Monday, April 16, 2012

Beach Tale: SPAT! A Tale of Life on the Chesapeake Bay

From the files of “Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas”

Sunrise on Hoffler Creek
Many years ago, we moved to a home on Hoffler Creek in Suffolk, Virginia.  That creek is a tributary to The Chesapeake Bay.  The prime attraction of the home was the marsh view to include an eagle preserve across the creek.  (We never spotted even one eagle the entire time we lived there, though.  Hence this tale is not titled EAGLETS!)  Our backyard teamed with wildlife, from blue herons and egrets (called long-legged fishy-things by Native Americans) to Merganser ducks that paddled their way up and down the creek daily. Along the banks there were crabs and frogs and snakes, oh my!.  And even deer (one spotted on Christmas Eve picking its way across the marsh at low tide—the kids thought it was one of Santa’s who didn’t make it into the sleigh-pulling line up that night).  But what captured our attention and tugged on our environmentally conscious heartstrings were the oysters.
But first, a bit if historical perspective.
In the 17th century when Europeans first entered the tidewaters of what would become Virginia, they found a bay teaming with oyster beds.  So many, in fact that the Native American Indians had dubbed it “Tschiswapeki” (English pronunciation—Chesapeake) which meant “Great Shellfish Bay.”  Throughout the 19th century, oysters were such a valuable fishery that watermen called them “Chesapeake Gold.”  But by the end of the 20th century, over-harvesting, disease and pollution had nearly eradicated the oyster, reducing the population by more than 99%. 
But it’s not just the local restaurants that lost their top menu item that suffered.  The entire eco-system suffered mightily.  Oysters play a vital role in the health of the bay.  Consider that an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.  For those of you who have a pool, think how quickly it gets dirty when the filtering system breaks.  And by the start of the 20th century, the filtering system of the Chesapeake Bay was virtually non-existent.
Enter the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which realized the bay could only be restored to its former glory by restoring the oyster population.
Enter my husband and I, who volunteered do our part by becoming foster parents to 1,000 baby oysters, called SPAT.  One Saturday afternoon we went to the local nature preserve and built a float, which was basically a cage suspended off a 1’ x 2’ rectangle of PVC piping.  We sat through the demonstration on The Care and Feeding of Baby Oysters (not as hard as it sounds) and off we went home with a bag about the size of a marble bag.  We would care for them for the summer, then in the fall would bring them back where they would be loaded onto a skiff and taken out to an existing oyster reef and start the arduous task of filtering 50 gallons of icky bay water a day. 

A bag containing 1,000 Baby Oysters
Inspected by our dogs Jamaica
and Jubilee

We spent the summer caring for our babies, which pretty much required hauling a hose across the lawn to the end of the dock once a month to give the little things a bath, and to pick out all the little fiddler crabs that had crawled their way through the mesh cage and bellied up to an All You Can Eat Oyster Buffet.  Fortunately, we didn’t bother to name each of them because the attrition rate over the course of the summer was almost 80%, but I guess that’s nature. 
That Christmas, as I sat preparing the holiday menu and wanting to expand our traditions and challenge our taste buds,  a Google search suggested Oyster Stuffing.  Hmmm.  I had an entire float filled with them mere steps from my back door.  Could I slay my “babies” for dinner?  I mean, I was there foster mom.  Would that be considered “oyster-cide?”  And if so, is that a felony?  Accompanied by jail time?  Fear not, I opted for a traditional southern sausage and cornbread stuffing (now part of annual feast) and our SPAT grew up and were shipped off as planned. 
Our SPAT experience served us well on two fronts.  Not only did we contribute in a very small way to improve the environment, it was also the prompt for my first published short story, “The Tide Also Rises”, in the Chesapeake Crimes 3 anthology.  (Click here to read the opening scene starring the baby oysters.)  It just goes to show, a writer can find a story just about anywhere. 
Question for all you veteran writers out there, what event in your life have you used to launch a story? 

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