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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

No. 97 The smell of salt marshes at the Banks

A salt marsh has an aroma all its own. Throw in the odors of the feral horses, cattle, and sheep, that once populated the Banks, and what you remember is a smell unlike anything else you have ever known; and one you will never forget --- and especially not Mary Willis!

Mary had been born and raised at Diamond City. She left with her family and all the others after the storm of 1899. Arriving at Harkers Island with all the possessions she had left, Mary carved out a life on the south shore of the Island, less than a quarter mile from where I would later grow up. I knew her, but only as an old woman who wore a bonnet and walked with her shoulders leaning sharply forward.

After experiencing that first exodus, Mary was blessed never to need to pull up stakes again. For the next seventy years she remained at or near the very sport where the skiff carrying her family had landed early in the fall of 1899.

At first, she often was drawn to the Landing where she looked across to the southeast, and to where she had spent her childhood. It was less than five miles distant and on clear days in the spring and fall she could still see clearly the hills, and even the marshes that dotted the landscape there. Many of her family and friends, especially the men, often went back to fish or hunt or dig for clams, or just to reminisce. But for Mary such a time never came. She soon was raising a family of her own and may never have had the occasion, or the means, or maybe even the yearning, to go back to a place she knew had changed so dramatically from what she remembered.

Time passed, and old routines gave way to new ones, and none of them ever drew or sent her back to the Banks. Years turned into decades and eventually so much time had passed that she no longer gazed across the water to imagine old sights and sounds.

Then, for some reason never fully explained, when she was in her seventies, Mary went back. Her son, Willie Guion, convinced her one day to climb into his open boat, so that he could carry her again, just one more time, to what had once been Diamond City. It was a calm, almost “slick cam” Summer Day, as the two of them headed off for the half-hour boat ride across the channel and shoals, and into a small cove that was called Bells Island. From there they wound their way westward through a maize of marshes that eventually gave way to Banks Bay, and finally to the “horse pen” that marked the shore of where her home had once stood less than a fifty yards distant.

As the mother and her son moved slowly through the marshes, one more time Mary saw sights, heard sounds, and sensed aromas that she had not known for more than half a century. And as she did, the years came rushing back, and for a moment at least, she was a young girl once again; running on the shore, throwing shells in the wind, and watching horses and cattle make their way through vines and rushes.

It was there that Mary stood up in the slow moving boat and took a deep breath of the salty air that hangs like a mist around the summer marshes. Then, with a broad smile and voice that almost shouted, she turned to her son and asked, “Hon, don’t that horse piss smell good?

[p.s. When my children are coming home after having been away for extended periods, they sometimes mention that they lower the windows in their car as they approach the North River Bridge, just so they can smell the marshes!]

1 comment:

  1. Joel,
    Sometime I can still find that familiar smell in my mind. I know why you all love to call Down East Home!
    Scott Blake