Tundra swans

After feeding in nearby farm fields, tundra swans settle in for the night on a treatment plant lagoon in Hurlock, MD. (Dave Harp)

Because I hail from nearby Federalsburg, I can confidently describe the little village of Hurlock on the Eastern Shore of Maryland as unprepossessing, nothing remarkable, special for nothing much.

No reason, it would seem, ever to head for Hurlock.

Even within Dorchester County, which contains it, Hurlock’s flat farmscapes pale before the untrammeled gorgeousness of the great Blackwater marshes and the Choptank, Transquaking, Chicamacomico, Honga and Nanticoke rivers that lavish voluptuous meanderings on other county towns.

And yet, it is to Hurlock — specifically to the sprawling impoundments of its sewage plant — that every late autumn I head with my university classes around sunset to experience one of the great festivals of the Chesapeake Bay.

Gathering there nightly to rest, after foraging far-flung fields and wetlands, are hundreds of tundra swans, thousands of snow geese and Canada geese, squadrons of assorted ducks — all of it a delight for the eye and the ear. And that’s just for starters, I tell the class.

From 4,000 miles away, from across Alaska’s North Slope, the Bering Sea and the Yukon Territory the swans have come; the geese arrive from Labrador and Hudson Bay, and the ducks from prairie potholes as far off as Saskatchewan in Canada.

What a grand assemblage, as the western horizon fades from deep violet to black and the mellow, haunting halloooing of swans pierces the chill: Drawn from across the continent, the swans are headed for Hurlock. Having ridden the coattails of big northwest blows, they were likely airborne for 24 hours or more on the final leg of their journey.

It’s a bit of a conceit, this “headed for Hurlock” thing, because migrating waterfowl distribute throughout the great estuary. But I love how these hemispheric processions of life grace and enliven the humblest spots of the Chesapeake watershed.

I recall decades ago, exploring with my young daughter a tidal rivulet trickling from around Hurlock to Marshyhope Creek, the main tributary of the Nanticoke River. Pushing upstream in spots no more than a few feet wide were tiny wrigglers, baby eels returning from the Sargasso Sea, far out in the Atlantic Ocean, where all eels in North America go to spawn and die.

It remains more mysterious than the moons of Jupiter just why and how the eels do that, or how their spawn return. It is a remarkable journey, Abby understood, and she asked why they traveled so far.

Well, it’s obvious, I told her: They are headed for Hurlock.

We talked about how when I was a kid, schools of alewife and blueback herring thronged these little creeks every April, and how we spent cool spring evenings, campfires lit on the streambanks, dipping the silver fish for their fine-textured roe,  salting their flesh in crocks for pickling later on.

The herring spend most of their lives in the continental seas from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas, converging annually to spawn on Chesapeake tributaries where they were born.

Headed for Hurlock. These glad phenomena of migration lend ritual and rhythm, beauty and nourishment to the most nondescript spots — shad returning in April, ospreys in March, great blue herons in February, striped bass in May, monarch butterflies passing through in October. All of these comings and goings embroider the great estuary richly, weaving it into a larger context: the Bay migration-shed.

These far travelers evoke the word synecdoche, the Greek origin of which translates as “simultaneous understanding.” Migrations imply that a returning swan or duck or osprey is more than just a lovely creature, about more than just itself.

As the presence of brook trout in a stream betokens a whole watershed in natural enough shape to foster the very cleanest, coolest water, so the return of swans to Hurlock means that any number of way stations on the birds’ long journey remain good and natural. It also means that we have a responsibility to steward our portions of the route.

So, when I head for Hurlock with my students, we are looking not just for waterfowl but also for annual proof that wider webs of habitat along their way remain intact. The mellifluous swans, the raucous gaggles of geese, the sassing ducks, all of these are mere entry points, entangling the Chesapeake’s 64,000 square mile watershed in a vaster realm.

These annual comings and goings conjure up fundamental rhythms of the Bay itself. Tides moving in and out daily, the constant two-layered movements of fresher, lighter river water flowing south on top as heavier, saltier oceanwater licks north along the Bay’s bottom. Geologically, the Ice Ages drew the oceans back into their basins as glaciers swelled, leaving just a river valley where the Bay was. Then there were brief flowerings of estuaries when warmer interglacials melted the ice and the seas gorged every nook and cranny of the coastlines. Deflating with the ice ages, swollen with the interglacials, our Chesapeake “migrates” to a geologic cadence, water making love to the land.

The landscape joins in, too, autumnally inhaling swans and geese and ducks from across the continent and exhaling them back every spring, and beckoning spawning fish from the coastal seas to thrust up every river, celebrating spring, jazzing the watershed with new life.

So, apologies for having a little fun with Hurlock, where I’m headed this very afternoon. It is not just Hurlock, but a synecdoche, both a humble glimmer in the vaster Chesapeake scheme of things and a critical nexus in the ensorcelling web of life.

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.

(1) comment

1979cdmiller

Beautifully written and one of the reasons I love The Bay.

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