LARRY CHOWNING, bachelor of arts in communications (University of Richmond, 1972), recalls the day in 1981 when he got his graduate degree -- in life -- from neighbors in a small Chesapeake Bay town: Jobless, with two small children, Chowning (pronounced Chooning) had resorted to working the waters of the Rappahannock River around his native Urbanna, Va.
From what seafood buyers promised they would pay him for eels, "I wondered why everyone wasn't doing it," he writes in the preface to "Chesapeake Legacy -- Tools and Traditions" (Tidewater Publishers, 1995).
He found the eel market far slipperier than the eels, but he was doing well enough gill-netting trout, spot and croakers to begin selling from a spot a businessman gave him in a parking lot.
His first days fishmongering were an education:
"People I had known all my life walked by and looked straight ahead. Some were old classmates who, I would suspect, voted for me to become Most Likely to Succeed from the 1968 senior class. Others had followed my [college] track career when I broke state, Southern Conference and school records.
"But on this Saturday, it was like I wasn't there."
However, as the late-model cars drove on by, battered old pickups and assorted clunkers were slowing down, stopping. A line was forming: "People pulling out hard cash, smiling at the chance to get fresh, fresh seafood," he said.
Years later, Chowning recalls with immense satisfaction that a man to whom he used to "advance" fish against future payment (always delivered) still tells him: "Larry, you always sold the best fish."
For more than a decade, Chowning has been returning the favor, testifying to the dignity of hard work around and on the Chesapeake Bay, chronicling the fast-fading lifestyles of his Tidewater neighbors.
These occupations and their practitioners are parts of the Chesapeake that we are losing faster, and more irretrievably, TTC than water quality or fish.
I've often felt an integral part of "saving the bay" ought to be a major, continuing oral history project, run perhaps by a consortium of universities in the Maryland-Virginia region and housed in some major library.
In the meantime, we are fortunate to have Chowning, working alone and unfunded, in the time left from his job as general assignment reporter for the 100-year-old Southside Sentinel weekly newspaper in Urbanna.
With his two books, "Harvesting the Chesapeake -- Tools and Traditions" (Tidewater, 1990) and "Chesapeake Legacy -- Tools and Traditions," Chowning sets the standard for describing what he calls "nothing earthshaking just life."
And what a rich life it was, and still is -- not so much materially, but in the diversity of crafts and skills as outlined in the books' tables of contents:
"Tarring Pound Nets," "Shad Planking," "Catching Catfish in Hoop Nets," "How to Make Shaft Tongs," "Harvesting Snapping Turtles by Hook and Line," "Making Hickory Oyster Mops."
These and other headings feature enough detail, including photographs and drawings, to qualify as instructional.
But they are also usually stories, wrapped around an interesting individual, often one of the last practitioners of his art.
I know the bay somewhat; but I know it a lot better for having read Chowning.
Take a familiar feature like pound nets, or "fish traps" -- large affairs of heavy net strung on poles that often are the size of small trees to fish the wide open waters of the Bay and its lower rivers.
For his "Chesapeake Legacy" chapters, Chowning trekked into the backwoods of Virginia's Northern Neck to find one of the last crews using horses trained to snake pound-net poles out of dense swamp and roadless thickets where no tractor or truck could venture.
In "Trap-Pole Horses," he tells how Midnight, a 33-year-old trap-pole horse, can snake 60-foot poles where "a gnat would have trouble squeezing through." Midnight has been worked by the same man for 16 years.
From Chowning we also learn about "Dragging for Conch in the Dead of Night," and how bay workboats evolved into no less than half-a-dozen shapes of stern, and how menhaden scales were processed for commercially valuable quantities of glitter.
A country woman talks matter-of-factly about her role as a waterman's new bride in her in-laws' home:
"Most of our wood came from pound [net] poles. I'd go out after breakfast and cut wood until dinner. I'd go in the house, eat dinner, and go back out and cut until supper. I'd pile a washboard full and tote it to the house by myself. I did that most every day. I think that's why I've got such big arms today."
A classic piece is about Benjamine F. Lewis, not a fixture of formal history books, yet maybe the most influential figure in the shape of today's bay.
Lewis, born in Illinois in 1858, invented and patented the crab pot in Harryhogan, Va., in the 1920s. "Legend has it," Chowning writes, "Lewis [had gotten] older and it got harder for him to trotline [the way crabs were then caught].
"One hot July day, he sold it all right in the water -- bait, crabs and all, and sat in the shade of a nearby willow oak tree and began thinking of a better and easier way to crab."
Chowning, 47, is planning "something a little different" for his next book. It will be stories about what people did around the bay during the Civil War:
"Like how one man came home and went tonging for oysters to get some food, and began coming up with lumps of coal from a barge sunk in the war. For one winter, the town of Urbanna just about lived off heat from the coal tonged from that barge."
Like his other books, he says, it won't be anything earthshaking -- "just what life was like."
Pub Date: 1/03/97