Saint Michael’s: A Day on Chesapeake Bay

With a rumble and a roar, the engine inside the dinky little pushboat behind us comes to life. Chugging and wheezing, the pushboat propels us out of the harbor, and then the first mate unfurls the sails and we’re on our way.

I’m standing astride the deck of the H.M. Krentz, an actual working skipjack based in the town of Saint Michael’s, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Our Captain, Ed Farley, is a redoubtable figure: over sixty years of age, rugged, solidly built, with curly gray hair and an indifferently trimmed walrus mustache, attired in a billed cap, T-shirt, and oil-stained jeans. The hair on his brawny forearms has been bleached white by the sun. Tattoos, thick gnarled working man’s hands.

Maryland state law has long forbade the use of inboard motors on oysterboats – hence the pushboat – a deliberate policy of enforced inefficiency designed to limit oyster harvests. But I’ve booked a passage on the H.M. Krentz not to help Captain Ed haul in oysters (which he still does, in the winter months after the tourist season has ended) but to see for myself what happens to places like Saint Michael’s after the shellfish industry – once the economic mainstay of the region – collapses.

Chesapeake Bay and sailboatsSaint Michael’s is a town with a long and venerable history. The Christ Church of Saint Michael’s Parish (a parish of the Anglican church) was built in 1672 on the banks of what was then known as Shipping Creek (now the Miles River) in Talbot County Maryland. The town of Saint Michael’s was founded in 1775 on 20 acres of land purchased by James Braddock. During the War of 1812, the Saint Michael’s Militia, under the leadership of Captain William Dodson, successfully fought off an attack by the Royal Navy. Later the town became a major center for the processing and distribution of seafood, but those days are long gone.

My journey began earlier that day at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum located on the edge of the town at the end of Mill Street. My first stop was the Waterfowling exhibit, which documented the history of the market hunters of the Chesapeake Bay in the nineteenth century. Back then the bay was blessed with a seemingly limitless abundance and diversity of waterfowl: mallard ducks, canvasback ducks, bluebill ducks, redhead ducks, wood ducks, widgeons, mergansers, scaups, blue wing teal ducks, black ducks, goldeneye ducks, pintail ducks, brants, Canada geese, tundra swans… New-fangled innovations, such as railroads and refrigeration, facilitated the distribution of all this meat to exploding urban populations.

I viewed the tools of the market hunters’ trade, some of which look more suited to antitank warfare than bird shooting: “battery guns,” with as many as eight barrels linked together in a deadly fan-shaped array, “punt guns,” over eight feet long, capable of firing a pound of shot at the time. Of course, what seemed limitless turned out not to be. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act put an end to market hunting, but the waterfowl populations never recovered.

The next exhibit documented the history of oystering on the Chesapeake, and featured a simulacrum of a “keeper” oyster from the year 1701. It took both of my outstretched hands to span the thing.

After the oystermen had depleted the oyster beds off of New England, the packing industry set its sights on the oysters of the Chesapeake. Once again, a superabundance that seemed limitless was not. The annual harvest of oysters went from a high of 100 million bushels in the 1880’s to an abysmal 100 thousand in 1983. Once again, the population never recovered.

The exhibits contained an actual skipjack, the E.C. Collier, which sailed from 1955 through 1983 under the captaincy of John Larrimore, whose roots in the area extended back for centuries – the exhibit noted that Larrimores have been living in Talbot County as far back as 1662.

I paused to inspect a pair of oyster tongs – a pair of wooden poles, twelve feet long, linked in the middle with a hinge, with a pair of interlocking iron baskets at the ends. I try to imagine what it must have been like to wield one of these things all day long. That must have been back-breaking work.

On prominent display were photographs of the crew of the E.C. Collier. I was mildly surprised to learn the crews were racially integrated back then. I wondered what these rough, hard men would have thought had they know their lives one day would be turned into a museum exhibit? Although, I suppose, it’s better to be remembered than to be forgotten.

Back in the here and now, aboard the H.M. Krentz, Captain Ed is telling us that the Chesapeake Bay occupies what was once the valley of the river we now know as the Susquehanna. At the end of the last Ice Age, rising sea levels flooded the valley, turning it into one of the world’s largest estuaries. Counting the tributaries, like the Miles River, the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay extends for over 11,000 miles.

Unfortunately, the difference between high and low tides is a scant two feet, making the process of flushing out pollutants painfully slow. The water that enters the bay at the mouth of the Susquehanna takes a year to make it to the Atlantic Ocean. Heavy metals sink to the bottom almost immediately and remain forever.

The Captain points to the shoreline and tells us that a friend of his, an archeologist from the Smithsonian Institution, has uncovered spearpoints and other evidence of the earliest human habitation in the New World – a staggering 23,000 years ago, more than 10,000 years before the Clovis culture which has long been accepted as the beginning of human habitation of this continent.

He also tells us a little bit about himself. He moved to the area as a young man and decided to make a living on the water, ignoring the advice of an old waterman who told him, “If I were a young man, I would get as far away from the water as I could. I would put an oar over my shoulder and keep walking until some landlubber asked me what that funny stick was.” Forty-two years later, Captain Ed still is making his living along the water.

The Captain pauses in his storytelling to haul in the oyster dredge we have been pulling behind us. He dumps the contents of the deck so we all can have a look. A pile of muddy oyster shells, two or three actual live oysters, and three horseshoe crabs: two dead, and one very much still alive.

Captain Ed hands the live one over to one of the passengers, a little girl who appears to be of preschool age and who accepts her gift with equanimity. He informs us that the specimen is a male, as evidenced by the single claw on each of its first pair of walking legs, in contrast to females which sport bifurcated claws. He also tells us that the oldest horseshoe crab fossil dates back some 400 million years, and that the horseshoe crab has survived six mass extinctions.

The Captain admonishes us to look up – a pair of bald eagles is soaring overhead. I borrow a pair of binoculars from a fellow passenger in order to be able to see. Even at distance, the birds are impressive creatures: snow-white heads, sharply beaks colored a vibrant yellow, wings longer than the armspan of a full-grown man.

It’s time to start heading back. By this time, the air is getting chilly, and half of the sky above us is covered with gray and white cumulus clouds. After docking, I ask Captain Ed, “Can I get a picture?”

“You had two hours to do that!” he shoots back. In a world of “have-a-nice-day” enforced politeness, I find his brusqueness refreshing.

I exit the museum, without ever getting the picture of the Captain. My journey takes past the old white clapboard Union United Methodist Church. I turn left again and begin walking along the Saint Michael’s Nature Trail, which conveniently has been covered with smooth asphalt. To my left is a stand of yellow pine, each tree shooting up for fifty feet or more before putting out branches. To my right is a salt marsh, with reeds towering twice my height.

I pause at the Bill Shook Memorial Footbridge and watch a great blue heron foraging at the water’s edge. She moves one step at the time, slowly, deliberately, then freezes for a moment before seizing a fish with one lightning-quick strike. Her jerking, halting movements remind me of a chicken in a barnyard pecking at grains of corn.

I follow the trail to where it ends at Route 322, the only way out of Saint Michael’s, then turn left and begin walking back to town, where the highway turns into Talbot Street.

The houses lining the street are painted in a variety of garish, improbable colors – mauve, lime-green, fuchsia. Most of them have been converted into overpriced gift shops or trendy little gastropubs, although I do espy a post office and an Acme supermarket. There is still a certain amount of foot traffic here, although the tourist season seems to be winding down.

I meander down some side streets, past the old nineteenth-century houses, and here the atmosphere changes. There is something very reassuring about these surroundings. Stately oaks, walnut trees, and spruces shade the brick walkways. Homes are fronted by picket fences or carefully tended gardens. Columned porches beckon to visitors. The houses themselves are built from traditional materials – wood, brick, and slate. When these materials weather, they acquire character – a road map of their years.

A few years ago I was working cleanup at a construction site on plots bulldozed out of virgin farmland in Carroll County. The houses there reminded me of Tom and Ray Magliozzi’s assessment of SUV’s – “Sure, they’re big, but they’re mostly air.” These houses were huge, but they were slapped together out of the cheapest materials possible – asphalt shingles, vinyl siding, particle board, screw-on aluminum shutters.

I get the impression that most of the people actually living here (as opposed to the services workers and the day trippers) are retirees. Which is fair enough. But I wonder – can we build communities like this for people to live and work in, and raise children in, and walk to the post office and the grocery store, and enjoy natural beauty within walking distance? Do we even want that? Or would we rather go on spending our wealth on McMansions, giant gas-guzzling SUV’s, and manufactured entertainment?

My journey takes me back to where I began, on Mill Street. I stop at the Crab Claw, a popular seafood restaurant on the water’s edge, located right next door to the Maritime Museum. I choose a table outside. I get my pick of seats – all the other customers are clustered together in the little heated vinyl tent that encloses most of the dining area. Carol, my waitress, appears to be about my age. She’s brisk, efficient, and yet welcoming in a way that feels neither forced nor contrived, as if I were an old high school classmate having coffee in her kitchen.

Carol brings me a plate of fried Chesapeake Bay oysters and a bottle of Goose Island India Pale Ale to wash it all down. Afterwards I linger at my table, watching the sun as it sets in the western sky, casting glimmers of light over the steely gray waters.


Patrick D Hahn is an Affiliate Professor of Biology at Loyola University Maryland and a free-lance writer. Click Here for his website, Patrick D Hahn: Science Writer and his blog, Meliponula: Tales Of An Academic Prole. Photo by the author.

Winter Walk

I tugged my second mitten up onto my hand, and checked that the knitted fabric of my hat was warming my head to its fullest extent. I was intending to start my walk off immediately, giving the relentless cold of the Maine air no extra chances at seeping in and chilling my stationary body. However, upon looking up, my plans momentarily paused.

The rugged beauty of this place seemed to catch me off guard and stop me dead in my tracks every time. It so greatly contrasted the tailored neatness of each little yard back in suburban Maryland where I spent the rest of my year. I breathed deeply, inhaling a degree of crispness that I was certain had no equal. Pine blended with smoke from the log fire crackling inside and the combination left me feeling more alive than I knew possible.

The forest was all browns and greens, the sky gray, yet not remotely depressing. The different browns left from foliage fallen over many Autumns built a dense cover through which the ground could not be seen in the entire woods. The trunks of ancient pines and oaks shot into the air, branchless until much higher. Meanwhile, younger trees, no longer saplings, created a lower level of boughs.

As I took in the scene around me, feeling comfortably insignificant in a place so vast and wild, the dry air began to trickle into my eyes. They watered, I blinked several times, and the moment was over. Remembering my plan to avoid the chill, I started off. The world was perfectly silent as I moved along, save for the crunching of my boots along the icy ground. Every so often I would pass a pond or stream, each with a white covering that told of a thick frozen layer beneath. On the road, places where rain had collected in a pothole was frozen the same cloudy color.

I carried on my brisk pace for the most part, stopping now and then to investigate the intricate patterns made by deep cracks running through these spots. Coming to the end of our driveway, I halted, but not for fear of a car or truck whizzing by. This was a place where there was never any need to worry about that. Even in the summertime, when the cottages speckling the lake’s shoreline were bustling with activity, much traffic on our small side road was rather infrequent. On the occasion that the odd mud-streaked car or pick-up truck drove through it was always at a cautious pace, wary of the twisty wooded path and uneven ground.

During winter, the cabins were sealed tightly and a ghost town was formed, desolate and utterly deserted, save for us. Hence, I was not paused at the split in the road for safety’s sake. I was simply deciding which way to go. If I headed right I would pass by a few snow-covered, little-league ball fields and find myself at a larger side road. To my left was another branch of the same unpaved road, along which I had been previously ambling. I chose left. The path less traveled generally tended to be the one that I ended up on, anyway.

I wandered along, noticing the tiny icicles hanging from branches here and there. They sparkled and reflected one another and I suddenly wondered how one could spend so much money on gemstones when these things of splendid beauty lined the trees for free. I continued on my way, pleasantly deep in the thought.

Arriving at a dead end, I began to cut cross country, leaves crackling loudly with each step. I trekked along carefully, keeping an eye out for frozen puddles. Having wandered along for a little while, I felt a slight shiver run through me as a breeze began to pick up. The air around me became even more fresh and a new smell mingled with the existent ones. It seemed to me that if the purest, brightest light that shone from an icy world could embody a scent, then this would be it.

I had emerged at the lake. Its appearance suggested that it was from a world altogether separate from the one that I had seen here just months before. I stared in awe at one place while I remembered another and I wondered how the two could be the same. The inviting warmth of endless little green-blue waves was the last I had seen of the stark expanse, uneven, hardened, and stretching before me. I stood there, stunned into stillness. The breeze, once a slight zephyr, picked up into a wind that wrapped around me like a blanket of cold.
ice covered lake and forest
I huddled on an armchair-sized rock, taller than it was wide. Gradually, my initial gawk became more of a contemplative gaze as I slid deep into thought once more. Mine was a comfortable sort of silence as I stood there that day. Maybe a little sad, but not in a miserable sense. It was the sadness that helped create the calm. It was the calm that helped establish the inner peace. And it was the inner peace that helped me connect every aspect of my life in certain way. A certain way that prompted me to whisper words that captured the loveliness of that connection.

As a young girl stood by the edge of a frozen lake on a wintry day in Maine, a sigh was carried off on the wind that sounded awfully like “God’s in His Heaven and all’s right with the world.”


Sophia Anne Charles is a talented, emerging writer of nature-oriented poetry and thoughtful, short fiction. Her focus is the intersection of nature, the human spirit and life’s often-lost simple observations. She resides in Gaithersburg, MD, USA.

Photo by Ying-Feng Johansson

My Lavender Clouds: Purple Asters

For the month of September every year my land is graced with sprays of purple asters. This delicate color comes before the burst of autumnal gold and orange of the sugar maples and poplar trees in our forest. These tiny asters are all over my land, and I have to be extra careful to not weed them out of my flower beds in late spring. They are volunteers. Wild, wistful and so welcome.
Large bush of purple asters

Living in Vermont up high – 1800 feet – offers sweeping views of the Green Mountains and the 35 acre emerald green field in front of our house. There is fog cupping the valleys early mornings and coral clouds at sunset. These vistas are a perfect backdrop to my flower gardens that are dense with flowers in the summer. They grow close and crowded. I like it that way − less to weed and prop up. They do it themselves by twisting and twining together in my flower beds. Most of the flowers I don’t know their names. They’ve been given to me by gardeners that divide up the roots of their flowers and thin out their beds. I do neither, preferring my land to have its way and grow thick and lush.

And those asters. I did not plant them. They are a gift of the wild, along with the tiny white and purple violets and yellow trout lilies dotting my “lawn” in early spring. I say lawn but it is really a bit of grass with a hell of a lot of clover and moss and wild flowers intermingled. I especially like the delicate trout lily with its bobbing yellow dangle – a miniature lily. Another wild flower that is a summer visitor is the tall yellow lupine that I leave in groups and carefully mow around. And the beauties of all wild Vermont flowers, the stately orange day lily that I have many circles of. In another ten years on my property, I won’t have any more grass to mow. The wild flowers will have taken over. I hope so.

For now, I’ve got my lavender clouds of asters everywhere on my land. The nights are frosted and the days crisp with the smell of apples in the air. Many of these apple trees all through Vermont are nearly wild too. Years ago they were planted, some a hundred years or more. Now the deer and raccoon and woodchucks can gorge themselves. Every other year, we all get to have a bumper crop of apples. But every year I get to love my delicate purple asters.


Auhtor PhotoDian Parker is a freelance writer for a number of New England publications, including Art New England, the White River Herald, OpEd News, and many others. She is the gallery director for White River Gallery in Vermont and an oil painter. Parker has written about porcupines, old growth trees, architecture, artists, inventors, and immortality. She lives in the backwoods of Vermont at 1800 feet; snowshoeing and working on a short story collection. Photo by the author of flowers from her garden.

View her work at the links below:
Sustaining-Ecstasy
Porcupine Courtship: A Raucous Affair
Stones in Translation
Five Paintings
Artificium
Back of Beyond
The Art of Falling

It is Solved By Walking

Dear Rebekah,
(A letter to myself, from myself, as written by my subconscious)

“Have you ever been to Camp Long? It’s a spectacular park out in West Seattle. It’s got five miles of trails within the park, foot bridges, an obstacle course, fire pits, and rustic cabins,” I say to my companion, convincing him this should be our adventure for the day.

“Well, that certainly sounds like a great place to spend the day,” he tells me.

Thus, I packed essentials: water bottle, a couple of pens, my notebook, a few letters (for inspiration), and though I don’t plan on using them, I bring my earbuds. I want to wander, reset my frazzled mind. Work has been unbearably stressful and I’m finding it difficult to balance my life with each passing day. Today will be a day that I wander some trails and let go, and you, my companion, will put up the hammock in the trees next to the small creek. The weather is chilly enough to wear a hooded sweatshirt and warm enough to hike in shorts.

stone steps through forestWhen we arrived at the entrance to Camp Long, we were greeted by an old brick house made into a ranger station. We walk down the ADA ramp, lined with tall pines, and find our way to a narrow trail head that leads to the perfect hammock spot. The sun dwells just behind a veil of grey clouds, grasping at every opportunity to shine through. The wind is chilly as it whispers through the leaves, weaving a heavenly scent of pine, cedar, Douglas fir, and musky earth. I left you curled comfortably in the hammock as I took to continuing the path. While I have no purposeful destination, I seek to embed myself as deeply into this park, this trail, as these woods will allow. Intersections of trails are frequent; each time I allow the trail to choose me. I don’t think much for the first twenty minutes of this walk. I breathe as deeply as I can, soaking in the crisp air of leaves, dirt, and an unnamed sweetness. It is so peaceful here.

Finally, my mind begins to unwind. I pull one of the bottles from my backpack, and take a gulp of water. Still cold. I must have walked that brain of mine into meditation harder than I thought. I stopped walking and found a couple of roots running parallel, giving the illusion of a small set of steps, just off the beaten path. I sit, feeling fully submerged in the greenery surrounding me. I imagine that if I sat very still for as long as I possibly could, I would blend in with the forest, become one with it. Disappear among the wild.

It sounds like Home. For real though; the song is Nights (I Wish I Could Be There). I know I am aiming for an unaltered experience, and at this moment I need something a little different. With earbuds in, I pause in my wanderings to eat a granola bar and put music to my ears as I am with my eyes. I sit for three songs, inhaling deeply and closing my eyes.

I feel a pang of homesickness: back in a different park, in a faraway location, where it was sweltering and miserable, we were swatting at mosquitos and apologizing for whosever plan this was. I read my letter, one line sticking out, “I’m sorry if there are any typos, there are several ants destroying my leg.”

I remove the earbuds before the ants in this reality begin to devour me, and stand. I listen. A few birds chirp in the distance. I’m not sure what kind they are; the birds listed at the trail head said there’d be warblers. Maybe that’s what a warbler sounds like. I read another line of my letter and safely fold it back, “My whole world is brighter, everything I do has more meaning to me. I’m forever grateful and excited to challenge whatever life throws, together.”

Shuffling along the trail among leaves and overgrown shrubs, blackberry bushes, and ferns, I see a weird looking leaf? Twig? I kneel closely for inspection. It’s about eight inches long, and yellowy-green with a few dark freckles. Sort of like a slimy banana. While banana slugs are nocturnal creatures, today’s mild and moist conditions are perfect to find one, well, slugging around. I’ve heard that banana slugs are the second largest slugs in the world, and though they come in other colors, they are named for their shape and color, characteristic of a mature banana. You know, the one you’ve been avoiding eating. This slug is a little more green than yellow and the dark brown spots give it an appearance of a pickle, rather than banana. I take a stick and gently prod at it to see if it’s alive. It moves slowly, curling up, crinkling leaves and debris with it. The forest pickle and I have a short conversation about our plans for the day, then I wandered off without a goal or destination.

“I don’t know where all this will go; all I know is I want to spend time with you. I want to make memories, share experiences, laugh, and just be, enjoying your company,” words of my letter echo through my mind.

I am reminded of the Wander Society, an anonymous organization of writers, philosophers, and general people who find walking as humble as it is noble. This tradition has been in existence for over a hundred years; though I’ve recently been introduced to it. This art form of meditation and rejuvenation is beneficial for myriad reasons, including stress relief and inspiration. Since moving to Seattle, it’s been my primary source of transportation. Most people are surprised when I tell them my walk to work averages about 40 minutes, and they’re shocked when I tell them I enjoy it. I’ve gotten to know a city by walking it; that’s something I’ve never done and now I feel intimately connected to where I live and work than I would if I drove through it.

Authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were avid wanderers. They wrote poetry and essays about walking in nature. I think about them as I follow the trail through the trees, a low rumble of traffic heard from a distance. The opening between the trees reveals a soft blue sky and a few white clouds. I keep an internal compass on my journey and before I know it, I arrive at cement steps leading up and out of the forest.

I’ve come to the end of the trail. This last trek will lead me across a manicured field, and back to the trail head where I left my companion lazily swinging in a hammock. “I’ve never been the type of person that truly believes in everything happens for a reason, I guess that’s because I was too busy ignoring it. Then I met you.”

“Give your heart to a wanderer, who found your soul and called it home,” (Unknown) for “not all those who wander are lost” (J.R.R. Tolkien), and it is often a meditation in losing oneself that will bring one back to themselves. An unintentional walk will put things into perspective and return what you haven’t given yourself the proper time to think about.

Sincerely,
The Wander Society
Solvitur Ambulando


Rebekah Ramsdell recently moved from Florida to Washington state, leaving one home to find a new one. This journal is part of that story. Photo by the author. (Solvitur Ambulando is a Latin phrase that means ‘It is solved by walking.’

The Tip of This Floweret

Mornings are magic here. The whinny of a screech owl, the vibrations of bullfrogs. The garrulous squawk of the blue heron mingling with the wind chimes at the screen door. The song of my wood thrush (mine, you see) and twitters of other songbirds waking into the day. The sun hasn’t come over the ridge yet but there’s light on the pond and a soft light on my hives with its backdrop of Queen Anne’s lace. Their taproots reach deep into the earth. Holding on. For dear life. Stems, straight and strong, bend toward the sun. Dividing again and again, each one ends in a flower, and each flower bursts into flowerets. I follow a stem in my mind to arrive at the tip of one perfect tiny floweret.

So, so much here. Charles M. Schultz said that adversity is what makes you mature; the growing soul is watered best by the tears of sadness. I question my existence in this particular time and space. Often. On the path I’ve taken, a step either right or left could have sent me tangentially off, deeply angled from that moment. Every choice was met with yet another choice and of all the places I could have landed, I blossomed in this little nook and cranny of the world. I’ve harvested richness from adversity. This is where I belong today, stepping forward from a point of reality, not from some point of fantasy.

And so I listen to this bullfrog serenading me at first light. I watch this heron winging by, its prehistoric silhouette dark against the silver misted waters of the pond, from the tip of my floweret. There are no shortcuts to a different life and there is no retracing of steps, no turning back time. The measured hum of the bullfrog, leaving only echoes, and the pulsating wingbeats of the heron moving it only forward, tell me so. They are wise and that settles my heart.

Floweret of Queen Anne's Lace


Janice Sina, former biology teacher turned veterinary assistant, observes and writes about nature, human and otherwise. She lives in East Haddam, Connecticut, US, where she strives to tread lightly on this Earth with her husband, her pets, and several thousand honeybees. She is currently putting the finishing touches on her first book, Songlines in the Key of B. You can find out more at janicesina.com

Photo of Queen Anne’s Lace by the author.