Mud at Port Isobel, VA

Josh Falk (fourth from left), then a Chesapeake Bay Foundation educator, mudlarks with a group of students and their teacher on Port Isobel Island, VA, in the early 2000’s.

After three years in the literal middle of Chesapeake Bay, doing outdoor education from Smith Island for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation during the late 1980s, I decided that if forced to sum up the experience in a word, that word would be “mud.”

“Hard to forget this place once you get mud ’tween your toes,” the islanders would say. Muddy shoes, muddy clothes, muddy canoes; mud so thick and black and all-encompassing I could only see my students’ eyeballs after one memorable wallow in the marsh.

But in our oversanitized, divorced-from-nature modern society, mud has an image problem: “his name is mud,” “muddied her reputation,” “dragged through the mud.”

So I come to speak some words for mud and muddiness, to give a shout for ooze and slime and muck. It is a noble substance, emblematic of our great estuary’s essential shallowness; the Bay’s genius stemming in no small measure from its muddy bottom lying ever so close to its top.

The Bay’s essential shallowness — only 20-some feet deep on average — shows itself in many ways. These are just a few:

  • The rapid and efficient recycling of nutrients between the bottom and top of the shallow water column supports a biological productivity unmatched by most of the Earth’s waters.
  • The Bay, being so “thin,” has precious little volume to dilute and absorb polluted runoff from a 64,000-square-mile watershed, so wise land use is critical to water quality.
  • Winds easily shove Bay waters to and fro, on many days dictating the highs and lows of tides more than the pull of moon and sun. It also means that hurricanes can cause monumental storm surges.

Which brings me back to mud — and “mudlarking,” a word I have always delighted in, much underused and underappreciated. According to Bernard L. Herman, a University of North Carolina professor, the term first surfaced in journalist Henry Mayhew’s 1851 book, London Labour and the London Poor. Mudlarks were the urchins of London, mucking along the tidal flats of the Thames for bits of coal, iron, rope, copper nails, gleaning the river’s shoulders at low tide to augment a desperately inadequate income.

But in Virginia, along the Bay’s Eastern Shore and the Atlantic, mudlarking had a tastier focus — the pursuit of soft crabs and peelers (soon-to-be soft crabs).

The best description of this I have seen is contained in Herman’s recent book, A South You Never Ate, which artfully combines recipes and flavors of the lower Delmarva Peninsula with its history and folklore. In the book, Herman interviews local people on the qualities of the mud they trudged through to wrest softies and peelers from their sequestration.

“Mudpots” were places with a jellylike consistency that would suck the boots off your feet; “quiver” mud is where you’d risk getting trapped to your chest. “Mud banks” were self-explanatory — slippery slopes “you could slide down just like an otter.”

“Where your tallest marsh grass is, you’re going to find softer mud. Shortest grass is going to be a harder mud. You’re going to find your crabs in your softer mud,” declares local Billy James in the book. Some carried lard tins with them to use for support so they didn’t mire down completely.

“It was a hard job,” James continues, “Some people would say, ‘well how do you do that?’ I’d say you put your weight on the foot you’re picking up. Well, that’s a pretty good trick if you can do that!”

Those who mastered mudlarking might extract 500 to a few thousand crabs on a single low tide — this back in the first half of the 20th century. Peeler pots, similar to hard crab pots, took over in the 1950s as a more efficient and easy way to fish, Herman wrote.

But the term lives on in muddy Chesapeake environs like Smith and Tangier Islands, overlapping and mingling with an even richer term, “progging.” Webster’s definition of progging is to “forage, prowl, wander about aimlessly,” but that doesn’t begin to define its Chesapeake iteration.

Over the years I’ve been privileged to accompany a few proggers along the edges of land and water, of which the Bay has several thousand miles.

We’d look for oysters, driftwood and arrowheads; for coins and bottles thrown from British warships centuries before; for broken Colonial china; for the tracks of otter, muskrat and fox; for black duck nests or baby terrapins crawling from their nests; for pieces of bone.

“Prog,” pronounced with a long “o,” as in “probe,” (not the dictionary’s recommended short “a,” as in “Prague”) is also used figuratively — not necessarily involving mud — by speakers of Chesapeakese. “I wouldn’t crave the world if I could prog around in them electronics,” a Smith Islander said to me back in the 1980s as she eyed my “newfangled” IBM PC.

There’s more to progging, to mudlarking than I can easily describe. Perhaps the French noun, flaneur, comes closest: a wanderer about the city, sauntering, strolling, keenly observant of everything from architecture to litter to social mores. It is a state of mind, a way of being webbed wonderfully into one’s surroundings, not hurrying past them as we harried moderns are prone to do.

In sum, dear reader, I hope I have muddied your understanding of the Bay. 

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.

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