A Story by Charlie Dennis
I was a young boy when I used to go to Malagawatch with my Mom and Dad to gather maple to make baskets. There was a man there named Gabriel Sylliboy. Gabriel and his brother stayed in a meager cabin typical of the times then, an oil lantern, an old tin covered wood stove, a couple of beds and a spittoon in the corner (Some people thought it was some sort of a pot by the way, Gabriel never missed). The cabin was west of the Denys Basin and close by there was a pond (that would now be considered the depiction of perfect watershed management) but at the time it was a way to help his family survive.
I used to sit from a distance and watch him harvest after I had finished my oyster gathering for the day. It never ceased to amaze me that, wind or not, this man could collect two or three five-peck boxes a day of the finest looking oysters. Oyster buyers always sought Gabriel’s oysters first. People use to call him the “Puoin”, which means “someone who can just make things happen” but I don’t think that this what he was. After many years of careful observation, I realized that he was not some magical being, this “Puoin” some people said he was. Instead, the manner in which he worked was simply in complete harmony with the natural elements. He had a way of working with the natural environment that made it appear that the conditions of the day would change to suit his needs. As each scoop of oysters from the silted bottom was brought aboard his boat they were swished clean and then graded into piles. Then depending on their size, they were placed back into a designated area of Gabriel’s pond.
He had it all mapped out, only it was in his head, hidden from anyone else. It wasn’t that Gabriel was so unwilling to share his techniques or keep his secrets hoarded away only for himself, it was just that he had a different way of learning. He allowed me to observe, but I had to do the thinking for myself. I often think back of Gabriel, who was always clad head to toe in his Sunday best unlike other fishermen and he always taught from a “figure-it-out-yourself” perspective.
The tools of the trade were simple as life itself was very simple then. One time when he knew I would be nearing an area where he knew I could pick up some railroad spikes, he asked me to bring him back some. He wouldn’t tell me what they were for, but he was willing to let me observe why he wanted them. The iron hammer “spike” was used to chip the crooked edges of an oyster shell away when he pulled up a jagged one. The trimmed oysters were then put back into a certain area of this pond to heal.
The only map he had was etched in the memory of his mind but with consistent intent he placed each oyster according to where it would foster good growth. The scoop he used was loose netting inside a bent bicycle rim, which was outlined by homemade copper wiring and fastened securely to an old wooden broom handle. He also had a rake, which was used to remove the algae and seaweed from the bottom of the pond. The blanket of scum that covered the bottom was easily removed by just touching a part of it with the rake and like magic the buoyancy lifted the “blanket” to the shore. There was another tool, perhaps the most important. It wasn’t just Gabriel that used it, all the oyster fishermen did as well. At one point I was sent on an errand to pick up this special tool for a group of oyster fishermen and I brought back all sorts of samples.
Can you guess what this other thing was that was so essential to oyster fishing?