by Marty LeGrand
The writer renowned for documenting the decline of the Chesapeake's wild places has suddenly found himself with too much wildlife. Beavers have been chomping down the young trees around Tom Horton's new eco-friendly house on Maryland's Eastern Shore at such an alarming clip that he has hired a trapper to relocate some of them.
"We got eight out of this front yard, one of 'em sixty pounds," Horton told me, gesturing in the direction of a marsh-fringed stretch of the Nanticoke River he now shares with the thriving critters. Mind you, there were other houses--with trees--on either side of Horton's in this tiny rural community, a former riverboat stop near Sharptown, Md.; the beavers, however, seemed especially enthusiastic about Horton's young lumberyard.
It was a breezy late summer morning and the marsh grasses were nodding outside as Horton and I sat down in his living room to drink coffee and talk. Given his druthers, Horton might have been out there, paddling among the grasses, but on this day, the acclaimed environmental journalist and author had agreed to sit still and become the interviewee for a change.
Thirty-five years of writing about the Chesapeake have made Horton the Bay's most polished voice and its most respected sentinel, at the same time earning him a national reputation for eloquent environmental reporting. He'll acknowledge he's become known as the Bay's spokesman, but don't call him its "self-appointed conscience," as one newspaper columnist did. Horton still bristles at the implied conceit of the description. Truthfully, he doesn't think the "spokesman" title fits very well, either. "That may have been more true back when I started than now, when we've got so many damned spokesmen," he said with typical bluntness. "What we need are more people who get things done."
A dozen years have passed since the publication of his breakthrough book, An Island Out of Time, which famously chronicled his family's nearly three-year sojourn on remote Smith Island, Md. Had his publisher's predictions of its success proved true, Horton might have been thrust into the literary orbit of bestselling author. In 1996, W.W. Norton & Company believed the book had prime-time potential--perhaps a successor to another Bay classic, William Warner's Beautiful Swimmers. Indeed, the book sold well enough--and received a favorable 200-word review in the New York Times--but failed to take off in a big way, unlike another of Norton & Company's new titles, The Perfect Storm, which propelled author Sebastian Junger to nationwide prominence. Still, the 62-year-old Horton is just as pleased to have landed back on the banks of the river that raised him--in a place where passing the crudites means watching the beavers devour your landscaping. "They're doing pretty damned good," Horton grumped, half-good-naturedly.
As we sat, Horton talked about his career, his Eastern Shore roots, his latest environmental crusade and a possible new book that might have some of his faithful readers scratching their heads.
I'd heard that Horton was not one for corporate dress codes. Some years ago, the story goes, when Horton was working for the Baltimore Sun, photographer David Harp wanted to introduce himself to the young environmental writer. Arriving at Horton's desk, Harp found only a pair of jumbo-size lime-green sneakers, oozing mud. The morning I interviewed him, the lanky author was wearing gym shorts and a gray T-shirt. His dark hair, graying at the temples, was tousled and a trace of stubble framed his long chin. The armchair in which he was seated couldn't hold all 6 feet 5 inches of him, so his sinewy arms and long legs--nicked and scarred from various mishaps--jutted overboard.
Horton has blazed his own trail. He spent three decades as a globe-trotting environmental reporter and columnist for the Sun. He's authored seven books, including two other works about the Bay (Bay Country and Turning the Tide) and several collaborations on volumes of Bay photography. His pieces have appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Smithsonian, Audubon and Rolling Stone (for which he wrote a lengthy examination of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989). While his calling has taken him from the edge of Antarctica to deep within the Amazon rainforest, Horton remains a homebody at heart. A self-professed "marsh mucker," he loves to explore the solitary places where land and water merge, often in the company of fellow mucker, kayaking buddy and friend of 30 years, Don Baugh, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's vice president for education. "Tom has the three requirements of a good marsh mucker," said Baugh when I talked with him several weeks later. "He has long legs; he knows where to step; and he knows to keep moving."
Horton and his wife Jenny have fashioned a comfortable nest on the Nanticoke--a river well suited for mucking, or, as it's known on the Eastern Shore, progging. Jenny serves as a trustee for two of the state's most influential environmental groups, and the Hortons have tried to tread softly on their corner of the Bay, building a solar-paneled, "green"-landscaped home where another dwelling once stood. (Horton, a regular contributor to CBM, wrote about the house's design in the October 2007 issue.) The place is decorated in the same spare, elegant and economical style that is the hallmark of his prose. A flock of sleek carved waterfowl perch behind the living room sofa. Photographs of Eastern Shore waterscapes grace the walls.
One of these elegiac images depicts the object of his boating affection--a Nanticoke River shad barge. As we discussed it, Horton suddenly took flight from his chair and loped across the room to show me this vision of endangered boatbuilding beauty. As he spoke, I recalled that he had described shad barges in his first book, Bay Country, a collection of essays that earned him the New York Museum of Natural History's John Burroughs Medal for nature writing in 1987. Later, I looked up the passage. Just listen to it sing: "The men who work the river here are close kin to the tongers of Roaring Point, but they float on calmer waters in smaller, graceful craft, deftly setting fragile skeins of net to drift through the river channels, to fill its folds with bright silver. It is a lovely, primitive sight, this annual ritual of man and net and river, which takes place as the bottom-land forests are profligately minting fresh, tender greens, currency to atone for skinflint winter's poor wages."
Now the shad fishery has disappeared and only one builder still makes the barges, which featured low, wide washboards to accommodate their skipper's nets. "I love the concept of a wooden boat, but I'm not much for fixing 'em up," Horton admitted. He thinks instead he might commission a scale model. "Maybe I'll use it in the bathtub."
If there's one object that seems out of place in the Hortons' living room it's the portrait labeled Gallus domesticus. Why is there a likeness of a barnyard chicken above the mantel? Well, it's because there are two Tom Hortons. In addition to the well known environmental writer, Horton is equally the duck-hunting, straight-talking, former poultry farmer (who, if he were speaking these lines in his Eastern Shore-drenched baritone, would drop all the g's). The two Toms are not as contradictory as they might seem. Horton writes so passionately about preserving the Chesapeake's endangered resources because he grew up with them. His childhood is the baseline by which he measures the Bay's health.
Raised in Federalsburg, Md., just 17 miles upriver from where we sat, Horton observed the Eastern Shore's natural cycles and lived its cultural rituals as a boy. He caught shad each spring on Marshyhope Creek, the Nanticoke's northwest fork, proudly stringing his catch around the handlebars of his bicycle for the trip home. He shivered in duck blinds along the Honga River with Hooper Island watermen--his frequent boyhood companions--waiting to blast waterfowl out of the winter sky. And he spent long hot nights in his father's darkened chicken houses catching as many as 8,000 frantic, clawing birds before daybreak for the Caroline Poultry Company to kill and process.
Horton's mother left a job as the first woman reporter on Maryland's Eastern Shore to raise three children. He recalls his improvised playpen: a steep-sided cart in which his mother hauled chicken feed and baby Tom. "My mom must have wondered what the hell she was doing, feeding chickens and watching a brat. She must have thought she took a wrong turn somewhere." It was she who instilled in him a love of language, even though his childhood reading included Marvel comics, Walt Disney comics (everything from Scrooge McDuck to the Fantastic Four) science fiction and Westerns. "I read every comic book ever written. I've still got boxes of comic books up in crawl spaces."
Horton initially followed his dad into the poultry business. Graduating from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in economics, he was managing an Indiana poultry farm in pursuit of his dream job--"chicken magnate"--when the Vietnam War intervened in 1968. "I was shopping for a Corvette when my draft notice came up," recalled Horton, whose preferred transportation is now his sea kayak, his bicycle and his Prius--in that order. Eager to avoid a free ride to Southeast Asia, he enlisted in the Army but parlayed a college language class into a non-combat job in Ethiopia as an Arabic translator (actually an electronic spy) for the military arm of the National Security Agency. The dialect he learned was, of all things, Iraqi. In Ethiopia, he deciphered code, helped the locals start a chicken farm, worked on the Army newspaper and, in the end, changed jobs. "I found out I could write. It made me think, s---, maybe I could do this." His stint in the Third World also convinced him that maintaining a Corvette lifestyle no longer mattered. "There, you see someone who's got a goat and the shirt on his back and he's doing okay. It's so relative, this whole thing of what's enough."
In 1972, Horton became a general assignment reporter for the Sun. After several years covering cops, writing obituaries and staffing the rewrite desk until 2 a.m., he took over the paper's consumer beat, which in a post-Earth Day world included reporting on the environment two days a week. "I think you could count on your fingers the number of full-time environmental reporters [in the country then]," he said. The Sun granted its new writer extraordinary free reign, and Horton soon was tramping all over the Bay--in his colorful footwear--quizzing a generation of bright young ecologists as wet behind the ears as he. "In retrospect I hit it just perfectly," he said. "I love the Bay. I love to be out on the Bay and beginning in the mid-seventies everyone was getting concerned about the Bay. It was a very stimulating period."
He wrote about the decline in rockfish, covered Greenpeace protests and opened readers' eyes to worlds they never knew (or perhaps didn't want to know), like the inner workings of the world's most high-tech sewage treatment plant, Blue Plains, in Washington, D.C., and the return of migrating herring to Rock Creek, a Potomac River tributary that courses through the nation's capital. He was the only reporter there one spring day in the late 1970s to watch the bony little fish resume an ancestral journey that had been blocked by a series of dams then recently dismantled. "It kind of astounded me with all the media in Washington, D.C., that no one covered that," he says. "That there even is a herring run is huge news. It was one of the best breaking news stories I ever did. It would never win an award for breaking news, but it should."
After "scooping" the competition on this momentous event--in the presence of a couple of kids who "didn't know a herring from a mako shark"--Horton clomped over to the Sun's Washington office to type up his story. "I walked into the K Street bureau in my hip boots, which bummed those guys out." Not only did the other reporters not wear hip boots to the office, Horton noticed, the political reporters' notebooks were also a hair shorter than his, "so the flap on their suit coat would close over it. That's your Washington bureau."
If Horton's attire occasionally dismayed his buttoned-down colleagues, his reporting didn't always endear him to his old pals, Eastern Shore watermen, either. A Nanticoke River gill netter, angered by Horton's "g-- d--- articles about shad fishing," once suggested a nighttime rendezvous to discuss the fishermen's objections. Anticipating the meeting's true nature, Horton brought reinforcements. "There were four of them and three of us." Fortunately, the encounter came only to verbal blows. "He called me a black-headed S.O.B., which is what you called anyone who wasn't blond." In editing Horton's account of the incident, the Sun botched the insult in print, however: "They translated it as 'block-headed S.O.B.,' which I thought was worse."
Then there was Horton's opening bid to woo his first wife, Cheri, a city girl who'd never ventured much farther east than the Tidal Basin: "I picked her up at two-thirty one morning to take her to Hoopers Island to go pound-netting." He thought it a fun thing to do, but conceded later that it was probably a shock for her. She married him anyway a few years later. In 1987, Cheri Horton deferred her career in social work so her husband could take leave of reporting and, as he put it, "move on to smaller endeavors" on the far side of the Bay. (She used to tell friends that as soon as he reached the Bay Bridge's eastbound lanes, "a new Tom emerged, a calm Tom.") Taking a sizeable pay cut and the biggest leap of his life, Horton accepted his friend Don Baugh's offer of a job teaching kids on Smith Island at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's environmental education center. He and Cheri, their son Tyler and daughter Abby moved from Maryland's biggest city to an island of 500 strangers.
During his first year on Smith Island, Horton didn't consider writing a book, even though he'd been reporting its stories for nearly a decade. Dwight Marshall, a crabber, and his wife Mary Ada, who cooks for the environmental education center's staff and students, lived next door to the Hortons. "We didn't really know who he was at the time--that he was a writer," Mary Ada Marshall told me when we chatted over the phone one morning. The afternoon before I had interrupted her dinner preparations for 20 people. Now she was up to her elbows again, but said pleasantly yet firmly, "I can give you ten minutes." She remembers being favorably impressed from the start with the friendly off-island couple whose home was always open to neighborhood children.
Part of Island Out of Time is told in the words of islanders like the Marshalls (one review called these sections "the strength and the weakness of the book"), but the rest is Horton at his best, evoking the beauty of the evanescent island and its hard-working inhabitants: "[Smith Island] is more than surrounded by water, it is perfused by water, run through as no other bay landscape by hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles of marshy creeks . . . resembling nothing so much as a sea nettle, or jellyfish, pulsing rhythmically with the tides that squish through its every pore."
"It was almost eerie reading it," said Baugh, who knows the island well. "He nailed it. It's an epic book."
An Island Out of Time was generally well received by the tight-knit community it held up for public inspection--but not universally so, according to Mary Ada Marshall. "He made some enemies writing the book," she said, including one family who resented being referenced by a nickname. (Horton acknowledges using generic names for composite characterizations.) "They didn't like that," said Marshall, who called the book 85 percent accurate. "Some descriptions were a little bit off the beaten path."
Life after Smith Island brought heartbreak for Horton. Following the family's move to the Eastern Shore mainland, Cheri succumbed to lymphoma in 1997 after battling, and nearly overcoming, the disease. She died just days after her husband's return from a kayak trip and only a few months after an exam appeared to show her cancer-free. Reminded of his now-poignant acknowledgment to his then-healthy wife in An Island Out of Time ("Hang in there, babe, I know I promised the nineties would be your decade . . ."), Horton forced a grim smile. "Yeah, you never know how things are gonna work out." Horton's "athlete's toughness" (as Baugh puts it) helped him cope with Cheri's passing as well as his new role as single parent. He still retains doubts about the latter. When asked about Abby's and Tyler's adjustment to their mother's passing, Horton scratched his right elbow nervously and wondered aloud whether his stoicism helped or hurt them.
Horton rues the fact that neither of his children got to experience the Bay as he did--catching shad, hunting plentiful ducks, communing with watermen. "The Bay was in pretty good shape when I was a kid. The big changes have come in my lifetime--and they've been pretty swift and sudden," he says of the estuary's oxygen-deprived water, depleted underwater grass beds and collapsed shellfish populations.And he believes he has identified the Bay's worst enemy: us.
"My passion right now is stabilizing the population," he says. Good luck, say even his biggest fans. Eight million people lived in the Bay watershed when Horton was a kid; today it's about 17 million. He views their collective impact as the Bay's 800-pound gorilla, a presence he says even conservationists are loath to acknowledge. He's agitating on several fronts: researching a paper for the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation; championing a smart-growth initiative for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy; and openly discussing the "i" word.
"When I start talking about reducing immigration, a lot of my liberal friends just sort of go silent," he said, conceding that he sometimes feels "mighty white and old boy" when addressing multiracial audiences. I suspect that parrying charges of elitism--even racism--is, to him, akin to confronting a shanty full of unhappy watermen: He'll stand his ground and hope for reinforcements. "It doesn't matter if it's watermelon pickers or rich supermodels, they're having the same impact on the Bay," he told me. "The sewer is the great leveler; shit is shit, and there's too much of it," he says.
All of this would seem to make a book he's considering writing about the poultry industry--a major poop polluter in the Bay--a radical departure for Horton. An expansion of a recent magazine article about the chicken industry on the Delmarva Peninsula, the book would tap his economics training and personal experience, tracing the chicken's evolution from jungle fowl to staple of the mega-meat-processing industry that once employed him. (He's still not certain it's a book-worthy project. "One of the reasons I haven't done another book is I haven't found an idea that excites me that much. Books are leaps of faith.")
The poultry book would not be the first time there has been a conflict between Horton's heritage and his heart. "You grow up one way--everything from killing too many ducks, illegal fishing and hunting, to farming--but through the seventies the evidence was just piling up." But pursuits like those of his youth were destroying the places he'd always loved. "My background kept me from being too strident about solutions because I had grown up with a lot of the people. Not that that made the pollution okay, but I was able to see them as industries [employing such] people. It probably didn't make me a good activist in the purest sense."
Horton's best works strive for just that: a balance between human empathy and environmental awareness. "There is not a season of the year, nor a single county, where the great blue heron does not stand watch over the meeting of land and water," Horton wrote in a 1993 article for National Geographic about the Chesapeake's precarious health. If this symbol of vigilance--the bird he calls "the lord of the edge"--has a human counterpart, it may well be Horton.