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Smith Island's inhabitants stir as season changes


SMITH ISLAND -- Spring journal for March 14.

Here in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, between Potomac and Pocomoke, halfway from Norfolk to Havre de Grace, it's three hours to dawn, two days until full moon, a week from the first day of spring.

But the first spring day, make no mistake, arrived yesterday, as a strong sun kneaded the winter marsh to life and set crabs to crawling out of the mud in the shallows.

Great blue herons were nest building even as the wild swans, flocked here since November, hullabalooed through the evening, knowing they must be Alaska-bound to breed during the Arctic tundra's short summer.

The moon this morning shines on small knots of islanders, some in sleep clothes, gathered around the home of an older bachelor who is experiencing heart pains.

We watch as the ambulance, never built for the footpaths that serve as streets, takes 15 minutes to turn around; then wait for the MedEvac copter from Salisbury.

Allen, a neighbor during the years I lived here, strolls over to tell in considerable detail about his recent big catch of terrapins he found hibernating in the mud of a cove.

You find them, he says, in coves protected from certain winds -- deep enough that a low tide won't expose them; shallow enough for a netter in his skiff to peer down through the water and detect subtle signs that reveal their resting place.

Very important, he says, is to find the proper consistency of mud. For their winter's rest, terrapins favor a bottom that is soft but not too soft; a texture that stiffens progressively about five to six inches down as you stick your dip net into it.

I suppose this little dissertation, delivered by moonlight at 3 a.m., could seem arcane. But to people whose existence for centuries has been linked to nature, it is vital information.

A young girl here a few years ago was asked on an achievement test in school to name four of Earth's precious natural resources. Gold, she wrote, and water and oil; also this: turkles (meaning terrapins).

It was a very astute answer, as terrapins that year had been a welcome source of family income during the lean months before spring and the pickup of crabbing.

Allen, who traded arrowheads he finds in the marsh to help pay for his house, is a vast library of such knowledge.

What I like most is that you cannot access him on the Internet.

Now comes the chopper, a French-built speedster, descending to the ball field behind town. It has been exactly 24 minutes since the fire siren awakened us.

People drift toward home. A few pause by the church to remark how pretty the moonlight looks on the newly whitewashed vaults, and on the fence that encircles the cemetery. "That bunch from Miami did a nice job of paintin' today," one islander says.

Tylerton, population about 100, seems a magnet for migrants -- feathered, scaly, hard-shelled and otherwise.

Ted Danson, the actor, came here to make a film on the environment. Bill Moyers was here to dedicate a bay education center. A Samoan chief, interested in American fishing cultures, stopped by; also a roseate spoonbill, a gaudy wading bird never seen north of tropical Florida, stayed most of a winter here.

The "Miami bunch," nine young men and women from the University of Miami, arrived recently through a program called Alternative Spring Break.

It is as it sounds, an alternative to partying on the beaches at Key West and Cancun, or vegging at home, during the traditional college week off in March.

More than 10,000 collegians now participate, and the number grows by 2,000 every year, according to Break Away, the Vanderbilt University-based nonprofit group that has helped hundreds of colleges start programs.

Groups of students have gone this year to centers for people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Indian reservations and homeless shelters.

The students who came to Smith Island volunteered to help the town spruce itself up; also to work on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education center in Tylerton. They are getting more than they are giving, the students say: sunrise canoeing, exploration of the marshes, eight-layer chocolate cakes baked by the ladies of the church.

The Miami young people are amazed at the absence of locks here and the unchained bicycles. At their university, every dorm door locks electronically. Even when you go to the bathroom, you always lock the door of your room behind you, they say.

One of the contingent, Mickey Rubenstien, is from Virginia. She did a fine college paper, "Chesapeake Bay Crab Wars," about the history of bloody disputes over the state line that crosses the bay.

That line intersects Smith Island, whose residents all live in Maryland and have had their share of the dispute with Virginians to the south on Tangier Island.

I showed Mickey and her friends an old gravestone behind the church -- John T. Evans, 1885-1900; only 14 when he was shot in the head and killed for crabbing a few hundred yards over the line.

Islanders say to this day that the boy was finished crabbing and merely was sailing to Crisfield to see his girl. He encountered a Virginia police boat commanded by Capt. George T. "Buck" Savage and tried to flee back into Maryland.

An "Inquest over the dead body of John T. Evans," dated Aug. 11, 1900, gives this account by Savage:

"I told him to heave to or I would shoot him; we struck his sail and boat five times . . . he said, 'shoot, you damned sons of bitches,' and a ball struck him and we went alongside and found him wounded.

"It was impossible for me to catch him without shooting, as he was in a much better sailing boat, and under similar circumstances, I would do the same again."

Towed five miles to Tangier Island, Evans, they say, died on the dock there. A hastily assembled coroner's jury agreed it was justifiable homicide.

A diary kept by a Smith Island oyster captain has this account, years later, of the boy's father, praying at the island's annual summer religious revival:

"[I turned to] the boy's father and said, 'Mitch, you had a hard thing to forgive, have ye done it?' He began crying and said, 'that's the hardest thing I've ever done; forgive a man for killing my son over a crab.' "

Here, in the middle of the bay, an hour to dawn, two days to the full moon, a week before spring, the little grave seems at peace in the moonlight.

The helicopter's roar has faded into the distance. In the quiet that follows, you notice, for the first time since November, the absence of swansound.

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