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Vermont Quarterly

Tim Traver '78


rippling water
Photograph by Andy Duback

Departments / Alumni Voice

Sippewissett –
or, Life on a Salt Marsh

by Tim Traver '78

Tim Traver’s centering point is Cape Cod’s Sippewissett Marsh in his recent collection of essays published by Chelsea Green. The following excerpt features the book’s tenth chapter, “Night.”

My brother-in-law Wayne has often been my fishing companion at night. With Wayne you never know who else might be coming along—it could be Darwin or the Enterprise Institute, or the entire Republican Party’s religious right, conspiracy theorists’ wing. Wayne is a strong Christian, tending toward literalist bedrock ideas. He goes to a charismatic church. There isn’t much grayness in Wayne’s spiritual attitude, but there’s enough gray matter inside his skull for political issues to arise between us. He’s a big guy with a PhD in computer chip design—a senior engineer at IBM. That all makes him interesting and perplexing to me, his opposite, linked by a marriage and fishing alone. My own probing Unitarianism, sprinkled with skepticism, rationalism, an interest in transcendental essentialism, combined with my Anglican, liberal Episcopalian roots, leaves me vulnerable to claims from people like Wayne that I don’t know what or where my self is. He may be right. Unitarian Universalists are universally ill versed in scriptural dictum. Hallelujah for that. But we do take personal responsibility for our actions.

It used to be that Wayne and I couldn’t discuss politics without getting agitated, and we avoided religion altogether. But we’ve learned some common ground over time. Fishing is a salvation, of sorts, for our relationship. And, usually, he brings along decent cigars—a fishing tradition that goes back with its companion, good whiskey, to caveman times. It used to be that I was the fishing master in this improbable duo, but Wayne’s engineering brain has slowly taken fishing apart to learn it the way only an engineer can. I knew that very soon I’d be getting flies, leaders, and fishing tips from him. And I knew it would be aggravating.

I’ve often pondered the old hostility between religion and science. It cuts deeper than we know since we don’t know what we don’t know. That hostility was amplified with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. It was like the Berlin Wall coming down. Darwin and empirical science won out, turning man entirely natural, as the anthropologist Loren Eisley put it, red in tooth and claw and increasingly terrified by that reality’s loneliness and meaninglessness. Science came of age and along came Existentialism, proof of the abyss, and the age of anxiety. What if it’s an empty universe save for us and the TV evangelists? Lately, I’ve begun to realize how glad I am that the evolution debate is still here. I like that our collective is still caught up by mystery and a belief that life has mysterious direction and meaning beyond the material, beyond the chemistry of the interacting world, and that a God might exist somewhere above the earthly fray; that God and nature are injured but not dead. Just don’t make my kids say a Christian prayer in school or listen to Robertson on TV. Let’s keep it separate and clean.

Science has not disproved the existence of God, and it never will. The world as calculation only is half complete. And our age certainly shows that highly learned people can reconcile in their minds that the atomic bomb and God can coexist. In fact, such a reconciliation should be easier to achieve today, thanks to the advances of science. But we continue to struggle. And we continue to plunder, even in the name of our various gods. Even with all our science and our trumpeting about holiness and our big god, we’re screwing up down here big time.

It helps to go fishing to gain perspective. At this inauguration of our summer night-fishing outings, Wayne had been promoting the latest arguments for intelligent design and creationism. Wayne would believe in intelligent design. He invents computer chips and so has the designer model in his head—and the father, son, and holy computer analyst trinity model, too. I suppose I could be a believer in intelligent design myself, but a design belief, I suspect, quite unlike his. We argued as we picked our way down the dark railroad tracks, gazing at stars and stumbling as a result of looking up while walking over ill-spaced ties. Railroad tracks were designed by engineers like Wayne for railcars, not reflective walking. It is a shortcoming of engineers and perhaps all of science, this ignoring of the human gait. Reason provides a limited set of tools for the kind of meandering a soul requires. The whole world, I said, seems intelligently designed to me. The marsh reeks of it from low tide to high tide. Intelligence, intelligence, intelligence beyond the scrutable matters at hand. Yeah, said Wayne, knowing that I was preparing to disagree with him again. Try this cigar.

The arguments for intelligent design are old, beginning with the Roman Cicero in the first century to Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and William Paley in the eighteenth. Louis Agassiz, a scientist/morphologist first and metaphysician second (and a phantom on this marsh), argued for the hand of a creator/designer. We talked that night, though, about a book written by molecular biologist Michael Behe. Darwin’s Black Box had caused enough of a stir when it came out to prompt a number of responses by evolutionary biologists. Wayne explained that Behe proved that cellular functions, even at the simplest molecular level, are irreducibly complex, and therefore they could not have been the product of single random mutations of genes’ base structures. Unlike other creation theorists, Behe neither disputed the ancient age of Earth, nor the evolutionary age of Homo sapiens. He didn’t dispute the evolutionary facts of common descent, though he complained that the spotty fossil record doesn’t prove it. As a biochemist, he directed his arguments against the Darwinian theory of random mutation-driven evolution by looking at the development of biochemical cellular machinery. Multiparted molecular machines, he wrote, because they are irreducibly complex, could not possibly have arisen through gradual random mutations of the individual genes that produce them because if one part were missing or incomplete, then the whole would fail. And in his mind the entire edifice of Darwinism would collapse, too. Thus, he wrote, there must be a designer—a creative power at work with an end in mind, capable of causing the instantaneous formation of complexity. A visionary.

I knew from the little I’d read that evolutionists have had little difficulty shooting down Behe’s arguments. Individual components of complex systems turn out to have value in and of themselves. Cells are constantly evolving new ways of doing things through small modifications and tinkering. Through constant fine tuning, evolution works to build very complex things from very simple things. Given the vast stretches of time available to evolutionary processes, all kinds of improbable monsters become possible. The whole world itself seems to deem it so. Many complex biochemical machines have simpler versions found in more primitive cells—so molecular evolutionists have traced the evolutionary journey of cellular machinery. Biochemists have watched bacteria repair damaged genes through random mutation in the lab. An eye began as membrane. It and all sense organs came out of the very notion of a cellular identity separate from everything around it. An eye develops from a single cell’s ability to sense light. The process may take a billion years. But nevertheless, any ability to sense light is valuable. And time is on evolution’s side. Hearing and sound making evolve separately in the same organism, but then through a gradual process begin benefiting each other until a highly refined feedback mechanism is developed, like echolocation in bats.
The tracks we walked on crossed next to Quahog Pond. There, a skinny guy came hurriedly out of a hidden path in front of us and began tossing quahogs into the pond. Illegal, I said to Wayne. Wayne knew him and stopped to chat. We could hear music coming from the bar on the highway. A drunk was singing in the parking lot. It was getting close to closing time, but for us the night and the marsh was just opening up for business.

At the midpoint on the tracks’ journey through the marsh, a path slants down the bank of railroad scree, through a brackish puddle, across the spartina mat, worn wet from our nightly forays into the marsh, and out to the land of flowing creeks. From there, on a dark night you really have to know your way. There’s a bush out on the moor where a yellow-breasted chat sings. You have to know that bush, and this meandering creeks, and the depth of certain potholes, some of which are very deep. I thought then we should be moving beyond the discussion of intelligent design and on to the placement of our footsteps and on to fish, but when we arrived at the edge of the first creek, Wayne stopped and said that it was very hard to design and build the computer chips he built. And that we are asking evolution to build complex living organisms—randomly. He didn’t buy it, but he wouldn’t have his hackles up so much if the evolutionist elite wasn’t so intolerant. So blind, to use his words. Evolution is scientific theory, not like a quartz crystal set in stone. He didn’t care what anyone said. Someday, something will come along to sweep it all away.

Huh, I thought. I said, I didn’t think Darwin’s discoveries of selection, of a theory of fitness, would ever be swept away, but I thought there would come a time when Darwin’s ideas, extremely useful as they have been, would be joined by something bigger. Darwinian theory was being bolstered by new evidence nearly daily from every biological discipline. Still, it could be enlarged and deepened, rerouted, and rerooted. There is no sound Darwinian explanation of the whole, or of human consciousness for that matter, I said. Just as there is no human experience across several billion years of life on the planet. Better to look into Goethe or Whitman, or the Tao, I said, for what life and the human are and might become.

But enough speculation, we agreed. On to something quite agreeable and tangible. Between low tide and mid on an incoming tide is the best time to fish the marsh in July, and we didn’t want to miss the prime. Wayne took a casting position on the edge of the channel close to a sharp turn. Here the shoal water drops into a deep hole milled out by water coursing around a bend. The main channel into the marsh pours through there and had dug the deepest hole in the marsh where fish can find refuge through the hot midsummer days. There was a big fish splashing there. I walked up the channel to another corner and stepped off the bank, still thinking of the ramifications of intelligent design. It appealed to me. But so did the notion of a struggle and a journey that forges growth and change over time. I like the idea of a creative design process providing tools, shaping the structure of things for the purpose of better fitness to the tasks at hand, but no end, other than that, in mind. And no designer, per se. Alfred North Whitehead termed this “actuality.” “Value,” he said, “is the soul of actuality.” John Cobb put human evolution in these Whiteheadian terms, too. He said, “ We have been selected in the evolutionary process for particular capacities of language and thought and mutual affection. To exercise those faculties is our calling.” Mutual affection—and that from evolutionary thinking from the ground up—from rock and microbes upward. Couldn’t we expand on that some to say that understanding was our calling? Understanding the whole. Isn’t there an element of knowing where you are and knowing you belong to our calling? And isn’t there some element of topdown to that? Divine wisdom poured from above into a creation that results in self-awareness. I confess liking the idea of a distant all-knowing absolute, Emersonian essentialism, an all-seeing eye—an intuitional universe that human rationality can’t begin to approach, but feeling can. All the self-callings taken together create a mysterious unity—a world that, defying all logic, works excellently well. This marsh world is intelligent and irreducibly complex. The stars and the crabs crinkling in the banks, the invisible trillions of microbes, the minute creatures of the mesocosmic world buried in benthos belong here. Could all of this complexity really have arisen only by the Darwinian forces of competition and selection? Maybe. If so, then connecting the unpredictability of atomic motion and gene mutation to the very purposeful striped bass doesn’t diminish my reverence for the bass and the process that made it, or my sense of responsibility to this place. Life is better felt with the tingling suspicion that there is something else going on here, something that a debate with fundamentalist literalists won’t ever resolve. That particular conversation we’re caught up in isn’t large enough. Today, precious few of us have any real idea what the creation looks and feels like or tastes like: we need to listen to the ecologists and we need to go fishing.

Wayne had moved off the corner and we were wading toward each other. Big smart ole Wayne with his know-it-all PhD was handicapped by his lighter rod. It was a small trout rod, stout enough to bring fish in but too short and light to cast long in a strong sea breeze. His line kept falling short in puffs of wind. Privately, I was snickering up a storm at him, so that I lost my own concentration and spooked the big fish that is almost always holding on the corner where I step into the creek. Here the narrow channel opens into a shallow embayment that often holds many fish. A bar stretches the full length of the channel that runs along the far bank and fish are always working on the other side of it. I began casting into that trough. A fish popped on the surface within casting distance of Wayne, and I saw him move to face that fish.

When I’m with a friend, I want that friend to catch a fish. Especially a fundamentalist Christian brother-in-law IBM engineer with a doctorate degree, even though he’ll retire ten years before me. That’s my heart talking. Of course, I’d like to catch a bigger fish than him. That’s my skin talking. Damn it all! This size-matters debate gets extremely tedious. Big fish equals … what? More hookups with female striped bass? Bragging rights? Trophy fish-wife: trophy-wife fish? Anyway, we both caught a fish, almost at the same time. A double hookup means something I think. That Darwin was wrong? That it’s a cooperative and fair universe? My habit is to quickly bring a large fish to shore hoping it will be above the twenty-eight-inch legal threshold for keeping and eating. There are certainly fish bigger than twenty-eight inches here. But this summer I haven’t caught one.

Wayne brings his fish up into a shallow creek ten feet from me, then walks his fish over. We lay them side by side in shallow water. Each is twenty-seven inches by measure of a mark on my rod. Fat, healthy, silver bodies. We tied, just under keeper size. We admire them and release them and shake hands, happy to disagree on just about everything but what really matters.

Of course, it is true that we fishermen are disturbers, regardless of our religious beliefs. When we lumber through the marsh at night, the fish tell us by going down. But if we are quiet and sneaky, then the fish come to our flies. The run has produced fish consistently for twenty years of summer nights. The marsh keeps giving and giving, yet one miniscule example of the world’s fecundity—its capacity for ever-renewing, ever-transforming, ever-becoming. If we want to keep fishing, then we may need to learn how to be very quiet. We may need to learn from our calling for affection how to act on the knowledge that we are all bound up together—that the welfare of fish and clams is our welfare, is our calling.

Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue.

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