Crab with many 'wives' was a cut above the rest


If there was a silver lining to the off-year we had for crabbing, it was that the crabbers had more time to tell stories.

Here's one of my top picks from Dallas Bradshaw of Crisfield and Smith Island. Dallas, a lifelong waterman, was working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education program at Fox Island, few miles offshore of Crisfield.

He was showing a group of school kids how they used to catch peelers when he was a kid, tying twine around the flipper of a big jimmy, or male crab, and dangling him in the water from any convenient dock.

Back then, Smith Islanders only knew that this attracted female crabs about to shed their shells and become valuable soft crabs.

Nowadays, scientists realize that the males are exuding a powerful sex-attractant scent, a pheromone, which draws the ladies to mate -- something they can only do in the brief time they are soft.

Dallas, who has an eye for such things, chose a big, handsome fellow with one claw missing. It wasn't long before, as the locals say, "he had 'im a wife."

Pulled up, separated from his first love and thrown back over, the jimmy quickly took another bride. The kids were thrilled, and the jimmy crab seemed game.

In short order 15 wives were won and taken away. One can only imagine the frustration level of that jimmy crab.

Then Dallas heard the kids shrieking for him to come quick and see what the jimmy had done.

There, in his single claw, he was brandishing a large pair of barnacled, orange-handled scissors, stainless steel blades still bright. They must have been dropped overboard, and he found them in the shallow water on the bottom.

There wasn't much doubt what he had to do, Dallas says. "I took those scissors and cut that old boy loose. Don't you agree he deserved it?"

Some will doubt this happened, but trust me; I have been to Fox Island, and Dallas showed me the very scissors.

A home for Byron's house

The little cabin where Gilbert Byron, the late Chesapeake poet, lived, Thoreau-like, for nearly half a century, has finally found a fitting home.

After the author of "The Lord's Oysters," a novel, and several volumes of poetry died at 88 a few years ago, the land on which the cabin sat was sold to settle his estate.

The cabin was far too shabby to remain on Talbot County's modern-day waterfront. It was stored in sections at a nearby high school, where it looked for a time as if it would rot from neglect.

But it is now scheduled to be moved to the Pickering Creek Environmental Center, a conservation and education facility of the Chesapeake Audubon Society.

Jacques Baker, Gilbert's friend and executor, has raised about $6,000, enough to pay, assuming lots of volunteer labor, for moving the cabin, erecting it on a new foundation and reroofing it on Pickering's 400 acres near the Wye River.

The place, which Gilbert built for $133.17 around 1942, will eventually (like when Baker raises more money) get a more extensive renovation for use as a place for teaching poetry, journal writing and environmental education.

More than poetry

About 11,000 children a year come through Pickering Creek. I hope they can learn, through videotape, journals and photographs, more than just Gilbert's poetry.

They should learn the virtues of a life simply lived, in contemplation of one's own back yard. This is where caring for the bay has to start.

It is common enough in Maryland to hear the Chesapeake Bay praised as "unique," but recently I heard the same thing from Jerry Schubel, director of the State University of New York's Marine Sciences Research Center on Long Island.

Schubel is an authority on estuaries and coastal waters worldwide and has a perspective few can match.

For two years, he has put on an environmental writers' festival to help foster a sense of celebration and environmental awareness of Long Island.

(He wrote a book himself on our bay, "The Living Chesapeake," now out of print. Buy a copy if you ever come across it.)

Long Island, with Long Island Sound, the Peconic and Great South bays, hundreds of miles of beach and marshy shores, is one of America's great coastal environments.

And, like our bay, it has its share of environmental problems. Population there, if Long Island were a state, would make it the 10th most populous in the country.

The unique Chesapeake

Yet, Schubel thinks the Chesapeake may be unique in its capacity to focus the attention of so many people around it on preserving its health.

We had some wide-ranging discussions at the festival last week as to the differences between the Chesapeake and elsewhere. I think a lot of the explanation may lie in something as basic as the shape of the bay and its lands.

The defining geomorphology is the peninsula formed by deep, riverine indentations, from the James River in Virginia to the Potomac, to the Severn and the Patapsco; and around to the Eastern Shore, which is one great peninsula riven by water into many smaller ones.

This profuse and intimate arrangement of water and land has meant a huge proportion of human settlement has always been in close contact with the bay and its natural resources.

Thus, even a century ago, mighty Baltimore had to bow to the concerns of watermen who tonged oysters in sight of its harbor and install the nation's most modern sewage treatment.

In modern times, our peninsularity has meant lots of Marylanders used the bay frequently for sport and recreation.

Green giving

An astonishing number of citizens recall the personal loss they felt when the bay's underwater vegetation declined and, with it, clear water and dipping soft crabs.

Out of such shared memories, possibly, has come a resolve to put things aright. We should keep in mind that what we have here, if you heed Dr. Schubel, may be even more special than we realize.

I'm often asked what can one individual do to help the environment. From October through December, you can give to the Environmental Fund for Maryland, the year-old workplace giving campaign that is a green complement to the United Way.

Formed in 1993 by groups that traditionally don't get included in the giant United Way campaigns, the fund ranges from the 87,000-member Chesapeake Bay Foundation to the American Chestnut Land Trust in Calvert County.

The first year's campaign raised $315,000, which is split equally among the fund's 21 member groups (donations can be earmarked specifically for an individual group).

The fund has been admitted to campaigns mostly in federal, state and county government, and it is working hard to get into private workplaces. If your employer doesn't offer the fund, ask that it be considered.

It's the best way I know to support, with a single action, everything from urban stream valleys to Assateague beaches; also waterfowl, wetlands, trout and family farms.

:. For more information, call (410) 461-9199.

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