A Little Old House With Tales To Tell

ON THE BAY

October 09, 1993|By TOM HORTON

ST. MICHAELS — A photo caption in Saturday's editions of The Sun incorrectly identified the late Gilbert Byron as Byron Gilbert.

The Sun regrets the errors.

ST. MICHAELS -- The little old house from Old House Cove is looking for another home.

It's not very impressive, slumped beneath plastic tarps in a field where it has been moved; but it has stories to tell, poems to sing, that new generations of Chesapeake Bay dwellers ought to hear.

For nearly half a century it was home to Gilbert Byron, the bay poet and novelist who died two years ago, aged 88.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

We gave Gilbert a send-off one sultry August afternoon in 1991; dozens of friends gathered by the cove where he lived and wrote, so close to the edge of San Domingo Creek he would go to sleep listening to minnows riffling the shallows.

A quote from H. L. Mencken that he kept tacked on the cabin wall said, "Don't Overplay It" -- good advice for obituaries, and for writers in general, Gilbert always said.

So after brief reminiscences and a few rounds of cookies and punch, we dumped the poet's ashes, along with those of his beloved old dog, into the cove. They made a big splash, and a pair of swans sailed over to investigate -- a graceful and serene coda to a life finely lived.

The cove and the cabin and Gilbert were as close as the bay region has come to emulating Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond. In early 1942, Gilbert was a 38-year-old school teacher in Delaware, writing poems about "Chaps like me/Who having been bred/To wear a white collar/Find a chain attached. . ."

He was re-reading "Walden" that year when a real estate ad leapt at him from the newspaper: "Eastern Shore . . . waterfront, wooded lots, $200 each, navigable water."

"Here, for a small sum, I could gain a foothold, a modern Walden, in the heart of the Chesapeake country," he would later write.

Having purchased the land, he set to building the tiny cabin. It measured just 9 feet by 12, same as the cabin on his old sloop, Avalon, in which he sailed the Chesapeake. In 1945 he added another room. He was nailing on the roof, he recalled, enjoying the breeze and the sounds of birds, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Ala Thoreau, Gilbert meticulously chronicled his materials and expenses, coming in at $133.17 for the original cabin -- not bad considering Thoreau had spent $28.12 a century earlier. And there on Old House Cove, Gilbert would stay for the next 45 years, drawing national attention in the 1950s for his novel, "The Lord's Oysters," based on his boyhood on the Chester River.

By the cove, at his kitchen table, or on nice days from beneath an old oak, he would chronicle the seasons and the moods of the Chesapeake, and the comings and goings of its creatures. A recurrent theme was that of freedom, and he wrote with a special affection for the old watermen, their days of working the wider bay done, who came in skiffs to progue his small cove with nets and tongs, seeking: "no exportable surplus [but] a full larder and a happy stomach." He wrote a poem about one such waterman, a Captain Ben:

"Found dead/In his little ark/coffee boiling on the stove/Two black ducks/hanging beneath the eaves/And his pet terrapin/Crawling on the floor. . .

"Centuries will pass/The marshes will be drained/The world will be so clean/All stainless and plastic/Every citizen will work overtime to keep it shining/Mankind will have achieved a civilization/Worthy of the ants.

"Then some new Homer/Will blow his bazooka/And sing the legend that was/The great American Dream/Freedom:

"Will sing of men/Like Captain Ben/And the wild lads/Who fled to the marshes/In quest of the golden fleece."

Maryland's Thoreau never achieved the status of the Massachusetts original, whose birthday he shared. The bulk of Gilbert's years in the cabin were a struggle financially, passed in literary obscurity. But he endured, and he never stopped writing. And in his last decade, the world began to rediscover him. His writing was re-printed. His alma mater, Washington College, honored him.

Admirers and aspiring writers, I among them, began seeking his door. It was deeply pleasureable to settle in on a rainy morning in the cramped, book-filled room where Gilbert both worked and slept, and steep oneself in good conversation and the aroma of Gilbert's oyster stew brewing on the stove.

"The Eastern Shore saps you, holds you back," he would say. "You'll never be bigtime if you don't leave." Perhaps if he had moved, as urged, to New York after his success with "The Lord's Oysters," Gilbert would have become "bigtime." But I never heard him regret sticking to his cabin on the cove. A full-time journalist at the time, I thought that reporters were like bluefish: peripatetic souls, lunging at one snippet of life, then another -- whatever looked like news.

Gilbert was an oyster, attached for life. He let the bay's essences wash back and forth through his shell, slowly encasing himself in layers of fine, lustrous nacre.

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