'Green Shingles': Chesapeake life on human scale

January 17, 1999|By Susan Q. Stranahan | Susan Q. Stranahan,Special to the Sun

"Green Shingles: At the Edge of Chesapeake Bay," by Peter Svenson. Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 193 pages. $24.95.

Almost anyone who has crested the eastbound span of the Bay Bridge and peered at the curving shoreline spreading to the horizon has entertained this idea: Find a rustic cottage at water's edge and begin a new life.

The population boom transforming the Eastern Shore demonstrates that plenty of folks have acted on those impulses, although most find their bliss in shorefront estates or marina condos.

Artist-author Peter Svenson was a purist, however. Recently remarried and eager to leave behind the constraints of suburban Washington, Svenson and his wife K set out across the bridge searching for their dream house, seized by "the idea of a refuge," intent on "trading the familiar for the unknown."

Their search ultimately leads them to Tolchester, "a drab unincorporated community, a place with a past far more remarkable than its present." There they find a rambling house with a green roof, perched on Mitchell's Bluff. And thus begins the story.

"Green Shingles: At the Edge of Chesapeake Bay" is Svenson's account of discovery -- of places external and internal. Written as a series of essays on subjects as diverse as beach erosion and trash, Svenson ably records his impression of life on the glorious Upper Eastern Shore.

While lacking the luminous magic of Tom Horton's writings on the Chesapeake, Svenson skillfully uses his artist's eye to describe the ever-changing panoramas unfolding from Mitchell's Bluff -- the colors of the sky and water, the lure of weather and wind current. Like all who set out to live off the land (even where the lights of Towson brighten the nighttime sky), he celebrates his growing self-sufficiency.

Among the best chapters are those recounting the history of Tolchester, once the premier destination for Baltimoreans seeking respite from the city. Envisioned in the 1920s as a real estate development that would intimidate even the most rapacious land speculator of the 90s, the community and resort fell on hard times -- a blessing according to Svenson. "Tolchester is a rare thing," he writes, "a waterfront community left to its own devices."

Intrigued by the traffic that plies the channel off his beach, Svenson joins the crews of the Coast Guard buoy tender Red Birch and of the tugboat Gulf Coast, which travels the Bay ferrying coal. His detailed accounts of those who live on the water, rather than beside it, are fascinating.

Svenson discovers his own place in the natural scheme of things on the Eastern Shore when he resumes painting and enters a juried art show. Studiously eschewing art that "could hang comfortably beside carved wooden decoys, or fishnet, or brass ships' clocks," Svenson eagerly anticipates accolades from the locals. What he gets is a comeuppance. One painting is forgotten beneath a table; another wins third-place, but there's no cash prize -- and no second-place winner.

Once in a while, Svenson's story gets a bit preachy, but his evangelism can be forgiven as coming from the newly converted. He found what he sought when he headed east across the Bay Bridge. For those who aren't ready to make the same leap, his account of becoming familiar with the unknown satisfies -- for the moment at least -- our own desires to strike out on a similar adventure.

Susan Q. Stranahan covers environmental issues for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the National Wildlife Federation Magazine, among others. Her book, "Susquehanna: River of Dreams" was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993.

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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