Ode to Chesapeake Bay

An appreciation of the natural beauty and wildlife of Chesapeake Bay, in prose, poetry, and song.

| March/April 1990

One evening in St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., a marriage of prose and music was celebrated in a performance called Rites of Passage. It sanctified Chesapeake Bay, perhaps all bays, even all nature. The music was composed by Frances Thompson McKay. Flutist Kitty Hay, the author’s daughter, was among the players. Here, the music must be imagined—flute, oboe, trumpet, strings, and kettledrums—and so must the voice. But not the words.  

It is, said Captain John Smith, "a faire Bay compassed but for the mouth with fruitful and delightsome land. Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places of Europe, Asia, Africa, or America, for large and pleasant navigable rivers. Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation.”

Out of the waters of the Chesapeake came a wilderness store of food—oysters, crabs, and clams; unending schools of fish; and in the glistening marshes where waterfowl fed on smartweed, wild celery, eelgrass, and sea lettuce, were muskrat, river otter, beaver, and mink. Gentle, shallow waters along a shoreline of four thousand miles seemed to invite the world in to share its riches. And the Susquehanna and its great estuary flowed with a primal energy founded in the vast, still unknown continent behind them.

It was a tidal world in motion, never the same, as we ourselves have been in motion ever since we found it, taking all we could to satisfy our needs. But can we take so much that we become strangers to the bay? Will the fishing ruin the fishermen, and the harvest of the rivers die? Can we subdue and conquer these great waters beyond their capacity to receive us?

Where the Chesapeake lies under the mists of dawn, or opens out to sunlight-shattered waters, its surface falls and rises, inhaling, exhaling, like the lungs of the living world. The bay is a state of being, a great heart pulsing with the tides, exchanging sea and river water in its veins.

Twice a day the sea mounds in and rolls its free length up the bay. Twice a day great water masses mix and change, as river waters run toward the open sea.

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