To get off the Beltway near Edgemere and head east on Route 20 toward Black Marsh is to go back in time. Within half an hour of downtown Baltimore are handfuls of small, cozy, one- and two-story homes clustered along streets that resemble my grandparents' neighborhood of the 1940s. Even stores in a lone shopping center appear to be family-run rather chain-operated. Other businesses, schools, churches and a recreation center stay in character. A few glimpses of water and the occasional stand of tall grass hint of proximity to the Bay.
Whose hometowns are these, sleeping in the warm, washed-out sunshine of a still spring morning? Residents include workers from Bethlehem Steel on the next peninsula over, and from the light industry and services along North Point Road. Closer to the Bay are the homes of watermen and a few farmers. Yellow plastic bows, ''Old Glory,'' and store signs indicate patriotic support of our troops in the Gulf.
Farms appear. Closer to Fort Howard at North Point where Route 20 ends, the road becomes bordered by dense woods and flat open fields. Some are carpeted with the bright green of winter wheat, in sharp contrast to the otherwise pale gray and beiges of an early-spring landscape not yet fully waked-up.
These fields have provided fresh produce to the city continuously for three centuries. One farm, Todd's Inheritance, is listed in the National Historic Register as the first property settled (ca. 1664) in the county. During the 1800s, the contents of city ''honey pots'' were composted here and used to fertilize the fields. Plowing today unearths an occasional artifact from those times that found its way into a household latrine. During the War of 1812, 7,000 British troops invaded and occupied the area on their way to an unsuccessful assault on Baltimore.
Arrowheads, spearpoints and pottery dating back 8,000 years have been found on the property.
Woods! and beyond them marsh -- some 600 relatively untouched acres. To explore by foot, one parks near a sign proclaiming the newly opened Black Marsh State Park, about a half-mile past the turn where Miller's Island Road branches off to the east and Route 20 heads south. A gravel road leads to a hunting lodge turned visitors center, or one can turn into the woods and backtrack along the water to a part of Black Marsh.
On windy days there is a salty tang to the air and when the tide is out, the smell of hydrogen sulfide gas. Today being particularly still, sounds and sights are the dominant sensations. The first spring peepers are heard amid the distant hum of traffic and the occasional boom of weapons being tested at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds across the glistening Bay.
The wealth of the record of man's presence near the Bay is matched by the natural history found on the 1,310 acres of woods, marsh and field. The underlying clays, sands and gravels were eroded off the continent over tens of millions of years, and laid down in seas at its edge. The sediments became coastline as the Susquehanna valley flooded with the melting of the last glaciers some 8 to 10 thousand years ago when Chesapeake Bay was formed.
Different combinations of soil, elevation (from 0 to 20 feet), fresh water and salt give rise to the many microcosms of diverse habitat at the park. Along the shore one walks through upland woods, then wet, past fresh-water marsh into brackish. A trail of planks gives a closer look at a gray tidal inlet, muskrat houses, last year's brown grasses, cattails and sky.
The vegetation keeps the land anchored against the erosive power of the sea to the east and man's activities to the west. It provides food and shelter for myriad animals and birds, and the Bay shell and fin fish use the marshes for nurseries, breeding grounds and sustenance. Grasses form the basis of the food chain along with aquatic plants and phytoplankton. Last year's decaying crop will be turned into nourishing tidal soup as the new crop grows.
Among the plants and animals at Black Marsh are a number of rare and endangered species, the bald eagle among them. If one is alone, quiet and lucky one may glimpse our national symbol, which has been absent from the area for 40 years; gone because of being illegally shot and unable to reproduce successfully until the ban on DDT. Now its existence is further compromised by the disappearance of its habitat. Our symbol of freedom and independence, full of grace and dignity, shuns human presence, tolerating even the noise of artillery fire at Aberdeen instead of people. One does not seek eagles or they will leave.
It is an auspicious quirk of fate that has graced the Baltimore area with this undeveloped wealth of wilderness and history; for 40 years until it was acquired by the state in 1987 it was the hunting preserve of Bethlehem Steel executives; before that, the property of the trolley company that built Bayshore Park in 1906 at a time when cool summer amusements for hot Baltimoreans where few and acres of Bay wilderness were many.
Now the situation is reversed; it is important to preserve these 1,310 acres of woods, marsh and field as is, with only the addition of an interpretive center and parking on one of the farms. Not only is Black Marsh an integral part of the Bay's productivity and a place to enjoy solitude and meet the wild things of nature, it is also an irreplaceable educational resource. By direct experience this place can teach us about and remind us of the many relationships both physical and spiritual that sustain us all.
The return of the eagles is a sign that the Bay can be saved. If they leave again, can we be far behind?
Judy Bond writes from Cockeysville.