Thursday, August 20, 2009

Church of the Red Fox

After you got out of Washington, heading toward Baltimore, it got prettier and prettier as it got hillier and hillier. Thinking back, Maryland looked more like a classic slice of English countryside than a classic slice of English countryside actually looks today. It was horsy country, and nearly every big holding had literally miles of white rail fences, with neat paddocks and immaculate barns and outhouses….Maryland was one of our very earliest "civilized" states, I suppose, and the Englishmen who followed the Calverts had plenty of time—and not too many angry Injuns—to make it into a graceful replica of what they remembered back home in England.

—Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy

Ruark's observation about the English nature of the Maryland countryside holds especially true for the Green Spring, Worthington, and Western Run Valleys of northern Baltimore County. This is fox country. Here, on Butler Road (part of the Horses and Hounds Scenic Byway) near Glyndon, Maryland, is the lovely St. John's Episcopal Church. Or, to give it its full name, St. John's Church in the Valley, Western Run Parish.

[Sundial on the stone wall surrounding the grounds.]

The parish was founded in 1800, having previously been part of St. Thomas' Parish just to the south at Garrison. Initially, services were held in a schoolhouse, but a church was begun in 1816 and consecrated in 1818. On Christmas Day in 1867, fire came to the St. John's campus: the stone rectory, built in 1842, was untouched, but the church itself burned to the ground; only the steeple bell and the cornerstone were salvaged. Undaunted, the rector made plans to rebuild; the cornerstone was re-laid in 1869 and the new church, a stone building in Gothic-revival style with a hundred-foot spire, was completed the following year.

[Pretty as only the Anglicans build 'em.]

"Since the church’s resurrection in 1869", according to a parish history, "the membership count and activity within its walls has swung from vibrant to moribund and back several times." The account goes on to say:

…by the turn of the century the number of registered communicants had dropped to 15, and by 1915 the church had, in effect, ceased to function. Shortly thereafter, however, it was brought back to life by the unlikely influence of the Greenspring Hunt Club which moved its base of operations to Glyndon, Maryland, close by the church grounds, in an effort to find more hospitable territory for its cross-country chases. Hunters and horsemen followed, revitalizing the countryside and the church parish simultaneously.

For many years, St. John's has held a Blessing of the Hounds after services on Thanksgiving morning. The Green Spring Valley Hounds (organised 1892) assemble in a field across Butler Road to receive a blessing of the foxhounds as well as the horses and riders, all congregants praying for a safe and successful hunt. As noted in a church bulletin, members of the hunt are still active at St. John's as well as active in preserving open land in Baltimore County—one reason this area has been able to retain its rural character despite its proximity to a major city and the resulting development pressures.

[Sorry, the animals have to stay out here.]

When I'm able to travel the week of Thanksgiving, it's usually to the North American Falconers' Association field meet, so it may be quite some time before I attend the Blessing of the Hounds at St. John's. But I'll try to remember to send a prayer, pagan though it may be, for the welfare of the hunt and their quarry. Long may the chase continue.

[Carved into a timber on the churchyard's front gate: "Enter into His gates with thanksgiving."]

Sunday, August 16, 2009

photoblogging: Inner Harbor

An afternoon at Baltimore's Inner Harbor with Susan and Ellie:

Downtown skyline.

Water taxi. A flotilla of these blue-marked boats efficiently move both residents and tourists around the harbor; they make for nicely inexpensive sightseeing.

Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse. A screwpile light, it originally marked the southern approach to the Patapsco River (Baltimore Harbor is part of the Patapsco system) but was moved to Baltimore about 20 years ago; it is now part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum.

Sanitation boat—the marine equivalent of a street-sweeper. Flotsam is gathered in the wire basket at the bow.

We saw a few canoes and kayaks, but only this one rowboat. It looked like hard work, but I suppose everyone has their own idea of recreation.

One of several tugboats moored at City Pier.

The Mayor D'Alesandro, a Baltimore Fire Department boat stationed near Fort McHenry.

What so proudly we hailed. Fifteen stars and fifteen stripes.

The fishing fleet: double-crested cormorants at rest on pilings.

An osprey, one of several working the harbor.


Lost appetites

A friend of my dad's told me the following two stories yesterday:

Her ex-husband had worked at the USF&G Building in downtown Baltimore while Scarlett, the famous peregrine falcon, was in residence there. Apparently it was not uncommon for office workers in the building (especially newcomers) to return to their desks to eat, or abandon their lunches altogether, when the peregrines dined: one of the peregrines' favorite "butcher's blocks" or plucking perches was directly above the cafeteria window, and some people were put off by the blizzard of disjecta membra—feathers, gizzards, guts, feet—that fell past the window as Scarlett or her mate dismantled a pigeon.

[The USF&G Building, now the Legg Mason Building. It doesn't really lean; the Pisa effect results from my unsteady hand as I shot from a boat today.]

Another acquaintance of hers, a lifelong Baltimorean, happened to be present when a body was recovered from the Inner Harbor. As often happens, scavengers had found the body first—it was covered with dozens of blue crabs. They may be Baltimore's favorite seafood, but the lady never ate crab again.

(Happily, I have no such inhibitions.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Travel can be inspiring...or it can be merely exhausting. The kind we've done lately—commuting back and forth from Nebraska to the East Coast—is mostly the latter, which has had a negative impact on my blogging, but today I found minor inspiration in a highway sign. If the results are less than profound...well, let's just blame it on road-weariness, shall we?

I set out this morning from home: Lincoln, Nebraska. Rain falling in Lincoln ends up—either directly or by way of tributaries such as Oak Creek, Deadman's Run, Beal Slough, Haines Branch or any of several other streams—in Salt Creek (Lewis and Clark knew it as the Great Saline River), flowing northward to join the Platte River near Ashland. The Platte flows into the Missouri, which in turn flows into the Mississippi, which eventually runs past Red Stick and New Orleans before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

This evening I found myself at the headwaters of the Kaskaskia River, along I-74 just west of Champaign, Illinois. Beginning with runoff from the cornfields here, the Kaskaskia winds through the Illinois countryside (and its impoundment in two lakes) to its confluence with the Mississippi River—the French once had a redoubt there, known as Fort Kaskaskia—and so this water also reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

[To paraphrase Magritte: This is not the headwaters of the Kaskaskia River. This is a sign.]

[This unassuming pool of water is the first visible trace of the Kaskaskia. "8048", I believe, is the designation for the culvert under the Interstate from which the pool emerges.]

Tomorrow evening will find me in Oakland, Maryland, still west of the Continental Divide and therefore not part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Rain at my Aunt Shirley's place runs downhill to the Youghiogheny River, the Yock being a tributary of the Monongahela River. Where the British built Fort Prince George, the French replaced it with Fort Duquesne, and finally the British returned with Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), the Monongahela joins forces with the Allegheny River to form the Ohio; the Ohio, of course, flows into the Mississippi near Cairo, Illinois, where Union forces maintained Fort Defiance during the American Civil War. So Oakland rain, too, ends up in the Gulf of Mexico eventually.

We haven't even considered my old Montana stomping grounds—rain on the Eastern Front also goes to the Gulf—but, hydrologically speaking, this is a big neighborhood.

Most of us, most of the time, look at a map and see states, cities, major highways. But once upon a time, rivers were the highways. They had strategic as well as commercial importance. (Notice, for example, all the forts.) Americans up through the 19th century no doubt read maps in the context of river systems, a habit and skill we have mostly lost. We should get back in practice: It's still important to know where our water comes from, and where it goes—as well as what goes with it. A farmer growing corn in Illinois (or Nebraska, or western Maryland) lives both literally and figuratively upstream from the waterman in Texas or Louisiana; the chemical fog streaming from the wings of the bright-yellow crop duster I watched today will not necessarily stay on the field where it was sprayed. We're still connected by rivers, whether we pay attention to that fact or not.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Any man's death diminishes me

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…

—John Donne

I learned yesterday (HT Chas at Southern Rockies Nature Blog) of the death of Winston Branko Churchill. I'd never met him or even heard of him, though it's likely we were very distant cousins; from what I've learned of him, I suspect I'd have liked him. Certainly we had some things in common: a love of nature, an uncomfortable relationship with modern society, a taste for good coffee. We were nearly the same age, both wore our hair long, both enjoyed sharing music with others as DJs.

Like most people, he seems to have been a set of contradictions, and can be interpreted in a sympathetic or unsympathetic light: Idealist. Failed business owner. Perfectionist. Druggie. Philosopher. Recluse. Even those who were close to him cannot agree on critical questions like whether, at the end, he chose to die or simply failed to stay alive.

There are no answers here. Clearly he had friends and family, people who cared about him, worried about him, used every resource at their disposal (including the In Search of Winston blog) to try to find him and help him—but no one knows if he would have been willing to accept help. He kept a journal, but after being buried in 20 feet of snow and then soaked in the spring thaw, it could not be read. And so we who remain, whether we knew Winston Branko Churchill or not, are left with only pictures from his camera and questions about his final days.

I hope he found what he was looking for.