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Volume 16, Issue 2 - January 10 - January 16, 2008


Spartina: My Metaphor for 2008

A latecomer puts down tidal roots

by Sandra Lee Anderson

On January 1, I got up, washed my hair, watered the plants, started the laundry and changed the water in the fish tank. Was this some sort of instinctive, symbolic water-cleansing?

Perhaps I needed the cleansing to start a new year. 2007 was a good year. For me, the odd ones always are, but not the even ones.

In late 2007, I finished reading the novel Spartina by John Casey. It has the feel of Southern Maryland, with the crusty New England watermen making a living from the deep water, reading the winds and waves, knowing the language of the salt marshes and brackish inlets.

Spartina (pronounced SPAR-TIE-NAH) is the tall green grass that anchors in peat and tolerates the salt of the tidal flats, providing habitat for mussels, crabs and snails. It sways with the tides while holding the marsh in place. It’s a metaphor for Dick Pierce, the lobster-, crab-, fisherman of the story.

I understood Pierce’s remorse as waterfront and woods are bulldozed for new families. It’s not that his family resented selling the land: economics required it; others, Native Americans, had lost it, too; anyway, his own way of life could be gone with one hurricane, one bad year. Nor is it that newcomers are bad people; just people, more people.

Like Pierce’s Rhode Islanders whose families go way back, Southern Marylanders have had to make a way for new arrivals like myself. Charlie and I have lived in Southern Maryland five years.

Long enough to raise an eyebrow when newcomers complain about all the newer new people moving here. I’ve been graciously accepted, and intend to treat others — new or old — with grace.

Don’t expect to be coming down here and changing things, I was warned by the realtor who helped us find our house. I have issues I care about: good communities; housing for young and old who are being priced out; protecting our environment; preserving our heritage. I’ve found so many old timers with stronger feelings than mine that we could circle our wagons together.

Based on what I see now, other opinions were off base. When I looked at farms and woods, I assumed that the farms were encroaching. Now I know that’s not so. There was a time when the Calvert peninsula where I live was mostly farmland.

Given the ratio of whites to African Americans, I concluded the African Americans were newcomers. Another misconception. In 1900, there were more African Americans in Calvert County than whites, and the two were half and half in 1950.

On the flip side, what I saw when I was younger isn’t true any more. I can’t go out in a small boat with a long pole net to scoop up mating crabs, as old-timers did. Nor can I find my share of large great white shark teeth, like one I found years ago, despite many more hours of searching.

But I’ve had new experiences like eating pawpaws, fried morels and softshells. Charlie has gone through his own rites of passage, learning how to shuck oysters and to fish the rips at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.

Like the spartina, my roots down here are getting deeper; there are more people I call friends.

That brings me back to Dick Pierce. He had to shed his exoskeleton, like the crabs do, so others could help him continue to be that self-reliant piling for himself and his family.

Is that a lesson for me? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m not going to enter 2008 thinking it’s a bad year. This might be the year to break the pattern. I think I’ll make it a year to shed my exoskeleton and be more flexible, like the spartina, sensitive to what the Southern Maryland tides might bring me.


Sandra Lee Anderson visited Southern Maryland when she graduated from college and returned to St. Leonard in 2002, after retiring from D.C. Public Schools’ Department of Planning and Program Development.

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