Beginnings: Nick and Margaret’s Place [Southern USA]

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By Tom Horton

Tom has been writing about his native Chesapeake Bay for half a century.

If I were the Choptank River, it’s on Nick and Margaret Carter’s place I’d want to be born, to meander some 70 miles toward Chesapeake Bay, swelling from a sweetwater trickle old Nick can hop across, to my salty mouth, five miles wide down by Tilghman Island.

From the Carters’, above the reach of tides and salt, the river seeps cold and clear and steady from beneath the mossy roots of a red maple, filtering through skunk cabbage and mayapples and the soggy, sun dappled leaf decay of the forest floor.

It also originates less hospitably, from pavements and farm ditches and close clipped lawns, flowing hot, muddy and overfertilized, its myriad sources webbed into the landscape like the capillary roots of a great tree, describing a watershed nearly 700 square miles. The Carters’ is not the only beginning for this largest of Maryland Eastern Shore rivers; but it is one of its very best.

So it’s here that I bring colleagues and students to learn how watersheds work, to see how our uses of land reflect in the murky water, the loss of seagrasses, the drops in oxygen and marine life that plague today’s Chesapeake. We talk with Nick, a biologist and naturalist, about what we can do. Most important may be doing nothing.

Doing nothing to land is a powerful and rambunctious act, terrifying to our modern institutions. It howls in the face of human progress, abdicates dominion, liberates the rest of Nature, restores unruly freedom of speech to soils censored by cropping and clearing and paving. So we walk in Nick’s woods, and we talk about what he and Margaret have not done here on their 33 acres.

It’s nearing 55 years since they bought the played out sandy cornfield and scraggly, cutover woods and chose, save for a little space around the modest home, to not mow or plow or cut or pave or fertilize; rather to stand back and observe.

Through the years the wind and bluejays spread seeds from nearby pines to cover the uplands. The pines in turn made shade and humidity for oak, hickory, persimmon, gums, beech and other hardwoods to take hold. After decades the ripening soils gave rise to a burgeoning patch of rare and delicate pink lady’s slipper orchids; also rattlesnake plantain, cranefly orchid, partridge pea and crowsfoot, bracken fern, ebony spleenwort, witches butter, earth tongues… in all, the old farm’s ‘crop’ now includes more than 84 species of birds, seven different turtles, eight varieties of snake, a dozen toad, frog and salamander species, and some 200 types of native plants.

Pink lady’s slipper orchids (cropped from a photo by Peter Gorman taken in Elkins, West Virginia; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Such lists only scratch the surface of what the Carters’ dedicated inattention has wrought in their Choptank headwaters. Nick starts my Salisbury University kids off jumping up and down on the unyielding surface of the county road passing his place. They feel the land beneath their feet soften, become almost mattressy as they head down dirt driveway to forest walkway, to the uncompacted leaf duff of the seldom trod forest floor. Everywhere lie carcasses of downed, dead trees, alive with insects and fungi; and pits pock the ground where their roots have rotted.

Into this rough and complicated terrain, all but the heaviest of rains soak completely, to work through the ground to seep, cold-filtered, from the river’s bed and banks, sustaining it in all but the worst of droughts. When most of Chesapeake Bay’s 48 million acre watershed was like this, the fury of the greatest floods were damped, as were droughts. The whole system was more stable than now, when ditching and draining and paving shed rain quickly, storing little.

By now some students are thinking they’ll get by with just a way cool nature walk; but Nick is only starting. He goes from stooping to reveal a tiny Indian cucumber sprouting beneath a tree leaf to invoking the universal laws of gravity and entropy. Gravity keeps washing, eroding, scouring the soil’s wealth, pushing its vital nutrients and minerals and organic matter downhill to the sea. Entropy (technically the Second Law of Thermodynamics) says whenever work is done, some of the energy it takes is inevitably lost—not destroyed—but no longer available to do more work. In the course of eons this means the universe runs down, disaggregates—The End.

But life, if we let it, fights back, is Nick’s message. A full functioning natural watershed, cooking along with all its complex interactions of plants and animals and soils, is extraordinarily good at recycling, at reuse, at retaining its natural wealth, at building up structure in its soils and vegetation, at resisting water’s will to the sea, at staving off the dissipation of the universe.

Consider the deer antler he has just picked up. Grown and shed by a buck that was nourished by feeding on the forest, the bony tines have been gnawed by mice who will absorb its valuable minerals and pass them on to a fox, who will poop them out to nourish the plants that will feed the buck…

A watershed like the Chesapeake estuary can reach out to the very oceans to pull back the wealth of its lands, Nick says. White perch, herring, shad and other species return up their natal rivers each spring, bringing nutrients into terrestrial food webs as some die and decompose and others become food for racoons and herons.

Nick knows we can’t turn the watershed of the Choptank, which is about two thirds agricultural and six percent developed, back into untrammeled forests; but we can still do a better job of emulating natural processes on those altered lands. In a nutshell, re-complicate them: plug ditches, recreate wetlands, reintroduce beavers and their dams and ponds. Slow the flows of water, increase opportunities for nature to do its thing.

But it won’t work in the long run, Nick says. We’ll never reduce our per-capita environmental impacts enough unless we also rethink how many ‘capitas’ can live sustainably in our region. It is the essential paradox, the great taboo: ‘save the bay’, but never speak of the greatest impediment to doing so, our allegiance to endless growth, and all the rules and regulations that inevitably accompany it. It’s about more than water quality for Nick. It’s about freedom.

Location of the Choptank River