Listening to the song of the Chesapeake


As a resident for the last 25 years of Baltimore, Maryland, I have spent many days on the Bay, usually in a sailboat. I, like many Marylanders, am acutely aware of the state of the Chesapeake Bay and her many tributaries. My son has been studying water quality in his 7th grade geography class, which included a trip to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s study center on Smith Island—a truly special place, one of only two inhabited islands in the Bay. Tom Horton’s wonderful book about his time living on Smith, An Island Out of Time, is aptly titled.

The recent Report Card issued in late 2014 by CBF gives the state of the Bay a D+, the same grade as in 2012. Hard-won improvements in water quality were offset by losses in other areas, the impression of no progress defying the efforts of thousands of people and the expense of millions of dollars. The Bay is a complex ecosystem, its watershed sprawling over parts of six states, including major urban areas, two shipping ports, intense suburban development, industry and farmland. As the Report Card says:

“The State of the Chesapeake Bay is improving. Slowly, but improving. What we can control—pollution entering our waterways—is getting better. But, the Bay is far from saved. Our 2014 report confirms that the Chesapeake and its rivers and streams remain a system dangerously out of balance, a system in crisis. If we don’t keep making progress—even accelerate progress—we will continue to have polluted water, human health risks, and declining economic benefits—at huge societal costs. The good news is that we are on the right path. A Clean Water Blueprint is in place and working. All of us, including our elected officials, need to stay focused on the Blueprint, push harder, and keep moving forward. Saving the Bay and restoring local water quality will not just benefit us; clean water will benefit our children and all future generations.”

The mantra that we need to keep pushing harder is part of the mindset that has been destroying the Bay since Captain Smith first passed Stingray Point and “discovered” this magical estuary in 1608. We need to try something new. Since we have entered uncharted territory with climate change, species extinction and the general breakdown of our old cultural stories, imagining new pathways is a first step towards taking them.

I have begun dreaming about going on a “Water Walk,” following the example of Grandmother Josephine Mandamin, who has circumnavigated the Great Lakes with blessing and prayer ceremonies. The shoreline Chesapeake and its tributaries presents quite a challenge, as it measures over11,000 miles, longer than the entire west coast of the U.S. Much of that is on private property and inaccessible. I’m exploring instead the possibility of walking the outline of the Bay watershed, an area of about 64,000 miles, as a pilgrimage in stages, over several years.

I am in love with the Chesapeake Bay. Last summer, she gifted me with the idea for a story, which I have been working with ever since. It is a sort of creation story that starts off well, but takes a turn once Captain Smith enters the picture. I can’t post the whole thing yet, since it’s still in progress, but here’s the beginning:

Long before there were people to name her, the Chesapeake dreamed herself into being. She dreamed of a fireball crashing into the surface of Earth. Its impact left a vast crater and sent rock and dust high into the air and far over the trackless land. She summoned a rush of fresh water from faraway mountains through the crater and on to the salty ocean, but a great cold crept over the land, imprisoning the river in ice. And so she slept through the long winter, guarding secrets in her depths.

When the air began to warm, the ice melted and flooded the great riverbed, spreading over the land. Other tributaries and valleys gouged by ice joined in this network, leaving a shallow body of water shimmering beneath the dome of sky.

In this fertile springtime, the Chesapeake stretched her limbs, drew a deep breath and blew a stiff breeze across her body, delighting in the way the ripples glinted in the sun. And she got to work, dreaming her dream onward after the fire and the ice. She dreamed birds and fish, crustaceans, shellfish, grasses and trees. Pleased with the results, she continued to summon hundreds of companions, a great family of creatures finned, furred, feathered, winged, leafy, and marshy. They were all part of a great flowing forth and did not yet know the seasons and cycles of mortality.

The more I work with being on this threshold between stories, the more I hear that my role is to speak up. To imagine this world in new ways, from perspectives not usually given a voice in literary culture. So much of the high-culture canon focuses on the made-in-our-image urban world, whether explicitly or in the background of stories about quirky, depressed, plucky, everyday people. Or zombies. Or psychopathic serial killers. Since by telling stories, we make our world, I am committed to exploring new stories and new ways of telling them.

This work is part of looking for ways to recast my own story as one of joy rather than fear, of privilege rather than duty, and abundance rather than resentment. When faced with a dilemma, problem or challenge, I am learning to ask, what is the feminine way? I will seek always to be receptive, open, spacious, to hold opposites, to make room for contradiction, to find balance in all things. In this, the Chesapeake is my teacher: in all her ferocity, gentleness, fertility, tenacity, and great, breathtaking beauty.

2 thoughts on “Listening to the song of the Chesapeake

  1. Your idea of a “Water Walk” sounds wonderful. I will walk with you. We can rattle and journey our way around the bay.

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