Written by Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper
Originally published in the “Parting Thought” column of A.T. Journeys Magazine
AS THE PANDEMIC TOOK HOLD OF THE WORLD, group hikes and travel to hiking destinations became less safe and so the call of the trails increasingly uncertain. But the urge to get outside transformed into a constant craving. Eventually, as we all donned masks and dug in for the long haul, I headed to my Great Grandad’s farm — the best place available for me to isolate. My family’s status where I live is rare in Black communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics tell us that less than one percent of the rural land in America is owned by people of color. My family is among that lowly statistic, having the rare achievement of inhabiting a Centennial farm — one that has been in continual existence in the same family for at least 100 years. We are now “Indigenous” here. But local legends tell us that we acquired our permanent home because of a hex placed by an innocent man who had been hung from a tree like strange fruit on this very land. at same tree still stands in my front yard today. e story goes that in the early 1900s, a Black man could still be hung and lynched from a tree, and White people would chip in appreciative donations for a particularly “good” hanging. The legend says that the last Black man hung from that tree put a hex on his executioners who then encountered a series of bad breaks — including the loss of the farm. Eventually, my Great Grandfather acquired title to that once-failing and defunct farm in Prince George’s County, Maryland — not far from the Appalachian Trail — a favorite and frequent hiking spot of mine.
And so, it was to that ancestral family farm that I retreated as my county became a COVID-19 hot spot. And, as the pandemic raged around us, I rediscovered my roots where from an early age, my playground had once been the wind, sun, sky, forests, and of course the nearby Patuxent River. It was a “home-coming” for me that helped calm some of my worries about the world. At night, as I drifted o to sleep with the sweet smell of rain in the air, the wildlife dramas in the woods played out. The eerie call of a barred owl down by the river, the growl of a bobcat, the bark of a fox, and the occasionally anguished cry of a varmint meeting an abrupt end from a nocturnal predator. As always, the nearby Patuxent remains an ever-winding water body with murky green depths that used to flood its banks and run up into the marshes where flapping fish were trapped in the shallows after those floods. My boyhood playmates and I could easily wade into the water and crouching over the struggling fish, flip them with our bare hands into buckets. In the 1960s, on hot afternoons when school was out, I used to ride with the farm workers on the backs of creaking, hard oak wood farm carts sagging under the weight of the day’s harvest towed by spluttering vintage tractors. With the sun baking my face, I would lay on top of piles of freshly cut, green tobacco looking up at the blue sky as the cart bumped along the rutted paths. I could watch the flashing hot orb of the sun winking through the tops of the backlit treetops as we trundled along. Sometimes, we would stop in the cool shade next to black pools fed by bubbling underground springs and we could drink sweet, icy-cold water that came from deep in the earth. Often in summers we slept outside under warm skies thick with lightning bugs and watched falling stars tear through the
atmosphere and wink out.
Sitting in the gloom of the last evening light waiting for the sun’s rays to die out, most often the oldsters who raised me talked about the weather — and of daytime soap operas. They spoke in awe of massive storms from decades gone by that had changed the course of the river and the contours of the land, of the incredible gale that swept away the aluminum silo from the farm and marooned it two counties to the south, and of the time winds blew so hard they thought they would lose the tobacco barn. In the dusk of hot summer evening, we would sit in makeshift shelters made from old, patched mosquito netting while my grandmother’s aged, gnarled hands would shell into a huge
glass bowl, crisp fresh peas from her garden while she watched The Ed Sullivan Show on a battered black and white TV set plugged into the house via a precarious collection of mismatched extension cords strung together.
These are among the vivid memories and values that I reclaimed — and that have helped me retain equilibrium through a deeply troubling and challenging 2020. A rediscovery of my powerful bonds to a special “place.” I have found fresh hope and determination as I have wondered and tried to envision what the new “normal” will be like ahead in 2021. Along the way, I have come to treasure and savor the simple gifts and joys of “home” and retuned myself to the natural rhythms of the earth on the land of ancestors.