Chesapeake Born: Death and Life

Environmental Commentary by Tom Horton

Planted a little shadbush in my front yard the other day for Larry Simns, a Chesapeake waterman friend, recently deceased.

It’s one of the ways I pay my respects, foster life in death’s face, green the shadows, mark the passage—a long habit begun when my first wife was terminally ill.

And I’ve never liked lawns anyhow. Hate seeing good topsoil sing the one drear note of grass when you know it yearns to play symphonies.

And it matters. In the long term, the universe is dying, running down, disaggregating; sorry if you didn’t know. It’s called entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Whenever work is done, some of the energy used goes to waste, from order to disorder, like heat off an engine.

And because you can’t create new energy (First Law of Thermodynamics), we’re done for in the long term. But we can push back, go down fighting gloriously.

Plant trees, for example, which so long as they’re growing, are anti-entropic, taking in more energy than they release, creating—from light and water and soil—order and structure and complexity and life, like limbs to cradle nesting birds.

Thus the shadbush, Amalanchier canadensis, a tough native shrub whose creamy blossoming coincides with the arrival of American shad, drawn from the ocean each spring to sport and spawn in Chesapeake rivers.

Larry loved to fish for shad: “I always felt closest to God in the spring during the shad run. It was the prettiest fishing I ever did.”

He’d talk eloquently of the calm, spring evenings when more than 20 captains and crews from his native Rock Hall, Md., would lay out miles of fine mesh net, working in unison across the upper bay. Buoyed by corks, the nets would float near the surface, drifting, expectant: “On a sunset evening, running back along those long rows of corks, beginning to bob as the shad hit the mesh, that was something.”

There was even beauty, he recalled, when winds and currents sometimes snarled the great nets, “and all those multicolored corks would be pulled together in a shape just like a rose blooming.”

I’m at that time in life where brushes with dying, funerals and memorial services crop up faster than births and weddings. But it means my yard, even unused parts of the driveway, is getting very green, repealing entropy if only for a bit.

There’s the longleaf pine for Keith, who loves marine science but is better at making millions, and who gives so much to Chesapeake causes—the pine could top 100 feet someday, and live 400 years; and the wide-spreading witch hazel that burns orangey-red outside my office window in the dead of winter—for Reuben, who used color so well in painting his Smith Island home.

A black gum that inflames the yard with its autumn foliage is for Ben, a mild-mannered arborist who took long weekends off to risk his life breaking marine mammals out of aquariums. For Richard there’s the Japanese apricot, which will grow as gnarly and complex and beautiful as the books and articles he wrote.

There are way more ways than planting trees to take comfort from nature in times of loss. I often mark a passing by remembering what was afield on the sad occasion: The wild swans that wing here 4,000 miles from Alaska recall those who went missing in November. St. Patricks’s Day ospreys, returning from Central America commemorate early spring departures. Once, trudging from the church to the graveyard I noticed the nearby tidal river was at slack high tide, as if the bay was holding its breath before exhaling. Since then, slack high tide always makes me think of Lee.

It’s about investing the landscapes where I live with memory and meaning that goes deeper than any plant’s roots—‘sacred places’ is a term I’ve heard used to describe this.

The American Indians had it about right. The lands and waters that often seem a mere backdrop for us, or resources to be used up, were all they had. And over the generations, the associations they enjoyed with the most humble places grew rich beyond reckoning.

You cannot pick a shadbush blossom and put it inside. It wilts almost before you’ve put water in a vase. It’s a pure wildness, delicate and enduring; and a little saddening, as the shad it once signaled are at low ebb in the Chesapeake these days, victims of offshore bycatch in pursuit of other species, it is thought.

It was Larry’s fear that modern generations would forget this once lusty note of springtime. It was his hope that “if people care enough we can bring them back.”

Now that would be a fitting memorial.

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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