A New Season; Lost Harbingers of a Chesapeake Spring

Could you find tuckahoe if you had to? Know when to hook up with a herring? If you’re like most of us, the answer is probably “no.” All our modern conveniences and gadgets insulate us from a world our ancestors knew. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy central air and Google as much as the next guy, but sadly, somewhere along the journey from the days when we’d be hitching up the old ox for plowing fields to modern lives that migrate from one building to another, an important part of the human experience–being a part of nature rather than apart from nature–has been lost.

Come spring, you might notice daffodils’ brief appearance and, perhaps, the return of the robin red-breast or some other creature you see through panes of glass. But there are so many more harbingers of spring, telltale signs of renewal, that our predecessors looked forward to every year.

Spring 1

Daffodils bloom near Bruton Parish Church at Colonial Williamsburg

The birthing season
Sheep were once common livestock from barrier islands to the Blue Ridge Mountains and beyond; they were versatile beasts, providing both wool for clothes and meat for the stewpot. In late winter, after five months’ gestation, ewes gave birth to anywhere from one to three lambs. Pastures once danced with the animations of lambs that would soon feed and clothe Chesapeake families.

Spring 3      Spring 4

Lambs and ewes at Colonial Williamsburg

Changing rhythms, changing lives
The folkways crafted by the Chesapeake Bay’s pulse is vanishing. Life once revolved around the natural rhythms–night and day, ebb and flow, warm and cold–but few people recognize these patterns, much less live by them anymore. Right about now, for instance, watermen are hauling long poles, whole pine trees, out to be driven deep into the floor of the Chesapeake Bay. Their nets will feed feed thousands of people. Said Pulitzer Prize winner William W. Warner in Beautiful Swimmers: “Those who carry them are practitioners of a dying art, pound net fishing, that once was practiced from New England to the Florida Gulf coast.”


A Chesapeake Bay waterman fishing a pound net at sunrise. Courtesy of Jay Fleming, who has a blog with many more magnificent photographs of watermen working the Bay: Jay Fleming Photography.

Run, fish, run
Winter diets of salted meats and dried vegetables had long overstayed their welcome, and in some cases vanished altogether, by the time spring showed up. The year’s first fresh protein from the water was a welcome change. Colonial Virginian Robert Beverly, Jr. wrote of innumerable shad, rockfish and sturgeon. Herrings, he said, “come up in such abundance in their brooks and creeks to spawn, that it is almost impossible to ride through without treading on them.” Overfishing and environmental destruction have made these abundant fish runs all but a distant memory.

Spring 7

Shad being cooked by the old method of “planking”

Long journeys
Some birds come and some birds go, following an age-old migratory pattern hard-wired into their biology, and this movement signals larger changes. The return of the osprey foretells of the fish and crabs that will be not too far behind them. About the same time one million swans, ducks and geese that spend winter in the Chesapeake Bay fly north to distant breeding grounds. Hardly anyone notices these patterns anymore, though. We’re too isolated from the natural world and our sculpted landscapes that offer food and harbor no predators have in some cases erased migrations altogether, as with the tens of thousands of Canada Geese who stay around all year.

Spring 8    Spring 6

L: An osprey on its nest; R: A few of the Chesapeake’s tens of thousands of resident Canada Geese

Wild edibles
The greening of the landscape to us means little more than pleasant view after a few months of bare branches. Americans accustomed to fresh greens on demand have little appreciation for the wild edibles that come alive in spring: Jewelweed, wild lilies and violets, to name a few. Coveted plants like these foreshadowed long months of plenty.

Spring 5

Tuckahoe, once a staple food.

The night sky
Most people appreciate fair spring days, but they neglect that the nights are special, too. If you can escape the artificial light that illuminates the modern night, spring’s arrival brings constellations that can best be viewed during this season in the Northern Hemisphere: Bootes, Cancer, Crater, Hydra, Leo and Virgo.


Virgo; © T. Credner & S. Kohle, AlltheSky.com


About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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