Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Beautiful Writer

“Got a pot full right off, did you, Grant?”
“Right smart of crabs, right smart of crabs.”
“Crabs are moving. That time of year. They’re out here on the bar, all right.”

This interchange between Chesapeake Bay watermen seems heartbreakingly antique in a year when the governors of Virginia and Maryland are seeking federal disaster assistance for fishermen hit by harvest limits as blue crab numbers continue to plummet. It gains added poignancy when you learn, as I did today, that the passage’s author, William Warner, died this spring. Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay won the 1977 Pulitzer for nonfiction and introduced me to the region where I seem to be spending most of my adult life.

I’m not sure whether I love it most for eloquent descriptions of Callinectes sapidus, the colorful crustaceans scuttling across every page, or for folksy humor as reflected in such chapter titles as “Lester Lee and the Chicken Neckers.” It’s a naturalist’s book certainly, brimming with biological and ecological insights into a place Warner awards a “summa cum laude in estuarine production.” It’s also a reader’s book as Larry McMurtry asserts (quoted in a Washington Post obituary), saying Swimmers “has grace, wit and clarity, on top of a real strength of feeling; were one not inclined to read the book to find out about crabs and watermen, one would still read it merely for its sentences."

A New York Times obituary offers further details into Warner’s mulitifarious background as a dinosaur hunter, ski lodge proprietor, Smithsonian magazine founder, and early Peace Corps volunteer. But my favorite tribute to this favorite author came from a another writer devoted to the “benign and beautiful waters” of the Bay, Kent Mountford. Kent finds comfort in the timing of Warner’s demise, concluding, “The hidden blessing may be that he could not witness the failure of succeeding politicians and citizens to act decisively for the Bay nor the present decline of his beloved commercial crabbing way of life.”

1 comment:

Dave Coulter said...

Warner sounds like he was quite a spirit. I don't know if I can take any good oceanic might drive me crazy here in the midwest!