Fishing with Nell
Sometimes the kid in us gets lost when we grow up and take on the responsibilities of making a living, running a business, caring for a family, or serving a cause. Nell Newman seems to be different. When she talks about her childhood, a tomboy immediately comes to life. It’s easy to picture her pushing open the screen door at sunrise, with an old fishing pole over her shoulder and a can of worms in one hand, walking down to the river to fish.
While talking with Newman by phone from her home in Northern California, it was as if she was describing me. I was there, sitting on the grassy bank, or a moss covered log, my bare feet dangling into the creek, my red-and-white bobber bouncing circles in the water. Our futures were being molded by the same experience at different creeks. She was a kid in Connecticut, and I was a kid in Iowa, but we both grew up with fishing poles in our hands.
Nell Newman was an environmentalist from the beginning, though she didn’t know the term back then. She grew up to become the co-owner of a prominent organic food line. You know her as Nell Newman (or as Nell Potts, in film), daughter of actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Nell spoke with us about the path she took to become who she is today, co-founder of Newman’s Own Organics.
In Part 1 of a two-part series, we talk with Nell about her lifelong love for the environment, beginning as a young child. In Part 2, Newman talks about the the logical extension of her environmental activism, Newman’s Own Organics.
BPGL: What interested us about you — besides your food, of course — was that you have a degree in human ecology and have worked as an environmentalist. Tell us about your journey to becoming who you are. What makes you so passionate about the environment?
NEWMAN: I lived in New York until I was about five, and my parents bought the house in Connecticut. It was on a little river. At one point, we had five dogs and six cats, and I had a Harris hawk. I even had a cat that would follow us when we would go through the woods. That’s what I did on a daily basis.
At a very young age, I was fascinated by birds, because the woods of Connecticut at that time were really full of birds. I was frustrated because I couldn’t fly, and birds were amazing to me. I grew up in the woods, running around with a pack of dogs and fishing. That’s what made me an environmentalist.
BPGL: Did you go fishing alone?
NEWMAN: I often fished alone, but when I was 12 or 13 I had a best friend my age. She and I fished together almost every day. She lived a couple miles upstream, so we decimated the river between her house and my house. I don’t even think we ate that much fish, but I was mesmerized by them.
BPGL: What was fishing like for you back then?
NEWMAN: I was by nature a biologist, because I spent all my time in the woods. It was a very prolific, diverse river. The biodiversity was amazing: Crappie and pickerel and sunnies — several species. Pumpkin seeds and orange breasts and bluegills, and all of these different species of fish. They were like jewels to me.
I go back now, and I look in the river, and it looks beautiful. And all the people who have moved to Westport still think it looks really beautiful. Yet, it’s slowly but surely silted up. I’ve watched the biodiversity drop in there. And right down from us, they have a fly-fishing only section that’s stocked by Trout Unlimited with non-native species.
When I was little — you probably remember this, since you grew up on a stream — the first thing you always saw was where you couldn’t get your bait through the shiners. And I realized that one of the things that is missing in that river now is that necessary lower part of the food chain — which is why I think everything’s gone to hell. There’s no bait fish anymore.
There would be schools of little shiners — baby suckers. When they’re really small, they don’t have a sucker mouth, they have a little normal mouth. I haven’t seen a school of shiners in there in 10 or 15 years. Usually, if I’d go home, I could catch a trout under the dam. I’ve caught some very unhealthy looking hatchery fish, like rainbows. Rainbows don’t do very well in that river, that river gets too warm.
BPGL: Are you finding the fish are still healthy enough to eat?
NEWMAN: They taste muddy. It used to be you couldn’t drop a worm in there and not catch things. Now, in the spring, they get such a layer of algae growth. It’s not really thick, but it’s just thick enough to keep the sunnies from breeding — and sunnies are usually prolific. It used to be the little sunnie nests were all up and down that river.
Now, in the spring, the water bottom gets a layer of algae, which prevents the sunnies from building their nests. I just don’t see them. I’ll catch one or two sunnies. They’re really small. I think the algae is the result of too much nitrogen running off during the winter rains from the lawn fertilizers used locally. Also you have the nitrogen run-off from the waste of Canadian geese that don’t migrate north like they used to due to climate warming.
I swear I saw a wood duck the last time I was home. That really surprised me, because there used to be wood ducks on that river all the time. Something whizzed by when we were walking upstream — only one. And I thought, Wow, it must have been a wood duck.
This whole climate change is affecting the environment. I’ve lived on that river for 40 plus years. And I’ve watched the degradation of that river, which has been my own little eco-system. I’ve watched it just disappear. It still looks pretty. But it’s not a gravel-bottom stream anymore — except in the middle of the winter, if they get a lot of rain, and then you can see some gravel. There’s so little in it. I was wondering what Trout Unlimited does. Because, when I catch a rainbow, I’m thinking what is this thing doing in here? It used to be nothing but brookies. They were tiny, and they were beautiful. I haven’t seen a brookie in there in years.
BPGL: Did you have any bass in your river?
NEWMAN: We had a few large-mouth bass, which would cruise up and down the river. They never grew to much size. We really had diversity: the eels, the turtles, the bass, the pickerels, the shiners, the sunnies. It was a vivid ecosystem of different species. Now, I don’t see bass cruise the river anymore.
I saw the weirdest thing last year, and I completely didn’t know what it was. I was doing my annual go-down-by-the-river-and-fish-for-a-half-an-hour. I kept seeing a disturbance on the surface, and I thought, What is that? It’s a very small river, and my parents had put a dam in there when we were kids so we could walk across. Along the dam, I saw a school of fish that I had no idea what they were. They would swim along the dam toward me, and I was actually trying to net them, because they seemed to be very stupid. It looked like they were small shad.
The water was going fairly fast. One of them swept over the dam, and it still looked like a small shad. I called a friend of mine, Jeff, who’s a striped bass guide in Westport, and I asked, “What the heck were these things? There were about ten of them. Blue backs and silver bodies, deep bodied.”
And he said, “They’re alewives. I can’t believe they’re that far up, because we’re probably three or four miles from the ocean.”
Somebody was putting in fish ladders — I think it was Trout Unlimited. Alewives is a species that comes up into fresh water and spawns, then goes back down. And somebody put a lot of dams in between us and the ocean. My grandmother, right south of us, has a dam that I have no idea how they got up, because it’s four or five feet. It’s stone. And it resembles a regular dam.
NEWMAN: What kind of place did you grow up on, Joe?
BPGL: If you ever look up a map of Iowa, it was a place called Buffalo Creek. It was just crappies and bass, and we had some natural trout that lived in the area. My friends and I kept a frying pan down there under the bridge. We’d keep a little fire going, and when we were hungry, we’d cook up a fish, gut it and scale it and eat it right there. We never had to go home. It was just us kids and nature.
NEWMAN: Me, too.
BPGL: It’s nothing like it used to be. Now, there’s barely any possum, fox, or muskrat. I couldn’t tell you how barren it is. It’s all farmland, and they farm within two feet of the creek. There’s just no protection from the fertilizers and the pesticides. They’ve almost killed the creek. I wouldn’t even want to put my feet in it now.
NEWMAN: Ours isn’t that bad. It looks pretty. People say, “It’s so nice in Westport, and there’s so much beautiful woods.” When I grew up, there was a place called the Fairfield County Trail Association that maintained the trails, and it was where you rode. — I actually wonder what happened to it. — Everyplace I rode horseback is now a giant mansion, and I’m sure they don’t have any access. You could ride for miles all over. It still looks pretty, but if you lived there forty years ago… I go home and put my blinders on. I go visit my family, and I have a really hard time going back there.
I’m looking up Trout Unlimited, and it makes them sound really lovely, but the thing that always amazed me is the little section of the river that they “restored.” I’m wondering, what did they do? You see people pull up in their giant SUVs with $10,000 worth of fishing gear on and flail away for hatchery fish. It’s just odd.
BPGL: We’d love to post a photograph of you with a fishing pole or with a little bait on a hook or something.
NEWMAN: You know what’s sad — and I keep hoping if I talk about it enough, maybe it’ll come back to me — when I moved out here, my mother did a photo album for me of all my old pictures. My parents were prolific photographers.
In February, I’d had a bicycle accident and smashed up my face, and had stitches, and broke some teeth off. In April, I went to visit Dad, who was shooting a movie in Louisiana. That’s when my mother gave me the photo album. I said, “Mom, take this home so nothing bad happens to it.” And I think it got left there. Every single picture… I still have a few, but all of my old pictures… There was a picture of me, age 8, with a four-pound brown that I had caught. It breaks my heart. My mom used to ask me about the album periodically, and I would shudder and try to divert the conversation, because it had all of my childhood pictures. I have some, but I keep thinking I need to put a plea out.
BPGL: We’ll put a plea out for you with the article.
NEWMAN: I can still see that picture in my mind’s eye. It completely blew away my father. I’d been reading Sports and Field, Field and Stream, and something else. I had read an article that I didn’t quite comprehend. It was about fishing for catfish on a trotline in the South. You put bait on a hook, and you put a bunch of hooks on it, and you throw it out in the water. You put it out overnight, and then you come back in the morning. That’s what they do in the South for catfish.
So, I went and caught a big shiner. I put it on a hook, and I cast it out at night, and I tied my fishing rod to the handrail. When I came back in the morning, there was a four-pound brown on it. They’re nocturnal. There’s this picture of me with this smug smile, and this fish touching the ground. It breaks my heart, though. Somebody stole the album, and I don’t know where it went.
BPGL: That is so sad.
NEWMAN: It’s awful. I hate it. I have some pictures, but I don’t have this huge pile that I used to have. I wish I had my old photo album.
BPGL: You’ll probably find it on eBay someday.
NEWMAN: I don’t go on eBay. But if you ever find it, tell me.
BPGL: We sure will.
End of Part 1
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