Because I hail from nearby Federalsburg, I can confidently describe the little village of Hurlock on the Eastern Shore of Maryland as unprepossessing, nothing remarkable, special for nothing much.
No reason, it would seem, ever to head for Hurlock.
Even within Dorchester County, which contains it, Hurlock’s flat farmscapes pale before the untrammeled gorgeousness of the great Blackwater marshes and the Choptank, Transquaking, Chicamacomico, Honga and Nanticoke rivers that lavish voluptuous meanderings on other county towns.
And yet, it is to Hurlock — specifically to the sprawling impoundments of its sewage plant — that every late autumn I head with my university classes around sunset to experience one of the great festivals of the Chesapeake Bay.
Gathering there nightly to rest, after foraging far-flung fields and wetlands, are hundreds of tundra swans, thousands of snow geese and Canada geese, squadrons of assorted ducks — all of it a delight for the eye and the ear. And that’s just for starters, I tell the class.
From 4,000 miles away, from across Alaska’s North Slope, the Bering Sea and the Yukon Territory the swans have come; the geese arrive from Labrador and Hudson Bay, and the ducks from prairie potholes as far off as Saskatchewan in Canada.
What a grand assemblage, as the western horizon fades from deep violet to black and the mellow, haunting halloooing of swans pierces the chill: Drawn from across the continent, the swans are headed for Hurlock. Having ridden the coattails of big northwest blows, they were likely airborne for 24 hours or more on the final leg of their journey.
It’s a bit of a conceit, this “headed for Hurlock” thing, because migrating waterfowl distribute throughout the great estuary. But I love how these hemispheric processions of life grace and enliven the humblest spots of the Chesapeake watershed.
I recall decades ago, exploring with my young daughter a tidal rivulet trickling from around Hurlock to Marshyhope Creek, the main tributary of the Nanticoke River. Pushing upstream in spots no more than a few feet wide were tiny wrigglers, baby eels returning from the Sargasso Sea, far out in the Atlantic Ocean, where all eels in North America go to spawn and die.
It remains more mysterious than the moons of Jupiter just why and how the eels do that, or how their spawn return. It is a remarkable journey, Abby understood, and she asked why they traveled so far.
Well, it’s obvious, I told her: They are headed for Hurlock.
We talked about how when I was a kid, schools of alewife and blueback herring thronged these little creeks every April, and how we spent cool spring evenings, campfires lit on the streambanks, dipping the silver fish for their fine-textured roe, salting their flesh in crocks for pickling later on.
The herring spend most of their lives in the continental seas from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas, converging annually to spawn on Chesapeake tributaries where they were born.
Headed for Hurlock. These glad phenomena of migration lend ritual and rhythm, beauty and nourishment to the most nondescript spots — shad returning in April, ospreys in March, great blue herons in February, striped bass in May, monarch butterflies passing through in October. All of these comings and goings embroider the great estuary richly, weaving it into a larger context: the Bay migration-shed.
These far travelers evoke the word synecdoche, the Greek origin of which translates as “simultaneous understanding.” Migrations imply that a returning swan or duck or osprey is more than just a lovely creature, about more than just itself.
As the presence of brook trout in a stream betokens a whole watershed in natural enough shape to foster the very cleanest, coolest water, so the return of swans to Hurlock means that any number of way stations on the birds’ long journey remain good and natural. It also means that we have a responsibility to steward our portions of the route.
So, when I head for Hurlock with my students, we are looking not just for waterfowl but also for annual proof that wider webs of habitat along their way remain intact. The mellifluous swans, the raucous gaggles of geese, the sassing ducks, all of these are mere entry points, entangling the Chesapeake’s 64,000 square mile watershed in a vaster realm.
These annual comings and goings conjure up fundamental rhythms of the Bay itself. Tides moving in and out daily, the constant two-layered movements of fresher, lighter river water flowing south on top as heavier, saltier oceanwater licks north along the Bay’s bottom. Geologically, the Ice Ages drew the oceans back into their basins as glaciers swelled, leaving just a river valley where the Bay was. Then there were brief flowerings of estuaries when warmer interglacials melted the ice and the seas gorged every nook and cranny of the coastlines. Deflating with the ice ages, swollen with the interglacials, our Chesapeake “migrates” to a geologic cadence, water making love to the land.
The landscape joins in, too, autumnally inhaling swans and geese and ducks from across the continent and exhaling them back every spring, and beckoning spawning fish from the coastal seas to thrust up every river, celebrating spring, jazzing the watershed with new life.
So, apologies for having a little fun with Hurlock, where I’m headed this very afternoon. It is not just Hurlock, but a synecdoche, both a humble glimmer in the vaster Chesapeake scheme of things and a critical nexus in the ensorcelling web of life.
By Tom Horton
Letters to Editor
Cathy Sewell says
Wonderfully descriptive article, but there is something remarkable about Hurlock—its people. I taught at the primary school there for several years and experienced the kindness, hospitality, and care of many people with lovely children. The natural resources of the area are definitely rivaled by Hurlock’s people!
Matt LaMotte says
Beauteous! This man can write!!
Louise Perry says
Beautiful writing, as always, Tom Horton. Thank you for calling our attention to the beauty and significance of the “ordinary”.
Paul Rybon says
Tom either forgot, or maybe has yet to discover, the growing numbers of sturgeon, being found and tagged in the Marshy hope. Many observers thought they were extinct in the Bay but as he chronicles, there must be something pretty phenominal about the Hurlock ‘nexus’
Katherine R. Herbert says
Thank you Tom….a breath of fresh air.
Sheilah Egan says
Oh, thank you for this love article. I think I’ll just meander that way myself and contemplate the pull of Hurlock.
Kelley Moran says
Hurlock transformed – I had no idea. No apologies necessary for this gem of an essay. A pilgrimage is in order. Thanks, Tom!
Alan Girard says
Makes me wonder what’s at risk from the planned expansion of Hurlock’s waste water treatment facility, where it’s believed treated effluent from the failing Valley Proteins rendering plant in Linkwood is currently being hauled. This effluent could be hauled in greater quantities if a draft permit is approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which is receiving public comment on the draft until March 23, 2022 and at a public hearing yet to be rescheduled. Anyone who cares about water quality and wildlife habitat in and around Hurlock should follow this closely.
Jeanette Schmick says
Enjoyed this article and enjoyed seeing the swans and geese in the fields by Hurlock as we passed through on our way to Salisbury today.