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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Farmer The Grain The Miller The Sea

Air Date: Week of

The egret catches a mouthful of menhaden. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

Living on Earth's Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender, takes a moment to reflect on seeing the food chain of the Atlantic Ocean at work.


BASCOMB: Well, big cats may draw a crowd but for Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender, the real show is much lower down on the food chain.

The Farmer The Grain The Miller The Sea
Menhaden, Striped Bass & Seabirds
Long Island Sound
© 2020 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved
Menhaden are farming the sea. They plough with their fins shuttling to and fro, and plant among currents known only to them among fields furrowed in waves. And never know if the seed sprouts, or not. And never know the fruit of their labor.

On the tide their plantings drift as if in a calm before storm. Towards shore, then into the rivers: the Neck, the Housatonic, the Thames, the Connecticut and all the tributaries there whose names have been lost to us. The Namers of these freshets and rivulets also long gone.

Everything, changed.

And of the seed? In spite of the wear and erosions of time? Nourished under a cold sun will they find a lighted way?

Gulls feast on the little fish. (Photo: (c) Mark Seth Lender)

The months come.

The months go.

The seasons pass…

Autumnal Equinox and the seed heads have ripened to bursting. Young menhaden cloud the shallows with their silvering, thick as grain, churning and turning calling forth though it is against their will, the Harvest:

And from below striped bass, Threshers of the Ocean; and from above the gulls, Reapers of the Air; and along and along paddling and dab-diving double-crested cormorants who are the Gleaners; all come to do their workings. Mouths and teeth and beaks and bills winnowing flesh from water and the little fishes driven in upon the rocky shore to meet in a terrible convergence there tangled in sea weed. As the gulls plunge and scream. The stripers stream, round, and round, and leaping! Double-crested cormorants trim and swimming in a great wedge.

Double-crested cormorants. (Photo: (c) Mark Seth Lender)

V for Victory.

For them!

And for the little fishes?

Now, the Miller comes.

White on white on a field of wet dusky blue, his wings wind-milling, his yellow beak as pallid as the sun. Here, he descends. There, he lands, stilting on a lead of boulders pointing out into the bight. He waits. Patient. Steady. Great Egret all in his elegance! And his long neck plunges to part the surface into a spray, pearls and diamonds of light and water, and lifts five live and struggling, too many to swallow too much to let go he can hardly bear it!.

When -

Rising bursting swimming airborne behind and about Great Egret all for a breathless instant all Brother and Sister Menhaden leap! At once! A turmoil! That cannot be counted!

In the end the Great Egret swallows just one menhaden. (Photo: (c) Mark Seth Lender)

Then -

Tumble splunging splashing; while from the Miller’s mouth others fall to greet them; and the wetted stones receive them…

Great Egret in the end swallows just one, overcome, by the richness, of the grain, that grows only in the sea.

BASCOMB: That’s Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender.



Read the Field Note for "The Farmer The Grain The Miller The Sea"

Mark Seth Lender's website

About Stewart B. McKinney Wildlife Refuge


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