Posted by: floridanature | June 20, 2008

A Young Boy and Why He Walks

I grew up in a home on a dirt street. One day, the street would be paved and the few houses would turn into a neighborhood. But this was still the country, and things happened slowly.

There was a large corn field behind our home, and behind that, a state farmer’s market and several large packing houses. In the summertime, in my early teens, I would make a few extra bucks loading watermelons onto tractor trailers from the smaller flatbed and pick-up trucks the local farmers used to bring their crops to market.

With my neighbor Rick, we walked miles out into the countryside, zigzagging across farm fields, through isolated tracks of woods with little streams running through them, and down long winding roads under thick canopies of hardwoods. Sometimes, we would see old farm homes hidden back away in the forest; sometimes, we would pass open pastures with horses, maybe a few cows. We seldom carried water or a backpack, and had no stated intent except to explore.

I was intrigued by bugs then, and had even bought a book about them. Sometimes, I would find strange ornate bugs, like a rhino beetle, and if they were dead, I’d bring them home to put in little dioramas I made for them out of shoe boxes. Most of the birds were so common I didn’t need an ID guide. They were sparrows and robins, and sometimes cardinals and starlings. Rarely, I saw a great blue heron hidden down in a little thickly wooded creek that spilled out of a lake. In early fall, Canada and snow geese would migrate, flying over in great V formations. Their cries were haunting, even then, since they meant for me the end of warmer, boy-friendly summer weather, and the beginning of the cold season. But they were harbingers, too, marking time visually.

I knew the names of some of the fish, since we had an intimate relationship with them from the other end of a fishing line. There were striped bass, which we knew as rockfish, and hardheads, and spot and catfish. If we were in tidal creeks, there were blue crabs swimming through; sometimes there were ‘doublers’ in which the molted, soft shelled female held on tight to the larger male as they mated. Instinct for that was so strong they held fast even when we scooped them up with long-handled nets and dumped them into bushel baskets. We ate the crabs, steamed with Old Bay seasoning and dry mustard sprinkled on them, and Mom cooked the rock fish, usually with strips of bacon and with butter. For most who grew up in the country, wildlife could also mean food; it was no different for our family.

We roamed the countryside, Rick and I, because we felt a need to do so. There was nothing for certain we were ever sure we would find, but we always looked for new ways of seeing, of new things to see. Following creeks upstream was full of discovery since they always led to lakes and the lakes to more streams, each with its own wooded furrows cut into the earth. Sometimes, I carried a knife in a sheath, but I never had anything to use it for.

We lived on a peninsula, the flat slab of land that held the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a spit of Virginia, and all of the state of Delaware. We had strong territorial country prejudices, and thought of Delaware and Virginia as states not hardly worth knowing about. But that peninsula isolated them as it isolated us, almost as fully as an island. As a very young boy, I remember riding a long ferry across the choppy Chesapeake to get to Baltimore to the west, since there was yet no bay bridge. We did the same to the south, where a much longer bay-bridge tunnel system eventually spanned the great mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

historic map of the eastern shore

The ferries had kept us safe in so many ways, had kept anyone from driving over a bridge just because they wanted to. Taking a ferry required time and money, and it was a wondrous deterrent to expediency. Later, when the bridges came—except for a few old timers—we welcomed them. We had absolutely no idea of the cultural and environmental impacts this new accessibility would eventually have on the integrity of our long-ignored shore, a place Harper’s magazine a hundred years earlier had called “the last peninsula of the Lost and the Vague.” We would become diluted, our accents washed out, our behaviors less certain, more influenced by the outside world beyond the Bay. And then the great new mass of people living in the watershed of the Bay begin to transform it.

Even as the tidewater nature of Shore living infused nearly every moment of my life, I took it for granted, expecting it to always be there. But now, with all the decades in between for perspective, I miss it terribly, and I miss the speciated and passionate people the Shore had once created. Accessibility spelled an end to most of them, just as it did to the wide open countryside. Now when I think of my life as a young boy approaching manhood, I can imagine no place finer to have lived than under the broad skies over the flat terrain carved by the tidal rivers and creeks on the lower Eastern Shore.

I think now of those geese flying south for the winter, and instead of having an image, I hear those soulful, primal sounds they left in their wake as they soared across the broad winter Shore sky. As a boy, I was wistful for all that the flight of those birds took with them when they left, and I am wistful now.

And so, I keep walking through the woods. Except not with my friend Rick, and not in an environment that is temperate. I walk now for miles in the hammocks and flatwoods, the marsh and swamp of Florida to discover new things, and to remember in my heart, the ones I once found. I walk in celebration of discovery, and in the evocation of people and place. I walk to remember.

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Responses

  1. Wonderful memories Bill. Reminds me of my own childhood growing up in Oxford, FL BTV (before the Villages ).

    Across the dirt road from my home place was 350 acres owned by the Oxford Peat Company. Oak hammocks, canals for fishing and my brothers and me had a free ticket to the place. Camping, fishing, exploring…a paradise for any kid at that time.

    Takes me back ! If those Villagers only knew. Trouble is they don’t care to know.


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