Searching for treasure at Smith Island


SMITH ISLAND - The progger moves rapidly, half-crouched, head down, focused on the muddy, shell-strewn edge of a Chesapeake marsh as intently as any stalking heron.

When he stoops, you never know what he'll come up with: a china teacup fragment from a 19th-century sea captain's wife; a medicine bottle tossed by an 18th-century British naval invader; a coin or ring dropped by a 17th-century explorer; a stone point fired 10,000 years ago by a native hunter.

"Color's what we're lookin' for," says Timothy T. Marshall of Smith Island. He means the lustrous, hard flints and quartzes favored by long-ago weapons-makers.

The trick is to spot these among the kaleidoscope of shells, sea glass and duller native stone that dominates the bay shores around Tangier Sound in the southern parts of the Maryland Chesapeake.

It takes Marshall about three minutes before he announces to our small group: "Here's a perfect one; gather 'round and see if you can spot it."

Finally, we do - a perfect little white triangle, still sharp after all these centuries. It's from the Woodland period, Marshall says, maybe 2,000 years old. He's found points back to 13,000 years, and as many as 76 in a single day.

"Airheddin' " (arrowheading) is a minor subset of what a true progger can show you along the Chesapeake's edge - a happy-hunting edge that winds and twists an estimated 11,600 miles up and down the 200-mile-long estuary and its tidal tributaries and islands.

To "prog" or "progue" means literally to poke about, to forage, to wander. Modern dictionaries say the term (pronounce it with a long "o") is obsolete, but hereabouts it's still a rich and active word: "I'd love to prog around in all them electronics," a Smith Islander told me when I showed him my computer.

In addition to airheddin', there's "mudlarkin' " (picking up oysters at low tide), "'spargassin' " (gathering wild asparagus around the ditch banks of old settlements); also "tarp'nin' " (finding diamondback terrapins buried in the muds of shallow coves), and "corkin' " (retrieving brightly colored floats used to mark crab pots from where they wash up in the marshes).

And that's still only a bit of it. Proggers find soft crabs a month after cold weather is supposed to have stopped them from shedding; bones and wooden teeth of the dead from forgotten cemeteries, eroding from the clay banks; starving brown pelicans that hatched too late to fly south - "seeing those pelicans liked to killed me," Marshall recalls.

Proggers, in a nutshell, relate to the landscape in a way most of us no longer do. That is our loss and ultimately the landscape's, as our disconnection from nature makes it that much easier to diminish it.

"I just like to find things," says Marshall, 35. He was 10 when he got the arrowhead bug. He spent three weeks looking for his first one. Now, he says quite matter-of-factly, "I'm as good as there is. The only one who could keep up with me is Allen, and he doesn't go out that much."

(Allen Smith, a legendary progger in his 70s, once traded several hundred arrowheads to a builder for helping him put up his house.)

Allen crabbed and oystered for a living, but times here are changing, and Marshall finds his progging skills in demand among tourists who increasingly bolster the island economy.

He has a tiny museum in Ewell, the island's main village, crammed with the findings of his quarter-century of progging; and has taught himself to lecture impressively on Native American artifacts.

And working through the Chesapeake Sunrise, a local bed and breakfast, Marshall has developed an island tour as only a progger could. In an afternoon, he'll take you in his skiff to where more than a thousand brown pelicans nest; to where the island's early settlements were; and to a bald eagle's nest.

When the tide gets low, he'll skiff to Back Cove to hunt for arrowheads or sea glass, moving through an endless delight of bird-filled creeks that pervade the Martin National Wildlife Refuge encompassing Smith Island's northern half.

What he won't do is take you to all his arrowhead sites around the bay. The long runs are too weather-dependent for his little skiff. Also, he figures you'd come back on your own and bring friends: "It's already a lot harder competition for arrowheads than when I started," he says.

If you are there at the right time, he might be firing the most impressive old-time punt gun I've ever seen. Islanders once mounted these virtual cannons in skiffs and lay alongside them, paddling close to ducks, aiming by turning the skiff. Touching spark to half a pound of black powder, they often killed swaths of waterfowl. Sometimes they blew a hole in the skiff.

The mammoth gun moves on its own trailer - one Marshall found while progging. And the gun's actually an exquisite replica. "It aggravated me that all the island's old guns are in museums on the mainland, so I read up on them and made one," Marshall says.

Just as it's been said an unexamined life is not worth living, I'd maintain even the prettiest place, unprogged, is a relatively empty landscape.

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