Mr. Warner's legacy

Our view: The late writer taught us to see the beauty of a crab

May 02, 2008

The Chesapeake Bay has long been a source of inspiration to great writers. James A. Michener, John Barth, Tom Horton, Gilbert Byron. But if we had to choose one book to explain the bay's culture and ecology to a newcomer it would probably be William W. Warner's Beautiful Swimmers.

Mr. Warner died last month at 88 from complications of Alzheimer's disease, a sad event for the many readers who cherish his seminal work. The winner of the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Beautiful Swimmers was not only a wonderfully detailed examination of the life of the Atlantic blue crab but of the watermen who harvest them and the communities where they live. It is Maryland's Moby Dick with less theology and more crustacean.

How fitting that Mr. Warner's death might now serve to remind us of the importance of the crab to the Chesapeake and to the region's very identity. Recent declines in the blue crab harvest, and worrisome signs of poor reproduction, have recently caused officials in Maryland and Virginia to propose substantial harvest restrictions. As fond as Mr. Warner clearly was of those who make their living on the water, he would likely have approved of whatever measures were needed to protect the valuable species.

In Beautiful Swimmers, Mr. Warner fretted about the crab's future and wondered whether pollution, development and many decades of intensive harvest would ultimately take too great a toll. Thirty-one years later, that question seems more pressing than ever.

"Those who most appreciate [the blue crab's] beauty, I think, are crabbers and other people who handle crabs professionally," Mr. Warner wrote.

Those who love skilled, compelling exposition most appreciate Mr. Warner's beautiful book. No matter what the blue crab's fate, we won't soon forget the gifts of its biographer.

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