The Past is Alive
An interview with Merideth Taylor, author of Listening in: Echoes and Artifacts from Maryland’s Mother County.
Shortly after arriving at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 1990 to teach dance and theater, Merideth Taylor set about exploring the backroads of Southern Maryland, camera in hand. Her forays would result in a 162-page book of photos and stories – Listening In: Echoes and Artifacts from Maryland’s Mother County.
Her book consists of brief entries accompanied by color photographs of one-of-a-kind built houses, stores, schoolhouses, churches, and barns – many far from their best years. Some still function, many are in advanced ruin, and some have since been demolished. Taylor’s stories depict imagined voices associated with each structure: children of tobacco workers, the young African American janitor at the schoolhouse at Sotterley Plantation, a moonshiner, a boardinghouse operator, and many more. Some voices are in the first person, others in the third person.
What comes through, in story after story, are takes on people connected to land – by virtue of farming, hunting, fishing, and engaging in everyday activities, such as school kids collecting firewood for their one-room schoolhouse. Taylor’s ghost voices echo a culture that hadn’t yet been overtaken by shopping centers, housing developments, car dealerships, fast food, and branch banks – such as in this partial entry:
Growing up on a farm by Chesapeake Bay, life was hard, but the family had good times, too. They were sharecroppers back then and didn’t have much. . . . Their dad wasn’t big on hunting and oystering, but he was a hard worker. Every year when the tobacco market time came, he’d ride up to Hughesville with Mr. Ford, the farm owner, and come back with a few hundred dollars. He hadn’t gone past the fourth grade in school, and the family was never sure whether that money was truly their fair share. But Mr. Ford ended up selling them a little piece of land with their house on it for a price they could afford, so they figured he was basically a fair-minded man. It was hard work, and the family never had money to spend, but they loved each other. They loved being together. And they learned a lot of important lessons about life, about how to stick together and do right by people.
In the following Q&A, Taylor tells how she came to bring these echoes to the page as well the photographs that connect them to the Southern Maryland landscape.
Patuxent Tidewater Land Trust: What inspired you to make something more of your exploratory road trips in Southern Maryland? Was it an evolution of an idea or did you know from the start what you wanted to accomplish?
Merideth Taylor: I took the photographs over a period of many years with no particular use in mind other than enjoying them hanging in small frames on the wall. I was lucky enough to be able to retire in 2012, and retirement provided me with the time to explore creative pursuits I had put on the “back burner” due to a heavy workload teaching, choreographing, and directing at the College. The idea for the book simply bubbled up because I had time to relax and think.
PTLT: You’ve lived in St. Mary’s County for close to 30 years. What have you observed in terms of changes to its landscape? Have you ever retraced your routes taken in the researching of your book and, if so, what changes have you noticed in what you photographed?
MT: Thanks for asking that - it gives me a chance to rant a little. The environmental changes since we arrived in 1990 have been enormous. The county could still have been described as having a “rural character” then, if not being actually rural. Former tobacco fields were just beginning to sprout houses here and there. There were many forested areas as well as farms. Willow’s road, for example, which is our main route into Lexington Park, was wooded almost all the way from Rt. 5 to town. It is now a strip of housing developments, storage businesses, and an industrial park. It’s painful to me to drive down it now, because I feel the loss. I do drive by many of the houses I photographed, and some are no longer there. I still feel attached to the sites. But I don’t feel romantic about that loss or the passage of a way of life so much as I feel very sad about the environmental degradation and the disappearance of natural habitat. This was one of the last relatively undeveloped peninsulas on the east coast. Though there are still pockets that seem rural, suburban sprawl and strip malls are becoming dominant.
PTLT: What are some of your more memorable entries in Listening In?
MT: If you mean are there favorites, not really. I identify more strongly with some than others maybe, because they’re closer to my own experiences. There’s one on development that reflects very much what I said about the way I feel about the loss of forests, farms, and natural surroundings.
PTLT: How do you see these structures connecting with the landscape in which they were built? Is it possible these structures “belonged” in the landscape while what has been replacing them hasn’t?
MT: Not sure. The buildings I photographed had a purpose, and that was to serve family needs in a way that was affordable, and, to the extent possible, pleasing to the eye. They were pretty utilitarian, but also reflected the skill and aspirations of the builder. The owner-built homes, even though they were, by and large, traditional and relatively simple, seem to have character in a way that the tracts of uniform, big, boxy houses don’t have. They are human scale. Generally, more inhabitants shared less space. Conspicuous consumption, whether of space or objects, was not rampant as it is today. And people lived much of their lives outside. Today we have big houses with small yards because lives are lived indoors, connected to the outside world through electronic devices.
PTLT: Do you see an inevitability in what’s happening to the region’s landscape, or if not completely inevitable, then what could mitigate the losses?
MT: Since the changes are largely fueled by population growth, mitigating factors are limited. And there is a strong cultural belief that growth is good; growth is equated with progress. While, it is good that people have homes and have jobs, we are seeing now the costs of unchecked growth and consumption, and we are facing a climate crisis. We can learn to cooperate and join together to take measures to reduce our carbon footprint. Science has defined the problems and led us to potential solutions. What is missing is the political and popular will to act. So maybe the inability to overcome our political polarization is the bigger crisis. But there are many promising signs. People are beginning to recognize that, when it comes to the health of our planet, we are all affected and all connected. We are all in the same boat.
PTLT: What would you like to see people get from reading Listening In?
MT: I hope they will gain a new perspective on local history and feel a connection to this interesting place and its diverse community, and that, whether they know it well, are newcomers, or have never been here, that they empathize with the characters and relate to their experiences. Of course, I hope they will enjoy it!
Listening In was published by George F. Thompson and is distributed by University of Virginia Press. It is available through the publisher and distributor, as well as in local shops, and on Amazon. Link to the author’s page at GFT Publisher: http://www.gftbooks.com/books_Taylor.html
We went to Cambridge, MD this year.
We had a seafood lunch; we went to the Marine Museum that opened just for our group; and we walked around the town.
We are already planning where to go next year!!!.
Continued from Home Page...
The Southern Maryland land conservation organization, Patuxent Tidewater Land Trust, Inc. has proposed an expansion of the Huntersville Rural Legacy Area creating a north-south greenway across the peninsula which includes forested interior and coastal areas, headwater streams and steep slopes connecting the watersheds of the Patuxent and Potomac Rivers from Coatigan Creek to the Brooks Run branch of the McIntosh Run. The current Huntersville Rural Legacy Area comprises 8,897 acres, of which approximately 5,370 are held in conservation by PTLT and its partners. The proposed expansion would add more than 5,900 acres of agricultural and forested land protecting twelve headwater streams and associated steep slopes and wetlands across the central part of the county.
PTLT is seeking interested landowners who may want to sell a conservation easement on their 15-acre or larger parcels of land within the existing or expanded Rural Legacy Area. Properties within the Rural Legacy Area may qualify for conservation easement purchase funding through Maryland’s Rural Legacy Program (RLP). The RLP creates public-private partnerships between landowners, local land trusts, and local governments to determine the best ways to preserve critically important farm and forest lands through the purchase of conservation easements which limit future development options for the property.
The current Huntersville RLA was established in 1996 and includes 12 miles of Patuxent River shoreline between Trent Hall Creek and Horse Landing. The proposed expansion will capture larger tracts of land from Coatigan Run to Cole Creek on the northeast and include portions of the McIntosh Run, southwest of Rt. 235. This will include the headwaters of 12 streams including a portion of the Brooks Run tributary to the Mcintosh Run. These headwater stram systems feed the Patuxent and Potomac rivers and their protection aids the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. The area has significant agricultural, forestry, ecological and cultural value, including threatened and endangered species habitat, wetlands, forested steep slopes, and cultural resource sites. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Center for natural Areas has designated portions of the streams within the proposed expansion area as “critical wildlife habitat in need of protection.”
The proposed expansion aligns with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Patuxent River Regional Conservation Partnership, the Department of Defense Remediation and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program implemented by the U.S Navy, and St. Mary’s County’s rural land preservation goals, as well as those of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
Friday, Sept. 27. 2019
9:00 AM- 3:00 PM
Includes all day instruction,
with a special emphasis on Potter's garden watercolor studies
Gourmet lunch, and drinks included
100% of ALL proceeds benefit PTLT
Beatrix Potter helped save thousands of acres in the Lake District of England, so she is our inspiration for what can be accomplished.
by artist/instructor Christina Allen
One class only this fall!
Limited space. Lots of personal instruction.
Will be rescheduled if inclement weather.
(Make a note that donation is for Garden w/c Class)
The Backyard Buffers program provides a FREE “buffer in a bag” to help homeowners get started in planting trees along their streamside. The bag includes native tree and shrub bare-root seedlings, approximately 1-2 feet in height. Bundles include: white, red, and chestnut oak; gray dogwood; and red bud seedlings. These tree species need to be planted in an area of well-drained soil and full sun.
Small Bundle = 9 seedlings
Intended for properties with minimum of 350 sq ft. available space. Includes a mix of the five tree species listed.
Large Bundle = 15 seedlings
Intended for properties with approximately 0.5 acres available space for planting. Includes 3 seedlings of each species.
St. Mary’s County landowners who have a drainage ditch, stream, creek, or river flowing through their property, or live adjacent to such a waterway. This program is for smaller landowners who are not eligible for agricultural cost-share programs.
Contact Nicole Basenback at email@example.com or 301-475-4484 to reserve your bundle!
Pickup your reserved bundle: Saturday, April 20, 2019 from 10am-1pm Agriculture Service Center, 26737 Radio Station Way, Suite C Leonardtown, MD 20650