The Fish-Pens

F. W. Boreham, Rubble and Roseleaves, Part III, ch. II

I was holiday-making at Lake King. As a matter of fact, Lake King is no lake at all. It used to be; and, like the Church at Sardis, and like so many of us, it bears the name that it once earned but no longer deserves. In former days, a picturesque rampart of sand hummocks, richly draped in native verdure, intervened between the fresh waters of the land-locked lake and the heaving tides of the Southern Ocean. Then the engineers arrived; and when the engineers take off their coats no man can tell what is likely to happen next. At Panama they split a continent in two. At Lake King they wedded the lake to the ocean. Through the range of sand-dunes they cut a broad, deep channel by which the big ships could pass in and out, and, as an inevitable consequence, Lake King is a lake no longer. But it was not the big ships that interested me. It was the trawlers. I liked to see the fishing-boats come in from the ocean and liberate their shining spoil at the pens. On the shores of the lake the fishermen have fenced off a sheet of water, a quarter of an acre or so in area; and into this sheltered reserve they discharge their daily catch. I never tired of visiting the fish-pens. As I looked down into their clear waters they seemed to be one moving mass of beautiful fish. Never in my life had I seen so congested an aquarium. There were thousands upon thousands, tons upon tons, of them.

‘You should row across in the early morning,’ one of the fishermen was good enough to say. ‘You would see us dragging the pens and filling the boats with the fish that we were about to pack for the market.’

I took the hint, and shall never forget the animated spectacle that I then witnessed. The waters that had previously seemed so tranquil were a seething tumult of commotion. The men were wading up to their thighs dragging the nets through the crowded pens. Thousands upon thousands of splendid fish were fighting for dear life, excitedly darting and flapping and leaping and diving and splashing in a hopeless attempt to escape the enmeshment of the enfolding toils. Netful after netful was emptied into the boats. In half an hour the boats themselves were filled to the brim with the poor stiffened creatures from which all life and beauty had departed.

‘And do the fish keep good in the pens for an indefinite period?’ I asked my fisherman friend— the man who had invited me across.

‘Oh, dear, no,’ he replied, ‘that’s the trouble. If we could keep them here until the market suited us, we should quickly make our fortunes. But they soon get slack and soft and flabby. The life in the pens isn’t a natural one. They haven’t to work for their living and they are in no danger of attack. The palings and wire-netting that keep them in keep their natural enemies out. In the ocean they have to be active and vigilant and spry. But here they lie at their ease; they move to and fro sluggishly for the mere fun of the thing; and they soon go to pieces in consequence.’

Away on the Dogger Bank the fishermen cherish a tradition which, on suitable occasions, they recite with infinite relish. It belongs to the heroic age that enfolded land and sea before the day of the steam-trawler had dawned. In those unhurried times, the fishing-boats spread their tawny sails, and, to the accompaniment of chanties and choruses such as sailors love, crept slowly out to sea. In sleepy little fishing-villages along the English coast, you may still see craft of this romantic— and historic— build. One little hamlet of the sort I often visit in my dreams. Years ago I knew every pebble on its beach. Winds and waves have scooped out a kind of alcove in the massive cliffs. High up, pressing closely against the rugged wall of chalk, stands a cluster of weather-beaten cottages. In front of them the fishing-boats are drawn up. Nets are spread out on the beach to dry, coils of rope lie about, and piles of tackle are everywhere. If you are as fortunate as I should like you to be, you will see, moving to and fro between his cottage and his boat, a tall bronzed figure in a blue jersey and a sou’wester. He is the most popular fisherman in the place. He was born here; and, save for two years of which he does not like to think, has spent all his days on this beach. Just once he wandered. He joined the fleet on the Dogger Bank. He worked on the trawler that raced out and raced round and raced back. He saw the cutters darting to and fro between the fleet and the market. And, the more he saw of this side of life, the less he liked it. He returned to the quiet little cove among the cliffs. If, some day, you can catch him in one of his leisure hours, and in one of his garrulous moods, he may be beguiled into telling you of the tales he heard told on the Dogger. For, out there where they fish by machinery, and use tackle of which the little hamlet never dreams, the men like to poke fun at the old-fashioned craft on the beach. And, when they speak of the old days and the old ways, they remind each other that, years ago, each fishing-boat was fitted with a tank or well, constructed with perforated sides so that the water it contained was part and parcel of the sea through which the boat was sailing. Into these wells the fish were transferred from the nets immediately upon their arrival from the deep. In this new environment the graceful creatures gave no evidence of discontent or resentment. They would live indefinitely in their floating homes. But the fishermen found that, like the fish in these Australian pens, the fish in the wells waxed limp and listless. They lost their flavor and sweetness. This, according to the tradition, happened to all the fishing-boats save one.

One fisherman, and one only, brought his fish to market in excellent condition. He landed them at Billingsgate as healthy and brisk and firm as though he had caught them ten minutes earlier under London Bridge. The dealers soon learned to distinguish between the fish from his boat and the fish from all the others. His fish brought the highest prices on the market, and the happy fisherman rejoiced in his abounding prosperity. His comrades marvelled at his success and vainly endeavored to cajole his secret from him. He was not to be drawn. The matter remained an inscrutable mystery until the day of the old fisherman’s death. Then, acting upon her father’s instructions, his daughter unfolded the secret. Her father, she said, made it a rule to keep a catfish in the well of his boat. The catfish kept the other fish in a ferment of agitation and alarm. They were never at rest. And, because a catfish compelled them to live in the well under conditions that were approximately normal, they came to market in as wholesome a state as though they had just been dragged from the deep.

I often take myself into a quiet corner and remind myself of my visit to the fish-pens or repeat to myself the famous tradition of the catfish. I find myself at times in a rebellious mood. Why is life so troubled, so agitated, so disturbed? If only I could be left alone! Why may I not fold my hands and be quiet? I am hunted up hill and down dale; I am driven from pillar to post. I have to work for my living— an irksome necessity. I often have to go out when I would rather stay in, and have to stay in when I would rather go out. I am the prey of antagonisms of many kinds. Life is full of irritations, annoyances, mortifications, and disappointments. I am not my own master. Like Paul, I find a law that, when I would do good, evil is present with me; the good that I would I do not and the evil which I would not that I do. Paul found it extremely exasperating, and so do I. If only I could live without work and without worry and without any of my present vexations! Why, oh why, must there always be a catfish in my well?

A catfish is an animated compliment. I do not suppose that a Dictionary of Oceanography or a Cyclopædia of Pisciculture would define a catfish precisely in that way. But I prefer my own definition to that of the encyclopædia; it is more brief and it is quite as accurate. A catfish, I repeat, is an animated compliment. It is because the fisherman values his fish that he puts the catfish into the well to annoy them. ‘I remember,’ says Dr. James Stalker, ‘I remember hearing a celebrated naturalist describe a species of jellyfish, which, he said, lives fixed to a rock from which it never stirs. It does not require to go in search of food, because in the decayed tissues of its own organism there grows a kind of seaweed on which it subsists. I thought I had never heard of any creature so comfortable. But the eminent naturalist who was describing it went on to say that it is one of the very lowest forms of animal life, and the extreme comfort which it enjoys is the badge of its degraded position.’ Now this seems to throw a little light on my own discontent. No fisherman would take any pains to preserve such worthless things. When the fisherman drops the hideous catfish into the well, it is his way of telling the shiny creatures that are already there of the high esteem in which he holds them.

This leads me to Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe caught a glimpse of this doctrine of the catfish, and it dispelled some of his most acute perplexities. The pity of it is that, later on, when he found himself confronted by the gravest and most baffling bewilderment of all, he failed to apply to it the same vital principle. He saw the law at work among his minor difficulties; it did not occur to him that it might also operate among the major ones.

A day came on which Crusoe discovered that he was not, as he had fancied, the monarch of all he surveyed. His sovereignty was disputed. Everybody remembers the haunting passage about the footprint on the sand. ‘It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s foot on the shore. How it came thither I knew not, nor could I in the least imagine; but after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I trod upon, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump to be a man. Nor is it possible to describe how many various shapes my affrighted imagination represented things to me in, how many wild ideas were found every moment in my fancy, and what strange, unaccountable whimseys came into my thoughts by the way.’ Now this story of Crusoe and the cannibals is simply the story of the cod and the catfish in another form. The cod would have liked the well all to itself: it is horrified at discovering that it must share it with a catfish!

Yet, as we have seen, the cod were the better for the catfish; and, as Crusoe afterwards recognized, the island was enriched by the coming of the cannibals. Robinson Crusoe is essentially a story with a moral; and Crusoe leaves you in no doubt as to the moral. He is most explicit in that regard. ‘For,’ he tells us, ‘I began to be very well contented with the life that I was leading, if only I could have been secured from the dread of the savages.’ How little he thought that, so far from hurting a single hair of his head, the savages would provide him, in the person of his man Friday, with the most devoted servant and most constant friend that any man could possibly possess! ‘Wherefore,’ he says, in formulating the moral to be deduced from his sensational experience, ‘wherefore it may not be amiss for all people who shall read this story of mine to learn from it that very frequently the evil which we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance, by which alone we can be raised again from the affliction into which we have fallen.’

Now this was the minor perplexity; the major one came later. And the extraordinary thing is that, confronted by that larger perplexity, Crusoe’s own maxim does not seem to have recurred to him. Crusoe has met the cannibals; they have come and gone; and they have left Friday behind them. Crusoe has taught Friday to speak English, and is doing his best to store his mind with the highest knowledge of all. ‘One day,’ so runs his narrative, ‘I had been teaching him that the devil was God’s enemy in the hearts of men, and used all his malice and skill to defeat the good designs of Providence, and to ruin the kingdom of Christ in the world. “Well,” replies Friday, in broken English, “but you say God is so strong, so great; is he not much strong, much mighty as the devil?” “Yes, yes, Friday,” I replied, “God is stronger than the devil; God is above the devil, and therefore we pray to God to tread him down under our feet and enable us to resist his temptations and quench his fiery darts.” “But,” says he again, “if God much stronger, much mighty as the wicked devil, why God no kill the devil, so make him no more do wicked?” I was strangely surprised at this question; and, after all, though I was now an old man, yet I could not tell what to say, so I pretended not to hear him. But Friday kept repeating his question in the same broken words: “Why God no kill the devil?” I therefore diverted the discourse by rising up hastily and sending him for something a long way off.’ It was the greatest humiliation that Robinson Crusoe sustained during his long sojourn on the island.

‘Why God no kill the devil?’ asked Friday. It sometimes happens that the best way of answering one question is to ask a few more. Let us try. ‘Why God no kill the devil?’ Why did the shrewd old fisherman not kill the catfish in the well of his boat? Why did the fish in the pens grow slack and soft and flabby as soon as the palings and wire-netting cut them off from the assaults of their natural enemies? ‘In the Louvre,’ says Professor William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, ‘in the Louvre there is a picture by Guido Reni of St. Michael with his foot on Satan’s neck. The richness of the picture is in large part due to the fiend’s figure being there. The richness of its allegorical meaning also is due to his being there. The world, that is to say, is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.’

It is an old story. It is the tree that is buffeted by the wind that develops the strongest roots and the sturdiest fibre. It is in the carcase of the lion with which he fought for his life that Samson finds the honey. ‘I did not learn to preach all at once,’ says Martin Luther, in a delightful burst of confidence. ‘It was my temptations and my corruptions that best prepared me for my pulpit. The devil has been my best professor of exegetical and experimental divinity. Before that great schoolmaster took me in hand, I was a sucking child and not a grown man. It was my combats with sin and with Satan that made me a true minister of the New Testament. It is always a great grace to me, and to my people, for me to be able to say to them, “I know this text to be true! I know it for certain!” Without incessant combat and pain and sweat and blood, no ignorant stripling of a student ever yet became a powerful preacher.’ That is the lesson that I learned at the fish-pens. That is the secret that the wise old fisherman, of catfish fame, bequeathed to his mystified companions. That is what Robinson Crusoe learned in the course of his long and lonely exile. And, in the rough and tumble of common life, there is scarcely any lesson of greater value to be learned.

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