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Grist for the Mill

Every spring, for thousands of years, the sites of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and the Stony Brook Grist Mill & Museum have hosted a collision of natural forces. The geological genesis for this convergence arises from the close of the last Ice Age when the great melting of the Laurentide Ice Sheet created the peninsular moraine that is Cape Cod. Buried chunks of ice would later melt to form the dozens of ponds known as kettle holes. In Brewster, the interconnected Walkers Pond and Upper and Lower Mill Ponds are three such kettle holes. Water overflows from them down Stony Brook, racing north toward Cape Cod Bay, where salt water floods in on the tide to mix with the river and to host a wide range of wildlife throughout the marshes near Wings Island. In early-to-mid April, schools of fish from a species of herring called alewife race up Stony Brook to spawn in the fresh water ponds above the mill site. These “herrin’,” as they’re known locally, slither through shallows and battle rapids on their way up Paine’s Creek and Stony Brook. At the upper reaches of the brook, they climb in queues and orderly regiments up the concrete and natural ladder rungs of the herring run; they fall back, attack again, and rage against exhaustion, and against the rushing water and rocks. Their life struggle is unsubtle, and they fail to conceal their vulnerability as they attract legions of predatory birds, squadrons of seagulls all howling for herrin’.

That the alewife have for millennia run into Cape Cod Bay from mysterious, unknown locations in the Atlantic, up the run, and into the kettle holes is extraordinary; that their spawning waters and access have remained clean and open through the industrial and post-industrial ages is both nearly miraculous and due in large part to the vision of one naturalist and conservationist, and to the people of Brewster who shared his passion for the preservation of this watershed, a relatively small area that supports such a vast array of life. John Hay, a journalist and naturalist, moved to Brewster with his wife Kristi in 1946 after having written for the military publication “Yank” during WWII. They fell in love with the town, especially with its access to nature and wildlife, and they would raise their three children in the house that they built here. In 1954, along with seven other townsfolk, Hay founded what is today called the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, (CCMNH). According to Bob Dwyer, the museum’s current president and executive director, Hay wanted to create something for local children. “Back in the 1950’s on the Cape, there wasn’t much for kids,” says Dwyer. “John Hay started the Children’s Junior Nature Museum to get them involved, to get them out into the natural habitat.” 

The museum started out on the second floor of the old town hall, but it purchased a piece of land on Route 6A, a ways downriver from the herring run and the Stony Brook Grist Mill. Here, it set up a tent as a base of operations during the summers of 1961 and 1962. Over the following years, Dwyer recalls, the museum began building more permanent structures, and in 1968, the current building was erected. The Town of Brewster and the Brewster Conservation Trust have since acquired land along the brook, surrounding the 80 acres owned by the museum, so that a continuous area from Lower Mill Pond all the way to Cape Cod Bay is protected. Dwyer says, “It’s a microcosm of Cape Cod with salt, brackish, and fresh water through marshes and into upland forest.” Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, the museum continued to offer programs for children on site, and its staff visited schools in outreach programs. Dwyer says, “Hay wanted the museum to be a part of the habitat. If you came to the exhibits in the building first, the guided field tour would reinforce what you’d learned in the museum. But visitors could do this the other way, and the museum would reemphasize what they had discovered outside.” Hay served as president of the museum for 25 continuous years while simultaneously writing books about nature. In his forty-year career, he would publish 18 books, and grow into one of the most influential writers within the genre. Renowned essayist Annie Dillard wrote of Hay’s 1970 book, “In Defense of Nature”, that “John Hay is one of the world’s handful of very great nature writers; I love his books with all my heart.” 

One of Hay’s recurring themes is the interconnectedness of life; the location of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History on Stony Brook could not be more ideal with regard to underlining this concept. Hay, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 95, looked for the ways that living things are similar, and he recognized that even a fish could share qualities with humans. In his critically acclaimed 1965 book, “The Run”, Hay documents the annual return of alewife from the Atlantic to the kettle holes, and he devotes many pages to developing connections. Dwyer says, “He identified with the alewives’ struggles and with their danger.” Midway through an early chapter entitled “The Nature of an Alewife,” Hay ruminates on the fish’s eyes. He writes:

Its black, round shining eyes are very prominent in proportion to its small head and small mouth. They are large black discs like certain water-worn rocks, or they are great bubbles coming up from a dark depth. I fancied, seeing a tiny image of myself in the alewife’s eye, that I was reflected in a deep, impenetrable well.

Having established this poetic bond with the fish, Hay concludes the chapter more literally, asking:

Were there more connections between us that needed explanation? How much fright, how much nerve-threaded darkness, how much throbbing electric quickness might not be receiving me in the distance of that fixed eye? Perhaps we strangers all meet somewhere in each other’s sight.

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