Prize-winning words from a daughter of the Chesapeake


May 27, 2001|By Sun Staff

In the past week, Stephanie Fowler has received a note from the mayor of Salisbury, her hometown. She's been on the front page of the local paper, on the TV news, and heard "from people I haven't spoken to in years -- people I didn't even know I knew."

"It's been really wild," she says. "People are like: 'That a hometown girl could do all that!' "

All that Fowler has done is win one of the largest literary prizes in the world, the annual Sophie Kerr Prize awarded to the Washington College graduate showing the most "ability and promise ... in the field of literary endeavor." Just the size of her $62,000 prize is big news, of course. But just as the award's namesake was, Fowler, 22, is a local girl. And her winning manuscript is full of the Eastern Shore tales and legends she grew up hearing.

Now, along with the congratulations, more stories are coming her way, Fowler says. It makes her think she is right to plan on staying on the Eastern Shore for the time being, to gather more tales about a place she loves. "The history and the folklore of this area are phenomenal," she says. "It is so rich."

She'll also make time for something else, she says: reading the works of another Eastern Shore writer. A woman, she just discovered in typical small-town fashion, was the best friend of the mother of someone her mother knows: Sophie Kerr.

The following is an excerpt from Fowler's manuscript, "Crossings: A Journey into God's Country." It is the cautionary epilogue to a chapter titled "Sons of the Chesapeake," which relates the long, tangled, often bloody history of the watermen who have worked the Chesapeake Bay.


An old saying exists among the remaining watermen: "If a man found the very last oyster in the Chesapeake, he'd gladly sell it to you." Truly, this is the saddest story of self-defeat yet told.

For centuries of time and generations of people, the Chesapeake Bay has been the central backbone of Maryland and Virginia's culture. It has served as a provider for living while awakening passionate loyalties that destroyed lives. So much has resulted from this body of water that lies in the middle of two states, with its arms and legs that stretch out at its sides and entangle the lands of Maryland and Virginia.

The watermen of the Chesapeake are a dying breed. Few men can now fully recall the days when thousands of oyster rigs jammed the Tangier Sound, tonging for their fill of the sweet and salty shellfish. No longer do the watermen mount machine guns on their bows, ready to stake their lives for their harvest. The sad desperate irony of their situation is that they have put themselves in this position -- the bay's plentiful harvests were not going to last an eternity, but the rapacious harvests continued with a blatant disregard for the future of their industry, and more importantly, the future of the Chesapeake.

The remaining watermen of the Chesapeake Bay rise every morning and greet the dawn on the bows of battered workboats. Their day will start earlier than the ones their forefathers saw, and their days will end long after their ancestors would have docked. But still they fight with hands thick in salt-white calluses and their burned faces still carry the sun-bleached beards of their grandfathers. Their loyalty to this never-ending work exceeds the length of light scattered by the waves, and their frustration with the looming end of their business will outlive even their grandchildren.

But the Chesapeake Bay will continue to reach into the heart of the land, and race into the Atlantic down by the Capes, sweeping past towns and cities and trying to mask its bounty below. Marylanders and Virginians, when they stand out on beaches and sandy points, inexplicably feel the infliction of decades of trauma, and when they turn their backs on the cold waters of the Chesapeake they feel lost. After all, the tragedy of the Chesapeake is one that belongs to us all, each and every one, to the last.

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