Men’s Lives: THE SURFMEN AND BAYMEN OF THE SOUTH FORK by Peter Matthiessen (Random House: $29.95; 340 pp.)


“The wind is out of the northwest, the day is cold, but already the sea breathes its sweet stink of regeneration.” Peter Matthiessen has an uncanny ability to capture the moods of nature, the essence of place, and the everyday drama of human life. A naturalist, novelist, journalist, and former commercial fisherman on the South Fork of Long Island, N.Y., he provides in his latest book a sensitive portrait of the South Fork and of the once-thriving industry that gave a livelihood to hundreds of baymen who netted sturgeon, harpooned swordfish, trotlined for blue crabs, set eel pots, scalloped, clammed, and spent the harsh winters trawling cod. According to Matthiessen, for those who went down to the sea in small boats, it was a good life--but a dangerous one.

I read the book while sailing from New York to Maine. As our windjammer neared the South Fork, I could almost see the Millers and the Lesters and the other families of baymen encountered in the pages of “Men’s Lives.” My early morning reverie was interrupted by the glint of sun rays bouncing off the plate glass windows of the big contemporary homes of summer residents.

Much of Matthiessen’s book is a commentary on that new, gentrified world, increasingly peopled by folks who live in the city and long to have a place “out on the Island”; by modern-day carpetbaggers who come to Montauk laden with schemes to “develop” the area; and by those for whom fishing is a gentleman’s sport threatened by insensitive and greedy locals. The old-timers--some dating their association with the South Fork to the days of Dutch colonial rule, many to the time when New Englanders crossed the Sound to settle there--are steadily being overwhelmed and displaced. Through a curious inversion created by the economics of the marketplace, skyrocketing land values (and concomitant jumps in the tax rate), environmental concerns, and legislation rammed through by lobbying sportsmen that sharply curtails traditional sources of income, the baymen have become outsiders in their own communities.

The narrative of the rise and fall of the South Fork’s 300-year-old fishing industry is richly complemented by over 100 photographs, some dug up in archives and family trunks, many taken between 1981 and 1985 by fisherman-photographer Doug Kuntz and seven others.