“. . .The earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.” Psalm 104:25+
During my college years, the highest I ever rose on my summer job was about five feet off the ground aboard an old, army surplus caterpillar. I’m not sure why the boss made me the designated driver, but he did. So there I was, most days, at the hand levers that controlled the old beast, an ancient, faded yellow wonder whose huge engine banged, banged, banged along the beach as if it had but one mammoth cylinder.
We must have seemed quite motley bunch coming down the beach, four or five us, me aboard the cat, the others armed with rakes and shovels, cleaning up the mess of dead fish. Back then, Lake Michigan—or at least our corner of it—was a stinking mess. Alewives by the millions washed up on the shore, some of the heftier ones bloating on the sand.
Swimmers hated them, and so did the boss. A couple hundred thousand little silvery no-good alewives washing up on the beach each day didn’t please him. Didn’t even please the seagulls, who considered their palettes above them and only pecked out their eyes.
So three or four guys would go out and rake ‘em up, and two of us would follow—a guy with a scoop, and me at the controls of that tank of a cat. My sense of smell isn’t acute, but I don’t remember the stench all that much, although it was the boss’s concern that we get those tiny silvery fish picked up pronto, then dumped in a hole we dug back in the dunes. During the height of their spawn, we started the morning on the beach, which always bugged us because there were no bikinis out at nine, not on Lake Michigan. Raking alewives wasn’t a bad job really; the boss could have stuck us with much worse; but afternoons were more opportune, the beach offering so much more to see.
I think of that long-ago experience now because of the psalmist’s line “teeming with creatures beyond number.” We thought they were “beyond number”—the alewives. For a month at least, the waves rolled them up by the millions and turned the place into a silvery dump. The lunkers were no more than six inches long, but most of them were no bigger than your finger and nowhere near as thick.
The overcrowded schools of alewives were created by the lamprey eel, a hideous looking thing, who hitched itself to the lake’s precious game fish, then simply rode out their host’s long and torturous death. Horror movie stuff. The virtual disappearance of game fish in Lake Michigan in the 50s created a population boom among the alewives.
Today, the lamprey eel is at ten percent of its peak population because, fifty years ago, researchers discovered a chemical to kill the larvae. As a result, game fish made a dramatic recovery, and that army surplus caterpillar has been long been retired, those lowly alewives devoured by teeming trout and salmon.
Psalm 104 is grand and glowing and inspiring, a cyclorama almost; but here and there it could use a footnote, and I’m not even an ecologist.
Which is not to the psalmist is wrong. There’s a great circle in nature, and I’m no more of a Lakota than an ecologist. Something there is that links us and them—two-leggeds, four-leggeds, and even silvery alewives.
Something there is that loves us all. That’s what the Bible says in Psalm 104, a long and beautiful portrait of the natural world.
But occasionally, I guess, someone’s got to drive the old cat to the dump.