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.
Saint 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.