For Mom’s Day, my family treated me to a visit to the Chesapeake Bay. We drove about two hours to Solomons Island, a former oystering town on Maryland’s western shore. Besides our picnic of Spanish cheese and Portugese bread, highlights included a climb up into the Drum Point lighthouse and poking around the exhibits of working boats at the Calvert Marine Museum. Maybe it’s my land-locked Midwestern youth, but just the names of Bay watercraft (crabbing skiff, drake-tail fishing launch, oyster buyboat) make me long to get out on the water. It seems to affect my daughter the same way.
I can’t get close even to dry-docked crab harvesting paraphernalia without thinking of the classic book, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay, by William Warner. As fine a naturalist as a writer, Warner weaves together natural history of blue crabs and cultural history of the harvesters who depend on them. When the book appeared in 1976, a Time Magazine reviewer called it “a piece of popular oceanography worthy of shelf space alongside Rachel Carson’s classic Edge of the Sea and Henry Beston’s Outermost House.” Warner won the 1977 Pulitzer for Beautiful Swimmers, and, also impressive, taught me how to tell a jimmie (male) from a sook (female) blue crab before I’d ever seen the Chesapeake Bay.
Beautiful Swimmers always makes me think of the person who recommended it to me: Dr. Joe Miller, long-time librarian at Yale’s Forestry School library. One of my favorite ways to relax in grad school was chatting with Dr. Miller about his latest acquisitions for the school's already-astonishing collection . When Dr. Miller heard I was moving to Maryland, he immediately thought of a book that would help me feel connected to nature and people in my new place. Following his example, I often try to give place-based literature when friends head to parts unknown. I can usually at least present a guide to nearby hiking trails or a novel set in the region's landscape, but I rarely find as intimate a portrait as Warner’s of the Bay. Years later, my relationship with the Bay is still enriched by Dr. Miller’s exceptional choice, just as my love of the book strengthens my admiration for my kind, late professor.