Oystering - a poetic way of life Performance: Harvesters of the humble bivalve will pay tribute to their vocation in verse, songs and tales in an unrehearsed evening at a historic theater in Easton.

On The Bay

March 06, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

I BELIEVE it was Homer who wrote that wars are fought so that poets may have tales to spin.

What a delicious notion, deflating to generals and heads of state. It means that art is what endures, after time's passage erodes to footnotes the human dramas that inspired it.

So it is I have always found inspiration in some lines of verse from the late Chesapeake poet, Gilbert Byron:

Hip-booted men with long tongs,

come to the cove again;

Rake the bar of oysters bare

yet seldom the surface mar.

Men who never wrote a line

are the greatest poets ever,

verses of love inscribed upon

the bottom of the cove.

Oysters on the Chesapeake have been the stuff of commerce, the cause of warfare, the keystone of an ecosystem. But the pursuit and harvest of the humble bivalve by bay watermen is also a rich and vital aesthetic that might survive all else.

For a glimpse of what I mean, consider coming to the historic Avalon Theater in Easton for a unique and unrehearsed evening, dubbed The Oyster's Legacy, on March 14.

Next week's show, a one-time affair, grew from a private session held more than a year ago at Tilghman Island. For a staff retreat, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation gathered skipjack captains, oyster tongers and watermen's wives for an evening of stories and reminiscences.

It was mixed with songs and tales by Tom Wisner, the bay singer and songwriter, whose "Dredgin' Is My Drudgery," written in the 1970s, set the standard for tributes to the Chesapeake's shellfish harvesters.

A sample lyric, which deals with nearing the end of a long winter working on the deck of a skipjack, goes like this:

Come March I'm feelin' weary

and I long to go ashore.

My knees are growin' heels and

toes,

my back is bent and sore.

I've culled 2,000 bushels,

and I'm rusted to the bone.

Wind and water whistle

where my muscles used to

roam.

During last winter's Tilghman session, I and others in attendance realized the evening was producing pure gold, and no one had thought to bring a tape recorder or video camcorder.

Like music improvised in a jam session, the exchanges by the waterfolk were humorous and grim, and above all, real, built on one another -- wonderful insights into a full-blown human subculture, sprung from centuries of working one of the world's great populations of shellfish.

That night's crew has been reassembled for the Avalon show, for which no script exists -- just comfortable seats arranged on the stage, in hopes the magic will happen again.

Except for Wisner, none is a professional performer. But it is symptomatic of the precarious situation of the bay's watermen that most of next week's participants are spending less time being watermen and more time talking about being watermen.

"The transformation of watermen into performers has already begun," observed Mick Womersley and David Wasserman of the University of Maryland in a recent paper on preserving the watermen's way of life.

For example, Dallas Bradshaw, a lifelong crabber and oysterman on Smith Island, one of next week's storytellers, has gone to work full time as a captain and educator at a bay foundation outdoor education center

Janice Marshall, a Smith Islander, is the focus of at least one documentary film because of her long and successful battle to start a women's crab-picking cooperative to help her struggling community survive into the next century.

Wadey Murphy and Ed Farley, skipjack captains from Talbot County, are in transition from full-time oyster dredging to taking tourists "dude-oystering" and educational and sightseeing trips on their vessels.

"They all speak from a place and from lives that soon may not exist anymore," says Wisner.

Populations of oysters, whose harvest once employed about 40 percent of everyone fishing for a living in the United States, are estimated at about 1 percent of their historical abundance.

They were far more than just bay creatures. Oysters literally defined the shape and structure of the estuary's bottom, growing in reefs and hills across hundreds of square miles.

The breaking apart and leveling and overharvesting of that bottom by widespread dredging beginning in the 1820s proceeded out of sight and out of mind. But it was as dramatic as if a couple of Western Maryland counties had been deforested and bulldozed.

Just as dramatic has been the loss of the oyster's ecological role as a filter. Scientists estimate that oysters, as they fed, filtered and cleansed a volume of water equal to the whole bay every few weeks. Today's diminished populations take several months do the same job.

The magnitude of the shift that has occurred in the bay is akin to the plowing of the native prairie that covered the Midwest.

When the native grasses were turned over by the plow to grow corn, the buffalo and the Native American buffalo cultures that depended upon it were capsized in the process.

The oyster "rocks" -- as the reefs and bars are known -- used to be the mainstay of Chesapeake waterman.

Increasingly, the bay waters and watermen are dominated by a swimmer, the blue crab, and by an excess of floating algae that is causing a number of environmental problems.

Tickets for the performance March 14 are $10. Wisner will perform free, and the Avalon Theater, which has an enviable reputation for promoting regional and local cultural events, will take only minimal expenses. Money left over will go to the watermen and their wives, who are coming without any guarantee of compensation.

Doors open at 7: 30 p.m. The show begins at 8.

Reservations: 410-822-0345.

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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