Maryland: all things, but not one; Embracing a wealth of diversity, the Free State makes the most out of being small. A creation of nature and man, it shuns blandness and relishes its eccentricity.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I hear the distant thunder hum, Maryland!

The Old Line's bugle, fife, and drum, Maryland!

She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb

Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!

She breathes! she burns! she'll come! she'll come!

Maryland! My Maryland!

-- James Ryder Randall, 1861

ON A MAP, Maryland might be a page badly torn from a book, nothing like those boxy states from the plains with their stolid square corners. True, there is the straight-edged northern border, the work of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, trudging through the woods in the 1760s to settle boundary trouble between Penns and Calverts.

But there is also the meandering southern border, carved by water long before anyone was around to call it the Potomac River or the Chesapeake Bay. The state's very shape declares it a collaboration of nature and man: a heavy human hand gradually shaping, scarring, paving but never quite obliterating the underlying landscape.

Maryland in 2000 is a combination of inheritance and accident, hard to pin down and perhaps more satisfying because of it. It is like a suitcase someone packed in a hurry, grabbing a little of everything, just in case. By world standards, it is prosperous but embraces stunning inequality; it is free but also quite dangerous. It has not only astonishingly diverse landscapes, but human societies as different from one another as many nations.

The tourism slogan, "America in Miniature," hints at the problem that faces the state's salespeople: Southern? Well ... not entirely. Urban? Not entirely. Oceanfront? Not entirely. Mountainous? Not entirely.

Perhaps that is the proper slogan: Maryland, Not Entirely Anything. That would be no odder than the Calvert family motto that still stands on the state shield: Fatti maschii parole femine, or, "Manly deeds, womanly words." It would be no more accidental than the state's name, derived from that of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, who before he got distracted by civil war and decapitation, sponsored Lord Baltimore's venture to find good ground to grow tobacco to profit from the smoking craze.

Its earliest visitors, such as George Alsop, who described the colony in 1666 after several years here as an indentured servant, often expressed themselves in superlatives, like real estate agents.

Alsop said no place on the globe "can parallel this fertile and pleasant piece of ground in its multiplicity; or rather Nature's extravagancy of a super-abounding plenty." (On the other hand, Alsop wrote, Maryland was no good for raising sheep; too many wolves were around to eat them.)

More recent observers have defined Maryland more modestly, even apologetically, by its in-between status.

Writer H.L. Mencken pronounced it the most average of states; but even the curmudgeon of Union Square was so carried away by Maryland's spring that he gushed about "a countryside that comes to the very edge of perfection."

Robert J. Brugger, author of a magisterial 1988 history of the state, subtitled his book "A Middle Temperament," explaining it as "a middle-state ethos -- a sensibility founded on compromise given conflict, on toleration given differences among people and their failings, on the pursuit of happiness given the brevity of life and the allurements of Maryland scenery and the Chesapeake Bay." Marylanders, he said, were characterized by "moderation, skepticism, ironic humor, love of place and a sense of proportion."

Well, yes -- except for when they were not. Maryland under slavery and Know-Nothingism and Jim Crow showed little inclination toward tolerance.

During the Civil War, this border state did not have a population of amiably moderate sentiments, but of bitter advocacy on both sides; the mob that famously battled Union troops passing through Baltimore in 1861 produced the conflict's first casualties. As immigrants battled natives for jobs and machine politics distributed the spoils of patronage -- elections in the 1850s featured pitched battles in the street -- few had the leisure or inclination to display "a sense of proportion."

Eccentricity

Maryland's middle-state status has not produced a uniform blandness. If anything, the place is distinguished by eccentricity. It is as feisty as the blue crab that serves as its gastronomic symbol, and, some might say, equally erratic in its forward progress.

It is a state that has formally adopted not only a state reptile (diamondback terrapin) but a state dinosaur (Astrodon Johnstoni) and a state fossil (the extinct snail Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae); not just a state boat (skipjack) but a state sport (still jousting, the campaign to replace it with duckpin bowling never having captured the legislative imagination). It retains, don't ask me why, Confederate propaganda doggerel as the state song, calling Lincoln a despot and decrying "Northern scum." (Another candidate for state slogan: Maryland, Still Confused About the Civil War.)

True, some of the state's modern politicians are known for a studious, middling pursuit of government (Hughes and Schmoke), but the rest are renowned for the extremes of vision or corruption: McKeldin and Schaefer vs. Agnew and Mandel. (Maryland: No Governor Indicted In Years.) The state's largest employer is its most secretive: the biggest, costliest intelligence agency in the world, listening in on allies and adversaries from Fort Meade, the National Security Agency. (Maryland: First In Eavesdropping?)

The U.S. Census Bureau offers good and bad news in its state rankings. Maryland is among the top 10 states by this odd collection of measures: percent of population in a metropolitan area (seventh); population density (sixth); doctors per 100,000 population (second -- they come here for medical school and never leave); teachers' salaries (10th); violent crime rate (fourth); percent of civilian labor force employed (ninth); and median household income (fourth). These numbers bespeak the greatest trend of recent decades: suburbanization, drawing people from the cities and bulldozing farmland into subdivisions. Baltimore County has more people than Baltimore City; Montgomery County residents outnumber Washingtonians.

Its terrain does avoid extremes. Maryland rises to a modest 3,360 feet above sea level at Backbone Mountain in Garrett County, and it sinks to 174 feet below sea level at the deepest point in Chesapeake Bay.

The bay, that "immense protein factory," as Mencken called it when harvests of oysters and crabs still seemed bottomless, remains its most distinguished, and precarious, natural inheritance. The bay almost cuts the state in two, lacing the solid land with harbors and rivers. To see its 18 trillion gallons sparkling from the Bay Bridge, its dark surface daubed here and there with vessels of watermen or yachtsmen, is to believe it was put there to feed and entertain humankind. To get down into the marshes at Smith Island or Middle River and see dumped cars, tires and drums is to wonder whether humankind is worth the trouble.

Runt of the litter

Size-wise, the state is a runt of the American litter (ninth smallest state in land area, though 19th largest in population). Even so, its geography is still steadily shrinking, laced tighter and tighter by rail and especially by highways. The interstate numbers alone conjure up distinctive scenes to any Marylander with a car: 68, 70, 81, 83, 95, 97.

In the 18th century, a typical traveler from Philadelphia to Baltimore would spend the night at Elkton in Cecil County; then rise at 3 a.m. and bounce in a stagecoach 15 bone-jarring miles to the Susquehanna. After breakfast at an inn, the traveler would take a ferry across the broad river and travel the remaining 37 miles to Baltimore, arriving hot and dirty about 14 hours after he started. Today, shoppers hop in the car and drive that distance to save a few bucks at an outlet mall. Garrett County is no longer considered too far for a skier from Rockville to go for a day on the slopes. And Baltimore to Annapolis is an easy commute.

Yet even as Maryland communities grow temporally closer, their differences are staggering. Stand on a summer afternoon at City Dock in Annapolis and watch a ransom in yachts compete for the gawkers' attention, their tanned proprietors hoisting microbrews or chatting on cell phones. Hunt down the hidden villages of Mexican migrant laborers picking vegetables on the Eastern Shore, jammed in trailers and saving enough from meager checks to wire money to family at home.

One street, many stories

One street in this state can tell many stories. Take a ride along Baltimore's Greenmount Avenue, from its origin just north of downtown, out to where it becomes York Road and beyond, passing through burgeoning suburbs on its way to Pennsylvania.

Lower Greenmount is an economic wasteland, where the illegal drug trade dwarfs the tiny legal businesses clinging to life, carryouts and barber shops and corner groceries. From schools, where they slip farther and farther behind the state's academic average, kids skip home past vacant rowhouses, some standing open, some sealed up with plywood whose only decoration is a lugubrious instruction on whom to call if an animal should be heard trapped inside. Government's only visible investment is the prison empire that has grown up around the 19th-century hub of the City Jail and Maryland Penitentiary, a booming, thriving metropolis in its own right, with the space-age intimidation of the Central Booking and Intake Center, looming beside the Jones Falls Expressway longer than a speeding driver can hold his breath, and the wonderfully euphemistic Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center (aka Supermax), whose formal name implies that the inmates within need only a little carburetor adjustment to get their engines humming lawfully again.

Now hop in the car and drive north for a half-hour to the endless shopping centers and minimalls along York Road north of the Beltway. Here the economy throbs with life. Suburban shoppers clog the roads and compete for parking. Government's role is not so visible, but it chiefly consists of trying to limit development -- of restraining the private investment so absent a few miles to the south. Kids skip home across green lawns and past two-car garages to parents who fret chiefly that their children, what with violin, soccer, orthodontics and Cub Scouts, might be overscheduled.

A Martian visiting these two communities on an anthropological reconnaissance mission would wonder just what invisible force field he had passed through, somewhere around Govans, what environmental condition turned the skins whiter as you moved north, what draconian laws kept two adjacent cultures so separate.

The Martian might find it even stranger that in the last century, the roadside universe was approximately reversed.

Greenmount's southernmost blocks were solid and prosperous, self-satisfied and middle class; Green Mount Cemetery was prestige itself, the expected resting place of Maryland governors and Baltimore mayors. Rural York Road, back then, was a far dicier prospect, with highwaymen and mediocre, one-room schoolhouses and, everywhere but the estates of the wealthy, relative deprivation. Over a century, the seesaw has somehow tipped, and the economic weight on the downtown end has shifted to the suburbs. To fully attend to these things, it helps to be an interplanetary visitor. We commute on such a road and cease to notice the obvious, the mind-boggling fact that one street can connect two such distinct Americas. It is a quiet, stubborn tragedy of our time.

But this is Maryland, which embraces many things in its small space. Stand at dusk on a corn-stubble field on the Eastern Shore, with a great V of geese honking their way across the sky and the rising full moon splashing its shimmer on the bay. Visit Lexington Market at noon, down some oysters and gawk at the people as they gawk at you. Hike through a Washington County apple grove in autumn, its fruit falling onto ground where once Union and Confederate troops clashed.

If you don't like what you see, drive a little farther. There's not much that isn't near at hand.

Scott Shane is a reporter for The Sun.

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