Marshyhope Creek

The red and green hues of early spring on the upper Marshyhope Creek.

Photographer Dave Harp and I began our cool, April morning paddle (kayaks 6 feet apart, of course) down one of the Chesapeake’s biggest ditches, 120 feet wide, stretching for miles and designed to usher rainfall with superb efficiency from nearly 100,000 acres of Maryland and Delaware farmland.

A landscape of corn and soybeans and poultry could not exist without it, nor the thousands of miles of smaller ditches that feed it. Though it’s far from the Bay, deep in the interior of the Delmarva Peninsula, you could run a cabin cruiser down it.

The arrow-straight Marshyhope Ditch, which used to be the sinuous and swampy upper Marshyhope Creek, was a staple field trip for my Chesapeake Bay class at Salisbury University. On a faculty of mostly Ph.D.s, exploring outdoors is what this bachelor’s degree guy brings to the party.

Where the ditching ends, 7 or so miles upstream from Federalsburg, we can see from our little paddle-craft how nature quickly reasserts itself, foot by foot, transforming a single-purpose drainage way into a gloriously diverse non-tidal forested wetland.

The transformation is remarkably swift — the power of humans doing nothing but letting nature work, a power we too seldom exercise. The trip, which takes a few hours, makes for an excellent discussion of humankind’s penchant for straight lines and linear thinking, versus nature’s wont to maximize no single thing, just life in all of its splendor.

COVID-19 ended university life as we knew it this spring, especially the field trips core to my teaching. My scattered students Zoom in now from as far off as Boston’s Charles River. So with a departmental budget of 50 bucks (maybe) to pay the generous Mr. Harp, I filmed my first “virtual” field trip.

For me it was a lovely respite from the shuttered society of humans — “social distancing at its finest,” I exclaimed in the film; realizing even as I said it how inadequate the virtual outdoors is for students. Our modest effort won’t win any film festivals, but educationally, well ... you can view it yourself at vimeo.com/409254224.

What would have been my next socially distant field trip, were the semester not cut short, was just a few blocks’ walk from the school to Salisbury’s City Park at the head of navigation on the Wicomico River. On a moonlit, windless night in early May, one of spring’s great enthusiasms was in full swing.

You could hear them thrashing the dark waters, boiling silver in the moonbeams; legions of river herring on their annual spawning run from the ocean. Each spring, they invade every river and stream of the Chesapeake, thrusting to the uttermost capillary ends of the watershed.

The forces that drive them are cosmic, the pull of seasons and lengthening days to start, then currents, and finally the odors emanating from the rivers and streams of their birth. Their numbers are a trickle of what once handsomely fed native Americans and the birds and animals of the whole watershed — yet the annual return still flickers, perhaps to be rekindled someday.

It is a homecoming under-appreciated, seldom celebrated except by the great blue herons that stand ready to spear the bright little fish as they wiggle across a low dam and on up through the Salisbury Zoo, where a higher dam ends their journey. A woman walking her dog looked on curiously. They have come from the Atlantic Ocean, I said. She clapped her hands: “From the ocean!”

I thought back to a similar scene almost 50 years ago in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park, where I filed a whimsical “breaking news” report for the Baltimore Sun. I observed then that few denizens of the nation’s capital knew what the herring were, or what a wonderful, vital connection they were witnessing.

Half a century later, most people still don’t know. It’s glad news that generally goes unreported. I find that a troubling commentary on environmental awareness, which has made great strides in recent decades — but leaves us far too socially distant from a world with which we strive to live sustainably.

Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

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