a “biography” of the diner – a timeline of how it started, who created it, where it was located over the years, expansions…the whole works. Before I’m done with this, I will do an oil painting of that diner, both outside, and in. To that end, I have a very rough cardboard model of part of the diner interior, that includes the kitchen pass-through, counter and stools, and the drive-through areas

To further give the diner reality and context, I did a map of the diner area and Main Street. I felt it was important to show where the diner was in relation to all the businesses mentioned in the story, as well as to the rest of the town.

Lighthouse Point is another important part of the story and required “visuals” and biographies. I wrote up the story of the ship’s captain who built the lighthouse and surrounding stone warehouses and who died along with his family, in the fire that destroyed his mansion. I also created a map of the area around the haunted carriage house, and blueprints of the abandoned ammo bunkers and anti-aircraft gun emplacements right near the carriage house ruins.

For Uncle Jim’s lab, I chose the stone building at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the former “Candle House.” I even gave Uncle Jim’s lab a similar sailing ship model jutting out from the exterior wall over the doorway. Interior shots of other buildings at Woods Hole served as inspiration for the lab and office interiors of those buildings.

Since paintings have such power for me, I did a 24 by 36 inch oil painting of where the two story worlds meet – the rocky coastline at Lighthouse Point. Every item in the painting is in the story – from the hermit crab, Carpus, who is right up front, to the lighthouse and rocky point, wooden pier, tide pool area, distant fishing trawler, fort on the hill, research labs and …yes, the ghosts.

The University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography is the barely veiled location of the university in the story. I gave Jerry a research lab located in a former World War II ammunition bunker, and had her out doing her environmental research on a university-sponsored ocean-going research vessel, very similar to the R/V Endeavor. I verified the research itineraries, including places visited, work performed, and the durations of cruises, from the various research vessel ship logs online. I also studied the online blueprints for these existing research ships, to see the locations of labs, bunks, galleys, as well as the rules for running such a ship and expedition.

For the museum lobby where Max sneaks up to, to file her contest entry, I did rely on a memory – a very strong one burned in my brain from early childhood. In Torrington, CT, the post office at that time was in a brick building in the center of town. (It is now further out in a refurbished old supermarket building.) The post office lobby, while a very wide open area, was a scary place to me. At one end were the faces of numerous FBI fugitives staring out from black and white printouts pinned to bulletin boards.

It was the other end of the post office lobby though, near all the service windows, that truly freaked me out for a long time. Above the windows, high up on the walls all around that part of the building, were these huge murals. They showed 1800s men and women trudging through mud, beside a Conestoga wagon. There were also other scenes of 1800s life – all scenes actually, from the life of the abolitionist, John Brown. The murals themselves were intimidating enough, but ….silly as it sounds, I thought they were alive. Standing in that post office lobby waiting for my mom, I would stare up at the wall paintings and listen to the loud voices echoing off the walls around me. I thought the figures were speaking. In reality, the echoes were the voices of the postmen behind the wall yelling back and forth to each other. But to a 4 or 5 year old staring up at scary murals, the voices came out of the paintings, out of these solemn, angry looking people struggling behind their oxen in the mud. Hence, the inspiration for the museum lobby murals that Max sees.

By the way, if you are visual too, click here to see the murals from the old Torrington, CT Post Office.

Click here to read more about the history behind Connecticut post office art work done in the 1930s Depression era as part of the New Deal.

The other items I consulted to “see” the location, involved technical things like weather charts, articles on ocean fog, articles and nature guides describing the trees, birds, types of rocks, and area geological history. And I asked questions – of myself, of my sister living up there, of Google: What is the air temperature at night in June? Are there any sea breezes? How fast do storms move in, from which direction and how bad do they get? What do your clothes feel like against your body when you’re walking near the shore – crisp and dry, or soggy and limp? Do you need a jacket to walk around at night in the summer? Do you need a wetsuit to scuba dive in July?

Aside from visuals, I needed “sound” to further “see” the place. I selected CDs based on the emotions they created in me. When you watch TV, the music tells you if something funny, poignant, or ominous is taking place. In the same fashion I needed music or sound so I could see the events as they occurred in the story and feel the emotions of that moment and location. I played those CDs over and over and over, while writing in my garage. I am amazed my husband and my neighbors are still sane.

Some of these CDs include the soundtracks from: The Band of Brothers, Cinderella Man, We Were Young Once, and the Perfect Storm. There are also ocean and bird sound CDs, Gregorian Chants, and last but not least, Rosa’s “Frankie boy,” Frank Sinatra. But be assured, there are NO Dean Martin CDs. Just for the record, I personally have nothing against Dean Martin and I LOVE his song, “That’s Amore,” but you can never account for what your characters will love or hate. Rosa hates Dean. Plain and simple.

Next up – Let’s Get Technical. Stay tuned.