By Heidi Shott
One recent, magnificent Saturday, the temperature hit 85 degrees here in midcoast Maine. I spent some time fiddling in the garden, admiring the green pea shoots popping up through the dirt. My son Marty and I walked to the neighborhood fish ladder and watched thousands of struggling alewives ascending, in little fits and starts, the tortuous 42 vertical feet from the tidal Damariscotta River to the concrete dam that marks the southernmost shore of Damariscotta Lake, their birthplace. Once over the dam and into the mill pond, these mackerel-like fish spawn and then late in the summer they slip and slide back down the ladder and out to the open sea. Next spring they’re compelled to do it all over again.
At one point I pulled out the hammock, set it up for the season, and just lay there enjoying the welcome warmth and the view of the mill pond and the repeated whoosh of my son Colin whacking the heads off the dandelions with a badminton racquet. The ecstasy lasted about ten seconds before the black flies found me.
The black fly. The bane of what passes for spring in Maine hovered around my hairline and behind my ears with the intention of extracting little droplets of A Positive. I hauled myself out of the hammock with a sigh and walked down to the dock where there was a wisp of breeze. Every few seconds the skin of the mill pond flickered as a newly-arrived alewife struck a black fly on the surface. Down below the dam, where the fish are the thickest, the gulls and cormorants feed from the sidelines on the fish that get waylaid on the rocks. If you’re lucky, once or twice during the alewife season, which runs the month of May, you might look skyward at just the right moment to see one of the neighborhood eagles flying by with a fish clutched in its talon en route to its nest over the far line of pine trees.
Black flies, alewives, and eagles. I stood on my dock looking at the chill, black water thinking how superfluous we humans are to this particular chain of connections. But then a black fly started to suck a bit of blood from the tender flesh at the corner of my right eye. Instinctively I squished it with my index finger and flicked it away to the pond. At that moment it occurred to me that my blood and my family’s blood and the blood of my-until-recently-cooped-up neighbors is what feeds this remarkable system. In May we come out of our homes en masse, feed the black flies who, heavy with our donation, skim the water to be eaten by alewives who are in turn eaten by eagles and osprey eager to feed their young. One sad spring several years ago, the eaglets died of hunger in their nearby nest because the alewives were delayed in making their journey up the river. It’s true. I have neighbors who monitor these things with high-powered binoculars.
Back on the dock, I felt a twinge of guilt for squishing my tiny fly friend. What’s a bit of pain and an unsightly red welt when I could help to feed the eaglets? It’s a small price to pay to live amid this natural wonder and beauty in a setting that would resemble a photo in the L.L. Bean catalogue if only we had nice lawn furniture and professional landscaping. By letting myself be chomped, I can be a living sacrifice – a little of my life given freely will support a little of theirs. Of course the sacrificial life, particularly when it involves blood sacrifice, has fallen a bit out of fashion over the past couple of thousand years. But in this natural setting, it represents a yielding, deferential way of life that does not much diminish me as a giver but rather offers my small oblation up to the world.
Last Tuesday night, after the local school budget passed, my seven years as a school board member ended. Over the years my sons resented my absence on the second Wednesday of each month. I didn’t help them with their homework or read to them or put them to bed on many weeknights. But it gave them a little guy time with their dad. They get to break the rules, stay up late, play pinball after 9 p.m. All in all my community service has equaled a very small sacrifice. I can think of dozens of people who give much, much more out of the substance of their lives for the benefit of others, not to mention a lot of black flies and the alewives who, wittingly or not, give up the whole thing.
Still I worry that my modern children won’t learn about sacrifice, blood or otherwise. Come summer I know that Colin will walk around the house with a flyswatter and recite Ogden Nash’s couplet, “God in his wisdom made the fly/but then forgot to tell us why.” Maybe in time he’ll take a larger view, but until then, all I can say is I’m glad Colin isn’t in charge of the universe.
Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. Communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development, her essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.