Maryland: all things, but not one

Embracing a wealth of diversity, the Free State makes the most out of being small. A creation of nature and man, it shuns blandness and relishes its eccentricity.

November 28, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

I hear the distant thunder hum, Maryland!

The Old Line's bugle, fife, and drum, Maryland!

She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb

Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!

She breathes! she burns! she'll come! she'll come!

Maryland! My Maryland!

-- James Ryder Randall, 1861

ON A MAP, Maryland might be a page badly torn from a book, nothing like those boxy states from the plains with their stolid square corners. True, there is the straight-edged northern border, the work of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, trudging through the woods in the 1760s to settle boundary trouble between Penns and Calverts.

But there is also the meandering southern border, carved by water long before anyone was around to call it the Potomac River or the Chesapeake Bay. The state's very shape declares it a collaboration of nature and man: a heavy human hand gradually shaping, scarring, paving but never quite obliterating the underlying landscape.

Maryland in 2000 is a combination of inheritance and accident, hard to pin down and perhaps more satisfying because of it. It is like a suitcase someone packed in a hurry, grabbing a little of everything, just in case. By world standards, it is prosperous but embraces stunning inequality; it is free but also quite dangerous. It has not only astonishingly diverse landscapes, but human societies as different from one another as many nations.

The tourism slogan, "America in Miniature," hints at the problem that faces the state's salespeople: Southern? Well ... not entirely. Urban? Not entirely. Oceanfront? Not entirely. Mountainous? Not entirely.

Perhaps that is the proper slogan: Maryland, Not Entirely Anything. That would be no odder than the Calvert family motto that still stands on the state shield: Fatti maschii parole femine, or, "Manly deeds, womanly words." It would be no more accidental than the state's name, derived from that of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, who before he got distracted by civil war and decapitation, sponsored Lord Baltimore's venture to find good ground to grow tobacco to profit from the smoking craze.

Its earliest visitors, such as George Alsop, who described the colony in 1666 after several years here as an indentured servant, often expressed themselves in superlatives, like real estate agents.

Alsop said no place on the globe "can parallel this fertile and pleasant piece of ground in its multiplicity; or rather Nature's extravagancy of a super-abounding plenty." (On the other hand, Alsop wrote, Maryland was no good for raising sheep; too many wolves were around to eat them.)

More recent observers have defined Maryland more modestly, even apologetically, by its in-between status.

Writer H.L. Mencken pronounced it the most average of states; but even the curmudgeon of Union Square was so carried away by Maryland's spring that he gushed about "a countryside that comes to the very edge of perfection."

Robert J. Brugger, author of a magisterial 1988 history of the state, subtitled his book "A Middle Temperament," explaining it as "a middle-state ethos -- a sensibility founded on compromise given conflict, on toleration given differences among people and their failings, on the pursuit of happiness given the brevity of life and the allurements of Maryland scenery and the Chesapeake Bay." Marylanders, he said, were characterized by "moderation, skepticism, ironic humor, love of place and a sense of proportion."

Well, yes -- except for when they were not. Maryland under slavery and Know-Nothingism and Jim Crow showed little inclination toward tolerance.

During the Civil War, this border state did not have a population of amiably moderate sentiments, but of bitter advocacy on both sides; the mob that famously battled Union troops passing through Baltimore in 1861 produced the conflict's first casualties. As immigrants battled natives for jobs and machine politics distributed the spoils of patronage -- elections in the 1850s featured pitched battles in the street -- few had the leisure or inclination to display "a sense of proportion."

Eccentricity

Maryland's middle-state status has not produced a uniform blandness. If anything, the place is distinguished by eccentricity. It is as feisty as the blue crab that serves as its gastronomic symbol, and, some might say, equally erratic in its forward progress.

It is a state that has formally adopted not only a state reptile (diamondback terrapin) but a state dinosaur (Astrodon Johnstoni) and a state fossil (the extinct snail Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae); not just a state boat (skipjack) but a state sport (still jousting, the campaign to replace it with duckpin bowling never having captured the legislative imagination). It retains, don't ask me why, Confederate propaganda doggerel as the state song, calling Lincoln a despot and decrying "Northern scum." (Another candidate for state slogan: Maryland, Still Confused About the Civil War.)

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