Glorious memories of a marsh river, an eagle and childhood wonder


It's been two years now, a hundred weekly columns; more rare opportunities for acquaintance of the Chesapeake region than many folks get in a lifetime.

There have been people who expressed nature so eloquently:

Mitchell Byrd, a Virginian who showed me more bald eagles in an hour on the James River than you might see in the Alaskan wilderness.

Halcyon days on the Choptank with that rare bird, Paul Spitzer, a free-lance Ph.D. whose study of loons is as poetic as it is significant.

Rambling through the central Maryland countryside -- and through history -- with Mac King, a pioneer in Maryland's conservation movement, who passed away just a couple of weeks ago.

And an eerie, fog-enshrouded voyage with I. T. Todd, the last baby born -- some 70 years ago -- in the lost community of Holland Island, now marked only by an ancient cemetery in the marsh, fast eroding into the bay.

There have been sights:

Legions of limulus, the horseshoe crab, crawling from the water to spawn on sand beaches beneath a full moon -- a creature and a scene so ancient they predate even the evolution of trees.

Deciding, spur of the moment, to go on the annual state survey to measure the spawning success of rockfish, on the day biologists found more little rock than any other day in 40 years.

Sacred spot of Native Americans, a great, hemlock-shaded spring in Pennsylvania that revitalizes the Susquehanna River on its way to the Chesapeake as the spring's blue-green limestone waters mix with the acid-dead flows coming down from coal country.

There have been downers:

Frustration at seeing oystering, which defined the bay for more than a century, slip toward total collapse.

Anguish at watching the communities of Smith Island struggle for existence. The uniqueness that endears them to mainlanders seems increasingly battered by in flexible mainland regulations.

Disgust at our inability to re-channel sprawl development away from farms and forests and into existing centers, where all our plans say it should go.

There have been simple beauties. In retrospect, they stick with you more than all the words written about policies, ethics and science:

Sharp-angled winter sun glancing from a boat wake, sending waves of reflected light shimmering, cascading, through the dull, bare forests of a swamp.

The sweet sighing of swans' wings, winnowing wind in liftoff from a hushed cove.

A June marsh, its channels sparkled by starlight, its shallows afire with bioluminescence, while lightning bugs glow among dark reeds.

Dogwood blossoms, hovering like creamy butterflies in the edges of a forest at dusk.

Plywood Christmas decoration in a yard on low-lying Smith Island during a monster high tide -- Santa's sleigh almost dragging in the bay, and reindeer spiraling skyward, as if frantically trying to avoid a soaking.

Canoeing a creek in the still of night, paddles carving smooth, black water with the sound of gently ripping silk.

Always a bend

The joy of water in nature never running straight for long before curving; of forever having a next bend, with something around it.

Finally, there was the best trip I never wrote about. It seemed too perfunctory for a column: just a couple hours on a nearby marsh creek, accompanied by a friend, his daughters, ages 3 and 6, and my own 11-year-old.

He and I, when not encumbered by little girls, are big-time explorers. We make our living explaining the bay and its connections across its whole, vast, six-state watershed.

In the skiff I stowed my maps, boating charts, binocs, fishing nets and rods, depth sounder -- all the tools you use to explore, enhance and interpret the natural world on a field trip.

We followed on the coattails of late summer's first big cold front, a nor'wester that had broomed away the haze and torpor of early September and set lots of life to moving.

Catfish were feeding in the shallows. Wood ducks and teal erupted, to the two older girls' delight, at every turn through the creeks, which were walled by cordgrass higher than a man's head. The youngest child fretted and played with a toy in the bottom of the skiff.

Thread on the map

Not having planned to accomplish much, we were free to try anything, and on a whim, I idled up an unpromising little thread on the map called Ingem Gut. It wound for a mile or so, with that fat, sleek look bay marsh creeks get when they are gorged brimful with tide. Then ahead of us, it widened breathtakingly into a hidden cove of upland forest, and we saw the eagle.

It sat on a tall, dead pine snag, sunning itself, white head and tail brilliant against the dark brown body. It seemed unconcerned as we cut the engine and began poling the skiff closer.

Two hundred feet. A hundred fifty. The girls were rapt. We could discern the fierce eyes. A hundred feet; less; then with a couple of disdainful flaps it broke the spell and vanished into the forest.

My daughter that summer had been to Maine, to Paris, and now she'd been up Ingem Gut. I wonder which, in 20 years, she'll remember?

Back on the main creek we broke out lunch -- big jar of peanut butter, small jar of honey, loaf of bread.

The joy of flowers

Occupied with serving, we let the breeze blow the skiff onto a clump of bright green marsh. There, the 3-year-old, whose attention had strayed even in the eagle's presence, found her focus, clutching at delicate, tiny purple and yellow flowers blossoming along the creek bank. Her intensity and delight reminded me of some very good scientists I have known, able to block out everything but what they are intent upon at the moment.

Larger ideas, connecting the creek and the trip to the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed, can come later; our world, for a while, is a little girl and a yellow flower.

Later on, my daughter catches a white perch, barely legal, but her first. We motor back up the creek to "trade" it to her grandparents for some tomatoes from their garden.

Returning, I notice that monarch butterflies are beginning their migration through bay country. The 3-year-old sleeps, content as a dog, in a pile of life preservers in the skiff.

Thanks for the eagle, and the perch and the tomatoes and the cool, sunny weather; and for little girls, more interested in picking a flower than in the weighty matters from which columns such as mine are maybe too often fashioned.

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