Storms of Autumn

Fri, 10/14/2016 - 10:15am

Three years ago, Autumn was a fluffy puppy and I was acutely attuned to the weather, or more precisely, to the possibility of rain that had not fallen for nearly a month. It stayed warm and dry, open door weather deep into October, even as the inevitable darkness strengthened and with it that sense of doom that is a part of the month.

Now, we seem to be living in rounds of weekend rain and threat of storm, and lingering salt on the windows.

The east wind blows, a frequent autumn wind, leaving seaweed piled up on the shore. The old tradition of harvesting the heavy, damp, brown mounds  continues, with four wheel drive vehicles and trailers instead of placid oxen hauling heavy carts. Older deeds still delineate areas where holders of land have the right to gather and remove seaweed, from so many rods of a given piece of shore. 

It was used, as it is today, albeit less widely, on gardens, vegetative matter that will be washed by the rain and rot into the earth. In another century it was gathered, Irish moss in particular, spread and dried, shipped off to textile mills where a substance taken from it was used for sizing, stiffening newly woven fabric. 

The same Irish moss was a key ingredient in a bland white pudding in the older cookbooks. My aunt made it for summer family gatherings, and my mother tried to cajole us into eating it by pouring blackberry sauce over it. Only now, reading her recipe in the 1962 cookbook, do I see my aunt also acknowledged it was less than a delightful dessert on its own.  

From Beatrice Ball Dodge: 

Irish Moss Blanc Mange

Gather fresh moss on the beach. Rinse well in cold water and spread in sun to dry. When ready to use, soften 1/3 c. moss in cold water to cover 15 minutes. Drain and add to 2 c. milk. Cook in double boiler half an hour without stirring. It thickens only on cooling. Strain into bowls or molds and cool. Serve with jam, jelly, light flavored cream, boiled custard, chocolate sauce or fruit, fresh or stewed. The blanc mange is rather tasteless by itself and depends on the sauce for flavor. 

Primarily, it was used as fertilizer, and the Rev. Livermore wrote in 1877: 

“Sea-weed has been another indispensable resource of Block Island. Its soil in the onset was fertile, but its fertility would be exhausted unless duly replenished. As long ago as 1779 it was a serious question with farmers how they should maintain the productiveness of their land. Even during the Revolution, when communication between the Island and the main was almost annihilated, and so many articles from the main were needed here, the little boat that brought back other necessaries brought also a “quantity of ashes,” and these were doubtless intended for the soil, but were quite inadequate. That the use of sea-weed as fertilizer was common is evident from the antiquity of the claims established along the beach. The tenacity with which these claims are now held by the Islanders indicates their value. Without the grasses torn from the rocks along the shore, and from the meadows on the bottom of the sea — torn loose and driven upon the shores during the storms of autumn, winter and spring, the farms of Block Island, long ago, would have become utterly barren. This is easily demonstrated by the sterile condition of those fields too common that might never repay the cost of making them fertile. The same is also proved by the productiveness of the many fields where the sea compensates for the exhaustion of the ample harvest.”

He continues to describe the division of the claims, the gathering and spreading of the harvest, and the tilling of the land.

“Thus beautiful crops of the best qualities of grass are produced, the soil kept from sterility, and the Island saved from an otherwise inevitable depopulation. 

“The quantity of sea-weed used on the Island is immense. The annual gathering begins in October and continues, at intervals, until April. The portions of the beach owned by the town show the greatest industry. There the weed is common property, and those who are there first in the morning, latest at night, and wade into the surf the deepest, are generally most profited, excepting those who thus secure a crop of pains called rheumatic. This kind of industry, common and private, on public and individual beaches, secures an annual value that could not be bought of the Islanders for twenty thousand dollars, nor could there be an equal quantity of fertilizers from abroad for fifty thousand dollars. Its quantity, as reported by the last census, was six thousand cords, gathered on the shores of Block Island in the year 1875. This quantity is equal to over ten thousand single team loads, and each load is worth more than two dollars. Hence, this resource of the Island, during the period of twenty-five years, amounts to the handsome sum, or its equivalent, of half a million of dollars.

“That sea-weed is an indispensable resource here is demonstrated thus: Without it the Island would become sterile; without a productive soil here the population could not be supported, since for the fisheries are inadequate, and neither manufacturing nor commerce here exists. But the Islander rejoices in the abundance of the sea which supplies him with fish as well as with vegetation.” 

He wrote in the 1870's as the island was just being opened to the outside world but was yet an insular fishing and farming community. He did pen updates over the next twenty years, two decades when the change the little island had eluded for two centuries came in a storm of steamboats and breakwaters, of hotels and roads and even summer chapels in addition to established churches.

Through it all, sea-weed kept — and keeps — washing ashore in October.