Thursday, December 7, 2023

From the 1930s novel, “Psalmist of the Dawn” – garfish netting at Old Settlement Beach

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Chris Murray, The Lord Howe Island Signal

Mary Marlowe’s novel, Psalmist of the Dawn (published in 1934 but probably written in 1931) is set on Lord Howe and populated with real places, activities and people – that latter only slightly disguised behind pseudonyms. Following previous Signal episodes, we’ll take a look at more of these bona fide local inclusions in her novel.

Communal fishing scene
Communal fishing scene at Old Settlement Beach photographed by Alan McCulloch – most likely in the early 1920s. Photo: courtesy LHI Historical Society.

Garfishing was an important part of the Islanders’ semi-subsistence lifestyle before World War II. Large quantities of gars were caught not only for local consumption but also for sale to passing vessels. The seagrass beds at Old Settlement Beach were rich fishing grounds as the gars often deposit eggs in the seagrass, and the fish school there in large numbers. This enabled the Islanders to catch them in nets. Marlowe describes one such expedition, again using local identities such as Power Horton (alias Gower Wilson) and his family, as the main characters in the action.

Mary Marlowe opens the scene thus: “Word had come through by wireless that the ship Marsina was due from the New Hebrides in the morning. Every trip she carried away a crateful of garfish for the crew. It was garfish-catching morning whenever word came she was headed for Lord Howe. [All] Hands to the nets….”

Later in the novel: Power Horton [Gower Wilson] is offshore in a dinghy at Old Settlement Beach with a female assistant, Ona, who plays out the fine net from the rear of this small boat:

“’Ona you stay in the boat and pay out the net…close in gradually. Don’t scare the fish’. Power dipped the oar again lightly, hardly feathering the surface, but keeping the boat moving … Ona stood with her legs apart in the stern and paid out the net slowly…the weight of the net began to be felt. The shore crew hauled on it, hand over hand in rhythm. The net was floating wide. They heard the flip-flop of small fish already caught in the meshes. Some jumped high and gained freedom.  Power pulled into the shore a couple of hundred yards farther down the beach from where … the others were hauling on the rope. He jumped out and beached the boat. Ona plunged in up to her waist on the outside of the net and walked around the wide semi-circle where it floated, turning the edge of it down so that a big pocket was made for the catch. ‘Pull even!’ shouted Power to the crew on the beach. ‘Pull low’. ‘Keep your lead line down can’t you? Right down … The fish are in the net now. Tons of them’….

Hand over hand, standing in a row at each end of the net, for Power had attached a second rope to his end and Nina and Jip [Joyce and Alan Wilson] had joined him…. The garfish were plopping, rising to the surface, struggling for life and liberty, falling into the net, tumbling over and over, brushing against one another. The net closed like a gunny bag over the steel-grey horde. The ropes fell into wide coils on the wet sand at the water’s edge. The weight was almost too much…they dragged the net high inshore; fish tumbling, turning, fighting for their lives; flashing like silver lightning to the hiss of the net being dragged over wet sand.

Power and Tom gave it a final heave and the fish were safely beached…. ‘Anything not a garfish you throw back. Except the young trevally. They make good eating. And throw back the very young gars. It gives them a chance to grow bigger…’ Ess brought a big potato sack down to the water’s edge and held it with the top wide open to receive the squirming fish…’Each of you count your fish as you put them in your sack, then we’ll count the total….’ instructed Power….

‘One hundred and forty’ said Power when the last of the silver fish was in the bag.

Gower Wilson and fishermen
Gower Wilson [aka ‘Power Horton’] seated behind fishermen near Wilsons’ Landing. Photo: courtesy LHI Historical Society.

Power [directed] the rest of the crew to walk round the rocks by the landing where there were rock pools filled with water to clean the fish …. Ona was there before him a kerosene-tin full of clean seawater beside her. In the pitted rocks there were small pools left by the last tide. The girls threw the fish into these when the men had cleaned their innards out with their stripping knives. Each man carried a knife at his belt and found a dozen uses for it between sunrise and sunset.

Power beached the boat and brought up the sack and spilled [more] … fish out on the plateau of rocks. [Two of the men] slit the gars from end to end, stripped their entrails, and threw the fish to the girls to scrape out the fine black mucous-skin with their thumbnails … Power was dousing the cleaned gars in the kerosene-tin and putting them in the potato bag. He threw the dirty water into the sea …”

From Marlowe’s description, it is evident that the crew of the Marsina were destined to get a hefty box of gars when they called at Lord Howe. In the next Episode Mary Marlowe tackles rat hunting and seed packing.

The Lord Howe Island Signal 28 August 2021

This article appeared in The Lord Howe Island Signal, 28 August 2021.


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