Less than a mile north of my home a tributary flows. It is a stream really, a creek, just a few feet wide, one you can easily miss if you pass it in a car, driving over it, as I usually do. But 2 or 3 summers ago, I decided to brave the narrow, sidewalk-less, shoulder-less, tree-flanked road that passes by my street and then dramatically plunges into Greenspring Valley, and walk around in the valley for a bit. It was only then that I discovered the stream. And it was only this year that I learned that it feeds directly into the Jones Falls River.
This little bit of our watershed, where the rains from my neighborhood gather, runs eastward, passing through a series of private properties, many of them several acres large. The valley is sparsely populated here, with some of the land still zoned and used to raise crops and animals, echoes of the dairy farms that once flourished here. There is no public access to the stream that I know of, which is a pity, for the stream is cool and gurgley, and relaxing to be beside.
Things were different a century ago. In 1917, Isobel Davidson, then Supervisor of the Primary Grades in Baltimore County, enlisted the aid of schoolchildren to produce a book entitled, Real Stories from Baltimore County History. Interviewing family members and neighbors whose memories went back before the Civil War, these children captured snippets of real life lived in the valley among the early clusters of white settlers.
Some of their stories are charming; some less than flattering. (Slavery was, sadly, alive and well in this neck of the woods. But while the book doesn’t mention it, local lore has it that the farm where my house now sits served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. I hope that is so.)
The book tells the story of an area in the valley called Chattolanee, located about a mile and a half upstream. For almost 30 years, Chattolanee was the site of a country hotel, built in the 1890’s, with over 100 rooms and 13 cottages. It was a health resort, of sorts, a refuge from the hot and crowded city, serviced by a railroad that ran alongside the stream. (I know of two of the old railroad stations still standing. One serves as an office for an architectural firm, one as a private home. There is something irresistible about old railway stations. The faint echo of all those comings and goings. The contradiction of stillness and movement. The ghosts and stories of people passing through. But more on that another time.)
Near the hotel ran the fresh, clear springs that gave the valley its name. To service the people who couldn’t come to the springs, a water-bottling company was set up to bring the springs to the people. At its height, it processed 700 gallon-bottles an hour (in re-usable glass bottles, of course), loaded them on the train and sold them in the city. (A harbinger of a whole, contested industry to come.) No doubt, a more sophisticated history of Baltimore county could tell us more.
I love knowing these things - all of it, the good and the bad - about the place I call home. I love learning about the natural and cultural history of the land I occupy.
Once upon a time, people knew the land directly. They walked it, worked it, drew food and fuel and water from it. Today, we skate upon the land, glide above its surface. For most of us, the only way we can know the land is indirectly, through memories and stories, like the ones in this book.
That’s not the best way to become intimate with place, but if that’s the best we have, let’s run with that. If we work the stories the way people used to work the land, if we draw meaning and nourishment from them the way people used to personally draw sustenance directly from the earth, we too will find ourselves grounded, connected and caring for the place we call home. That seems like a good deal to me.
(I took the above photograph at the entrance to Greenspring Station, beside the Jones Falls River, which is visible in the background.)