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Book Review : Writing of Mice, Men and Wilderness

November 25, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Bay Country by Tom Horton (Johns Hopkins University Press: $16.95; 223 pages)

Tom Horton writes prose. It is clean, sinewy prose that goes on holiday every few pages and cuts various beribboned capers. But in every other respect, this Maryland journalist is a poet, as well as a publicist for our most precious primal stew: the East Coast wetlands.

Wetlands--marshy, reedy and laced with blurred river deltas--are life as perpetual negotiation. Negotiation between sea and land, between freshwater and salt, between river sediment and ocean tide, between germination and decay, between man and nature. They are the great trade emporia for the commerce that has to do with our world's replenishment and renewal.

Horton, too, is a wetland. He is not for dramatic statements (except quiet ones) or radical alternatives. His writing is itself a perpetual negotiation; he loves wilderness and he also loves the shaping gestures that mankind has made upon it for all the centuries before powerful technology turned each gesture into an obliterating Gulliver's footprint.

Horton prizes the diminishing rockfish and the watermen who have been hastening the diminishment. He prizes unspoiled countryside, but he observes that the first wild hatching of peregrine falcon chicks in recent memory took place upon a 33rd-floor ledge of the U.S. Fidelity and Guaranty building in downtown Baltimore. Cities, he writes, "concentrate pigeons and rats, candy to peregrines, better than nature could."

Draining a Large Area

The Chesapeake Bay, resolutely mild, very shallow, and draining an area that stretches from Upstate New York to North Carolina, is one of the great centers of wetland-style negotiating. Horton knows it intimately, as a writer on the environment for the Baltimore Sun; but "Bay Country" is as much a product of his current leave of absence as of his previous presence.

Some of his longest thoughts, with their paradoxical and speculative doublings-back, needed the leave.

"After trotting faithfully by my side across half the city," he writes, "my themes like half-wild animals balked at entering the newspaper office building with me. I suppose they knew that clapped into journalese, digested by newsroom computers, and sieved through the brains of editors, they would risk emerging tame as lap dogs."

Horton is never tame; on the other hand, he is no wilderness freak. He values a balance between civilization and nature; he revels in the edges of things. Deer are more plentiful, he writes, when woodland alternates with farmland; they thrive on edges, particularly when one edge is a corn field. He champions the rockfish--non-Marylanders know them as striped bass--against the bluefish, because the former spawns in shore inlets, while the latter spawns out to sea. Rockfish "inhabit us."

"Bay Country" is a collection of short essays whose subjects ramble widely even if their twin themes of balance and decay hold steady. Horton writes of vanishing elm trees, whose most special quality he finds in the shape of light patterns in their branches. He writes of the jellyfish that clot the Chesapeake in some seasons. He has nothing good to say about jellyfish; on the other hand, they were there first, so he gives one of them a speaking part: "I can't believe we are not part of some grander design of nature that may or may not include humans."

He writes of the wooded median strips in the interstate highway system, and he concludes wryly that they may turn out to be--given the highway mania--our most securely protected bit of green space. He writes of herring runs and the much-diminished shad runs, and goes on to discuss shad bones. Unable to remove the bones, some cooks stew a fish in wine for six hours so as to melt them. He quotes one chef's objection: "This used to be a shad . . . what is it now? I will tell you: it is a pickle."

Clean but Sterile

He visits a huge Potomac water-purifying plant and concludes that the product is clean but sterile; and will only hasten the death of the natural environment by encouraging more housing. He writes an essay entitled "The Short, Important Trip of Oysters" (they move 10 inches or so to find a current that will take them to a new bed); and another on the community of Baptist crabbers on Smith Island.

He writes of an 84-year-old Bay poet who makes the best of his cataracts and the misty vision they produce. "All of the girls are beautiful now." He writes of skipjack skippers and the rugged life of the winter rockfish fishermen. He writes of the replacement of a long, wonderfully rattly, wooden bridge by a new concrete affair; and of the singular invocation given by the county commissioner, who called it, in his dedicatory prayer, "a monument to man's stupidity, a monument to man's waste, a monument to governmental interference and inefficiency." The state officials were furious but, the Sun wrote: "How do you interrupt a prayer, after all, especially when the man delivering it is right?"

"Bay Country" is a book about vanishing things, and a sad one in its wonderfully sustaining way. Horton, on a visit to Martha's Vineyard--overtouristed and summer-cottaged--notices the abundance of books recalling its beauties. Such books increase as the life they commemorate dwindles.

"So I hope," he concludes, "you have enjoyed reading this book, friend, as I have enjoyed writing it. But let's have no illusions about the process we're both part of."

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