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Give me a fish, I eat for a day:

teach me to fish,

I eat for a lifetime.

Fisherman’s motto

Now let my fingers and pencils and my beloved old machine with its letters and numbers fly over the sweet harbor and gaze instead into the town itself. A tiny town as towns and cities are now, but to me it held a perfect sufficiency. Front Street and Back Street. Of course they had other names, but this is town talk. One traffic light, one doctor, one drugstore. A scattering of restaurants, saloons. And the boatyards.


Most of the town lived for its fishing, a rough trade taken on, for the fish then were plenty. Many of the men were from Portugal, the islands. Not all of course, but their hardiness was noticeable. Men, and boys in small boats that scarcely ever carried emergency gear for the men. Which meant at times the loss of both, the boat and its crew. When a boat did not return there was grieving in more than one house. Still, the next morning the boats went out, without their brothers. It felt close to nobility.

A memory: hauling the net up to the surface of the water and onto the deck was not easy work; the men had to be strong, quick, and accurate. In the morning sun, a few of the old men, retired now, would often gather together on the bench in front of the New York Store. Not one of them had all ten fingers.

Speaking of the net, which sank deeply and broadly, many a curiosity might appear along with the catch. Once, a human leg bone. Certainly in these days it would have been taken to the police station, not so in the time I am talking of, but instead it was carried to the priest at the Catholic church. Where because of an old leg wound from the war, the owner of this piece of body was identified. Missing is only missing to insurance companies, but now the insurance would be paid, if the family had such. A blessing to a whole family.


The town was full of nicknames — a few I remember: Moon, Iron Man, Jimmy Peek (in remembrance of his grandfather, who, it is said, peeked a great deal). And then there was Flyer, owner of the boatyard. One winter, already of a great age, his shoulders stiffened into uselessness. He filled two pails with sand and water and carried them everywhere he went, the entire winter. By spring his shoulders were fine. You do not meet such people everywhere.

I don’t mean to slight the women of the town. Visiting a Portuguese house often deeply snuggled among flowers, it took no more than three minutes from my knock before I would find myself sitting in front of a bowl of steaming, delicious Portuguese soup and adding my own voice to the family chatter.

Provincetown has what we called Mediterranean light, which for years had brought artists to set up their easels on the shore, on the dunes, on street corners, or perhaps in their own houses. Writers came as well. No occupation was considered elite. Provincetown became the place to come not only for the light but for the friendliness that sustained all of us, or so it seemed. I meet the plumber in the hardware store, “How’s your work going?” he would say. Pretty good, I’d answer, and how about you? “Pretty well,” he would say. And we would both ramble off smiling, feeling the sweetness of it.


And then the terrible change began. The great rafts of fish began to diminish. The satisfaction of a day’s work also began to vanish. Overfishing, climate change, and little boats that were growing older every year were the causes. In other towns, larger boats were built to travel farther out to sea, something the Provincetown fleet could not do.

A town cannot live on dreams. The change was slow but harsh. The young men and women, boys and girls left to find work and to build another life. And the town became, not all at once but steadily, a town of pleasure. People swarmed in on weekends, and they still do. And it will no doubt go on. And there is no blame in this. The town had to find another way to live.

The tourist business was in. Late into the night the bands played. Closing hours changed, became later. There were weekend people and people who could afford a longer stay or buy a summer home. At the same time, I must say that many of the changes were important. A home for young artists and painters was established as well as a scientific center for the study of our coastal waters. But generally it became just, well, different. One could say it fast became a place to visit or live for a while, and to spend money. Not so much in which to live a life. To dance and make noise, though I do not mean to criticize all frolic. It was just, well, different.


I don’t know if I am heading toward heaven or that other, dark place, but I know I have already lived in heaven for fifty years. Thank you, Provincetown.

Excerpted from “Upstream,” a new collection of essays by poet and former Provincetown resident Mary Oliver, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Published by Penguin Press.