Tom Horton is a columnist for the Bay Journal, where this was first published. He teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University and has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including “Turning the Tide: Saving the Chesapeake Bay” and “An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake.”
It’s tough as you barrel along U.S. 50, Maryland’s major beach route, to glimpse the gravel pit through a screen of trees near Salisbury where I live.
But I instinctively try, November to March, because I know that flocks of tundra swans have flown to the Chesapeake Bay all the way from Alaska, and the gravel pit always seems to me like an ideal night refuge after feeding in nearby farm fields all day.
Much of the time, the swans disagree. I seldom see more than a handful there, usually none. But still, I look. It’s ingrained from a life spent hunting and nature writing.
And, then, one early January morning, the gravel pit was flecked with white from bank to bank — more than a thousand swans had come in overnight.
For the next few evenings, as a waxing moon flushed full, I sneaked through the trees and bathed in the sight and sound of wild swans and their haunting music swirling down all around us — one of those minor miracles of the natural world. The thousands of oblivious motorists streaming by made it sweeter.
It recalled similar unexpected natural delights I’ve had, though I’m still like most moderns, way more indoors than out. You wonder what wonders we’d see, how it might change our comprehension, if we could truly live in nature.
The closest I came was the three years I lived on Smith Island, 10 miles out in mid-Chesapeake, running education trips for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
There was a magical night, triple-lit by nature as we canoed through dark marshes: fireflies winking among the spartina tips, stars reflecting softly on the silken black creek and an outrageous bloom of bioluminescent algae spouting cold fire from our every paddle stroke.
And kayaking in a fog amid terrible bolts of lightning, a quadruple rainbow crossing Tangier Sound; and a day coming up the bay from Tangier Island when my skiff’s wake seemed to hold on the winter-dense water forever, leaving a long trail of pastel reflections, like I was painting with the whole Chesapeake as my canvas.
And, one June, as I rested on an island beach, there came the heads of several terrapin, swimming south, and the procession continued for the better part of an hour, hundreds at least, all homing in on nesting beaches.
A waterman neighbor, whose only interest in nature, I’d thought, was what he could eat or sell, surprised me by describing in great detail the “conversations” he’d have all summer with a pair of ospreys raising their young down the creek where he crabbed.
Sometimes, magic happens where you’ve gone for years, thinking you knew the place so well. On a longtime favorite Virginia barrier beach, I watched a peregrine falcon swoop down on a migrating shorebird, a greater yellowlegs. The chase lasted for a good 15 minutes, out and back across ocean and marsh, predator and prey disappearing from my sight at times.
The highest-tech aerial displays of fighter jets and drones will forever seem clumsy compared with that day’s aerial maneuverings. Then, as if tired of playing games, the falcon ended it almost nonchalantly.
Magic struck one April morning on the lonely Transquaking River in Maryland’s lower Dorchester County, a place I’d paddled for many Aprils — but, this time, something began banging on my kayak rudder. Soon, our slender craft were encased, bow to stern, on both sides, by spawning striped bass — some of them 20 pounds or more, literally moving our kayaks, as they boiled across acres of water.
I stuck my paddle down and below it was solid fish. If someone had been netting the river for stripers then, I don’t believe they could have hauled in the net. And the Transquaking is not even listed as a significant spawning river for stripers!
Paddling in Pennsylvania, I had an unforgettable chemistry lesson coming down the Susquehanna’s West Branch where Bald Eagle Creek poured in. For days, the water of the West Branch had been crystal clear, lovely as it wound through green hills — but also dead from acid mine drainage, unable even to grow algae.
Where Bald Eagle Creek’s milky blue limestone water poured into the larger river, it neutralized the acid, and life came back quickly, great blue herons plucking minnows from the shallows.
Close to home
You needn’t travel far to see magic. Biking a logging trail near home, past a drab stand of pines, sunlight kindled an emerald pool, where it struck an extraordinary patch of thick moss.
Peering down at the concrete culvert that runs through a dilapidated neighborhood, I saw silvery schools of American shad, come all the way “home” from the continental shelves to spawn in downtown Salisbury.
And pruning bushes along the busy city street where I live, a magnificent bald eagle last summer swooped across the hoods of stalled traffic, angled between two dumpsters and ever so neatly snatched a doomed squirrel.
There was the howling, clacking, moaning and flapping I walked into one dark morning through a Potomac River forest — a savage din toward which I’d have proceeded far more tentatively if I hadn’t known it was a massive heron breeding colony.
And the deer that came crashing through a wooded swamp where I’d paddled my kayak into brushy, briary headwaters that I fancied no kayak had ever reached. Hotly pursued by a rutting buck, the trembling doe stopped feet from my kayak. Our eyes met. Had it even briefly looked like a viable escape to her, I am certain she would have come aboard.
These days you can watch web videos of a wounded fox defying a pack of lions and orcas eating the livers of great white sharks — amazing natural events worldwide. But these online views lack the thrill of discovery; the wonder’s not there.
It’s here, all around, if we take the time. If we get outside.