In her newly published book, My Date With an Oyster and Other Stories of a D.C. Girl Discovering Chesapeake Country, M.L. Faunce captures the sense of place in legendary lands. Mary Louise Faunce comes from a family that goes back generations in Washington. She grew up near the Capitol; her father drove a streetcar through the city’s main arteries. After working in Congress, some of that time in Alaska, she plunged into Chesapeake Bay living and got serious about writing. She traveled widely to places that had lured her early in life, and her stories in New Bay Times (which became Bay Weekly) won grand prizes. We asked M.L., who now resides in Gulfport, Fla., about her just-published book.
NBB When you revisit stories in this book, do you return to your feelings when you wrote them and rediscover Chesapeake Country?
MLF I wrote in one of my pieces, “You live some place long enough, you are those places.” So something always takes me back to the Chesapeake Bay. See a platter of oysters and my mind goes to my father making oyster stew; I can see my mother frying up a batch of oysters for dinner, and I can hear Capt. Wade Murphy’s spiel from the deck of the skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark as he educates landlubbers about the glory days when the Bay was full of beautiful bivalves and dredging by sail was the way to harvest them. How easy it is to slip back to the Bay—no matter where I am.
NBB A keen sense of history comes through in this book, both in reporting on oysters and your reflections. I recall your grandmother, the nutritionist at the Visitation Convent in Washington. Am I right that history is very important in your writing? A way to look at things?
MLF I always want to know the what and the why of things—the beginnings. Prof. Henry Louis Gates, historian and filmmaker once said, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” I embraced that concept when I worked for years on my family history—some before the instant internet ancestry sites. Searching took me by foot in Washington, D.C., where both maternal and paternal sides of my family lived for six generations. I just applied that same process to writing. So discovering the history of a place and a people and a culture is what is interests me. When writing, I try to convey that in the small and larger sense.
NBB I’ve learned a lot from your stories about the plight of oysters over the years. About such things as dermo and MSX, dread diseases that kill and stunt oysters, and in so doing destroy the oyster magic of filtering water. Did you conclude that farmed oysters are a viable path forward in Chesapeake Bay?
MLF Aquaculture is our present and future—farming the sea, or fish farming, is done around the globe. We’ve done a lot of damage to our seas and bays and rivers by development and toxic runoff, and that affects everything that lives in those waters.
Asia by far leads the world in fish farming; but the rest of the world is keeping up. Most people believe they are eating local fish when they go to their fishmonger. But when the U.S.-China Commission held hearings around the country on seafood safety, experts said that 85 percent of our fish comes from a foreign source. Much of it is farmed.
NBB Sounds like advice for readers.
MLF Make a date with an oyster and look for safely raised shellfish producers in your area. The Eastern Shore and Western shores of Maryland have some fine products. And remember the history of the Bay: An oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day, and back in time, our Bay was brimming with oysters that could clean the entire Bay.
NBB You’ve lived in some pretty swell places, among them Alaska and Gulfport, Florida, where you are now. How do Chesapeake Bay communities stack up in terms of livability?
MLF I’ve lived in some geographically varied places, from the vastness of Alaska, the Last Frontier, to the “land of pleasant living on the Chesapeake Bay,” to a small, old Florida fishing village turned arty. Size matters, sometimes: Alaska is two and a half times the size of Texas. The Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the U.S., with a watershed of five states. Remote communities were cut off from the beaten path. Islands and far-flung native communities sometimes were isolated, not easily reached. Smith Island, within sight of the mainland in the Chesapeake Bay, comes to mind. People there still speak with the accent of their early founders.
All these places have a commonality of small communities that allows for a uniqueness of culture. Far from being cookie-cutter, these small towns and communities have their own distinct personalities. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the people and culture of other places, far from my birthplace in the nation’s capital. All these places have another similarity. Water and shoreline are the dominant theme.
NBB What does having this book out mean to you?
MLF This book is very special to me. It’s a tangible, portable, small selection of my writing from my years with Bay Weekly. That period of time will always stand out in my life. It was a time of writing for a newspaper that valued and cared about its Chesapeake community and in preserving its rich heritage. It’s a reminder of all the people and places I’ve enjoyed and all the things I learned, when I was able to thrive through the creative process of writing. Who gets to do that? I did!