HARWICH – From his boyhood on Cape Cod to this day, “Pleasant Bay has been my playground,” Mon Cochran told an appreciative audience at Pleasant Bay Community Boating last month. “I was out on the bay by the time I was 6 or 7 by myself in a fairly raggedy catboat.”
Cochran, executive director of the Cape Cod Climate Change Collaborative and a former president of Friends of Pleasant Bay, crosses the bay on a more impressive vessel these days: the Friends’ Floating Classroom, which can carry 25 young students and three to five adults. It’s powered by eight lithium batteries fed by solar panels. “We’ve been on the bay for two summers and never had to plug in,” he said
As a lifelong observer of Pleasant Bay, Cochran said it’s “pretty healthy right now, but I’d also note that the cut to the Atlantic is about as far north as it’s ever been, so a lot of the health can be ascribed to that. At the same time, we as a human species are also trying to do something to make a difference.”
Cochran said that “a major concern when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s was the deterioration of the north end (of the bay) because there was relatively little tidal flow.” Then nature stepped in, and outer beach breaks in 1987 and 2007 changed that dynamic. “The cleanliness that came with the 2007 cut was strongest in 2007 and 2008,” Cochran noted. “Water samples in Pleasant Bay show that we’re past the peak and beginning to experience a decline in water quality again.”
Development and its consequence, increased nitrogen discharge, is a land-based threat that has prompted Cape Codders to dig deep to preserve the resource in its natural state.
Maintaining Chatham’s Eastward Ho! Country Club as a golf course and country club was “a major land preservation activity,” Cochran said. “It’s a very important piece of land to Pleasant Bay, and also happens to be where I learned to ski. I used go over there in winter and fall down the hills.”
Cochran recalled the arguments in the ‘50s and ‘60s over the Cape Cod National Seashore, which wound up protecting thousands of acres, including all of Nauset Beach, although “a lot of people on the Lower Cape were very upset that we would not be able to have snack shacks all along the outer beach.”
The ‘60s also saw creation of the Chatham Conservation Foundation, which helped protect Strong Island. The ‘70s brought the Orleans Conservation Trust, to which Cochran’s grandmother Margaret donated 57 acres in 1973. The founding of conservation trusts in Brewster and Harwich and of the Friends of Pleasant Bay followed in the 1980s.
“We saw water quality deterioration,” Cochran said, “but humans responded. These organizations were created and thousands of acres are protected as a result.”
But work remains to be done on curtailing the impact of wastewater on the Pleasant Bay estuary, and its towns are responding with nitrogen removal schemes. Educating citizens about the scientific basis for action is something Cochran comes to through family ties.
When his family moved to the Cape in 1945, his father became the first employee of The Cape Codder, selling subscriptions. “That winter, the high school (then in Orleans) lost its science teacher,” Cochran said. “They shopped around in town to find whether anybody had taken any science in college, and it turned out Dad had, though he got thrown out of college sophomore year. So he became the chemistry, physics, and biology teacher. That was public education on Cape Cod in the 1940s.”
Thus, said Cochran, “I grew up with a lot of science, a lot of it on Pleasant Bay.” Meanwhile, his mother was a writer and editor for the Codder. “Science and writing were a big part of my upbringing,” he said.
After leaving the Cape for a career as a professor of early child development at Cornell University, Cochran retired here. “I had a couple of grandkids and was increasingly concerned about climate change, so I decided to write in that area. I have written a couple of e-books for middle schoolers on climate change and clean energy.” He meets early every Monday morning with 40 students at Monomoy Middle School, and looks forward to young people using the Floating Classroom to help scientists collect samples in Pleasant Bay as part of their education.
Cochran captivated the audience by relating a dream he had during a recent visit to Italy. His experience of seeing “everything from gondolas to huge cargo boats negotiate the canals” of Venice “merged with presentations I’ve been giving on climate change and sea level rise,” he said. He imagined Jeremiah’s Gutter and Town Cove in Orleans reconnected with Pleasant Bay, and had a “vision of Orleans and Pleasant Bay as the Venice of Cape Cod with canals radiating off the Gutter into Orleans and Eastham. The Floating Classroom also drifted into the dream as the New Age means of transport.”
With six feet of sea level rise, Cochran said, Jeremiah’s Gutter would be recreated at the Orleans-Eastham line. “Is six feet of sea level rise reasonable between now and 2050?” he asked. “We hope it’s pessimistic, but frankly at the rate things are happening up in the Arctic, the melt, this is not gonna be linear. We will not increase by a specific amount every year. We’ll go along bit by bit and suddenly, whoosh. Once we get to six feet in Orleans and Eastham, we’re gonna need a new bridge.”
Looking out 25 years, “we don’t know the answers to these questions,” Cochran said, “but we can begin to think about it and begin taking steps to protect ourselves in the broader sense. The purpose of the Cape Cod Climate Change Collaborative is to contribute to the worldwide effort to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our neighborhood and protect our grandchildren from those effects.”
For more information, go to capecodclimate.org.