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The Bay We Deserve

Celebrated Chesapeake writer and advocate Tom Horton on the state of our beloved estuary

Excerpted from a talk at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s 50th anniversary lecture series (Editor’s note: Horton’s words have been rearranged in the shape of this story)

You can’t keep Tom Horton out of the water. He grew up on the Eastern Shore, fishing, playing and paddling in Chesapeake waters. For 50 of his 70 years he has made a living of writing about the place he loves most. So paddling 500-plus miles around the Delmarva Peninsula, ocean and Bay is all in a day’s work. He’s done just that twice, both times with friend and fellow environmentalist Don Baugh, first in 2005 and again this summer.
    Just as much in a day’s work is interpreting the Chesapeake for the rest of us, in print — in nine books as well as thousands of newspaper and magazine stories — talks and trails.
    So Horton — an aw-shucks storyteller who wraps you up in his PowerPoint-free yarn — was just the man to top off the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s celebration of 50 years as, said director Anson ‘Tuck’ Hines, a “hub for research and education extending around the planet.”
    Horton talked about his just-ended kayak journey and about “the enormous challenges” of our future.
    “The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is deeply committed to solving our enormous and urgent problems as the population of the Chesapeake watershed grows to 20 million and the population of the planet from 7.4 to 10 billion people in the next several decades,” Hines said. “These are enormous challenges, and we hope solutions will be based on sound science and that we — and all of you — will be part of the solution.”

–Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly editor

Horton on the Bay
    Kayaking 500 or so miles around the edges of Delmarva and looking for a legal place to get out and stretch your legs will make a communist out of you. … Access is woefully lacking, places where the average guy can walk down and wet a line or launch a canoe without getting yelled at or threatened or getting shot at …

•   •   •

    My friend Don Baugh and I did a lot of seining everywhere we stopped. I think there’s just less life out there … compared to the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s.
    In the ’50s and ’60s my dad taught me to fish down by the Honga River by looking hard to find a little spot where there was no grass on the bottom. It was all eel grass then, now it’s widgeon grass, which is still good but not as good. Cast into that spot, he said, and you’ll catch a rockfish, and it worked pretty good.
    Now I’d try to find a little patch of grass on bare bottom and cast there for a rockfish.
    I don’t know how you put a number on it, but the life is not there.
    Still, this is not a dead body of water.
    In the last 25 years, we’ve held the line from going to hell with prodigious effort, a lot of money, a lot of people doing good work, and we have not turned the ecosystem around. Restoration is still ahead of us, even as more people move in.
    Many days, I think we have about the Bay we deserve: a moderately polluted but far from dead coastal estuary.
    What I mean by that is we have been loathe to look at root causes, from population growth to a system of economics that says unlimited economic growth is not only possible on a limited, finite plant, it is desirable … That says that natural resources don’t matter.
    Or at even less than root causes, like our addiction to a meat-heavy diet that requires a lot of intensive row-grain cropping that creates a lot of pollution.
    What we have done is make a prodigious effort to retain that system without ever questioning whether the system needs fundamental revision, and that’s the work of a generation, not a few years. Thus I go back to Army Corps of Engineers General Robert McGarry at a meeting held early on on how to restore the Patuxent River:

Horton worries that we’re destined for a “Chesapeake-style Bay.” It’s not the real thing, but not half bad, either.

    So let me get this straight. You people want to poop in one end of the river and eat out of the other?
    Yes, General, absolutely, and we really don’t want to put a limit on people pooping at one end, and we want really good seafood out of the other end.
    Within the constrains we have set, not questioning anything fundamental, we’ve done pretty amazing, a pretty decent job. However I don’t know if we can keep it running. We’ve pushed to the limit a lot of things like sewage treatment that have carried the day so far. We need to get a lot more serious on sources of nonpoint pollution, like agriculture, which we really don’t want to talk about.

Chesapeake-Style Bay
    Here’s the idea that’s been rolling around in my head. Aren’t we going to end up with what I call a Chesapeake-style Bay?
    Chesapeake-style is a word you see often on crab cakes, which means they are not from the Bay but from Vietnam or Indonesia. Chesapeake style is not the real thing, but they’re not half bad. Many people can’t tell the difference.
    In a Chesapeake-style Bay, you get your oysters from somewhere else or an oyster farm and don’t worry much about the oxygen or oysters down there.
    Nobody would rather be an oyster drifter than Wade Murphy, a fifth generation waterman and captain of the skipjack Rebecca Ruark. But that’s not what he’s doing. Now he’s into oyster tourism. Wade takes tourists out, and he makes his money talking about what he used to do for a living. He makes pretty good money, and he’s pretty good at it, but he doesn’t really enjoy it.
    One night I was at Harrison’s Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island, when Wade was taking out tourists. Everyone on shore was oohing and ahhing because it’s a nice sunset, they’re taking pictures of these historic skipjacks, and the beer is good, the oysters from who knows where and the crab cakes may be Chesapeake-style.
    Maybe that’s what we’re going to settle for. I think that’s a slippery slope, and I don’t agree with it, but I think it may be one place we’re headed.

Horton’s Next Project
    “Once or twice a year somebody comes up and congratulates me for winning the Pulitzer Prize for writing Beautiful Swimmers. So I say, Thank you. Willie is dead and was a good friend, so I don’t think he’d mind.”
    Now Horton is picking up where William Warner left off in Beautiful Swimmers, his 1976 story of crabs, working with photographer and videographer David Harp, his collaborator on many of the books, to make Beautiful Swimmers the movie.

Tom Horton’s Books

An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake, 2008

Chesapeake: Bay of Light: An Exploration of the Chesapeake’s Wild and Forgotten Places, 2007

The Great Marsh: An Intimate Journey into a Chesapeake Wetland, 2002

Water’s Way: Life Along the Chesapeake, 2000

Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay, 1991; revised 2003

Swanfall: The Journey of the Tundra Swans, 1991

Bay Country, 1987 — “On a good day somebody still congratulates me for such lyrical prose. Otherwise that book is totally a project of good science: the five- or six-year 1983 $28 million study of the Bay that made huge amounts of research and science accessible to people like me who can translate it into something more readable.”