In his book, RunningSilver, John Waldman talks of the shifting baselines syndrome where we begin a pattern of forgetting that over the generations shifts our understanding of the true nature of these systems. You can say the same about global warming. As each generation becomes more and more used to a world without snow, we will forget that outdoor ice skating was oncecommonplace in Rhode Island and will believe that ice on Narragansett Bay is an“extraordinary” occurrence.
In the beginning, fish runs were preserved with bypass channels as mills were built, and farmers would come and take dams down by force if necessary. A 1735 Massachusetts law did not allow dams on rivers that would serve as a barrier to fish. This law was generally ignored and as rivers were taken over by human machinery, many mill owners just waited until the fish runs became smaller and smaller to the point where people forgot. They then claimed that fish had never run in the river, and it made no economic sense to restore them. A 1920 state inventory of river herring found that the Mill River in Taunton was so badly polluted by manufacturing waste that restoration of the fishery would be “impossible”.
We began to forget, but the fish did not. The fish persisted and even in the beginning of this century runs of river herring on the Taunton River remained above two million fish. Today, we have removed some obstacles and have restored water quality to a degree, but the fish are not returning. We all speculate on the reasons, and they are many.