Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: Bayshore Summer by Pete Dunne

A few months ago, I received Pete Dunne's latest book, Bayshore Summer: Finding Eden in a Most Unlikely Place. Bayshore Summer is the second book of what is planned as a four-part series taking readers through the seasons in different parts of the continent. The first book in the series was published in 2009 as Prairie Spring. (I have not read Prairie Spring, so I cannot compare the two.) I meant to read and review this while it was still summer here, but it ended up getting pushed back to the beginning of fall.

The "bayshore" in the book's title refers to the northern shore of Delaware Bay, specifically Cumberland County, New Jersey. Devoting the summer book of the series to New Jersey's coast makes sense since the shore may well be the best known of New Jersey's natural geographic features outside of the state. Cape May is famous as a birding destination. Yet Cumberland County remains comparatively obscure since it has neither the ocean front of the state's northern coastal counties, the casinos of Atlantic City, nor the birding prestige of Cape May. Despite my tardiness in reading the book, I was eager to see what Dunne had to say about this area because it has quickly become one of my favorite parts of the state since I first birded there in 2009.

Unlike many of Dunne's other writings, Bayshore Summer is not primarily about birds or birding. Birds are included in the book, as one might expect from Dunne. One chapter deals with the amazing spring spectacle of Red Knots and other shorebirds around Delaware Bay. Others reference the late summer migrations of shorebirds and swallows or mention birds in passing. However, Dunne's main theme is the broader environmental context of Cumberland County and how a changing environment affects wildlife and the county's traditional industries, mainly farming and fishing. Along the way, he introduces the reader to the history and culture of Cumberland County.

Each chapter of Bayshore Summer describes a different aspect of life along the the state's bayshore. One of the first things a visitor would notice is the prominence of the fishing industry, particularly around the old fishing towns of Mauricetown, Heislerville, and Bivalve. It should be no surprise, then, that Dunne devotes a few chapters to a few chapters to fishing, both sport and commercial fishing. During the summer, the main catch for commercial fishermen is blue crab; other fish and shellfish predominate in other seasons. Ecological changes in the bay have weakened local fish populations to such an extent that local commercial fishermen are struggling to keep their businesses afloat.

Farming is the other major occupation along the bay, and there are a few major crops. One is salt hay, a species of Spartina grass that grows in high marshes. Landowners let the grass grow naturally and then harvest it in summer. The dried hay has a few uses, including fodder for livestock. Fruit and vegetables are also grown in Cumberland County; tomatoes in particular are a major crop. If you see a tomato marked "Jersey Fresh," chances are that it came from a large farm in South Jersey. A third industry is sand mining, something that Dunne mentions only in passing. (The sand here is suitable for manufacturing glass.) Besides fishing and farming, Dunne spends time with a state wildlife officer and writes about the scourges of light pollution, summer heat and humidity, and blood-sucking insects. No discussion of New Jersey's salt marshes is complete without mention of the amazing variety of blood-sucking insects, the least painful of which are mosquitos.

Whenever possible, Dunne accompanied a practitioner of the county's main industries.In a few cases this meant going out on a day-long fishing trip, in another it meant helping farmers collect hay bales, in another it meant visiting vegetable farms and farmers markets to interview both farm workers (many of whom were Latino immigrants) and customers. Dunne presents his own views and his understanding of scientific and historical knowledge with each theme that he introduces. However, he gives each person that he interviews room to express their own opinions about the challenges facing the area's traditional industries. The resulting narrative is sympathetic to local residents (even deer poachers) but suggests ways that they might be wrong about changes to the bayshore area.

In the course of writing Bayshore Summer, Dunne discovered that a naturalist from the early 20th century had grown up in Cumberland County and is buried in the churchyard at Haleyville. Dallas Lore Sharp in not nearly as well known as John Burroughs or John Muir, but he was respected among the naturalists of his day. Sharp was a prolific writer; oddly enough, his books included a four-part series on the seasons. (You can read the full text of Sharp's The Whole Year Round on Google Books.) Unfortunately Dunne's chapter about the naturalist takes the form of an imagined dialogue between himself and Sharp (the latter in the form of a gesticulating mockingbird). This format does not work nearly as well as the other chapters because the dialogue form puts so much emphasis on Dunne that Sharp gets lost in the process. This is out of character with the other chapters, which give Dunne's interlocutors more space to speak for themselves.

Despite one flawed chapter, Bayshore Summer is an enjoyable and interesting book. It is also a fast read; I read most of it in an afternoon and evening. I think that Bayshore Summer is one of Dunne's best books, at least among the ones I have read. His interviews with local residents are thought-provoking, and his characterization of the local landscape rang true to me, from what I have seen of the area. I would recommend this to anyone who likes Dunne's writing or who wants to know what New Jersey has to offer away from the Turnpike corridor.