FRENCHTOWN, MD. -- Sometimes in the summer when he gets lost in his work, painting his watercolors in the marsh, Chris Clarke looks down to find a grisly sight.
"Blood!" he said. "Rivers of it running down my legs from the greenhead flies. And I never even knew they were biting me."
Dilemmas change with the seasons. last week, with a bitter northwester bowling down Goose Creek, unimpeded by anything but the mile or two of marsh grass that separates Frenchtown from high ground, the little wood stove that heats the house ran down to coals. When Clarke and his wife, Iris, woke up it was 35 degrees. In the bedroom.
Rough? You bet. But there are rewards. After six years at the end of the world, 25 miles down the road from Salisbury and surrounded by nothing but marsh, sky and water, Clarke, who has a fine arts degree from Syracuse University and a penchant for enjoying life at its rawest, says given the choice to live anywhere, he'd pick "right here."
"As hopelessly romantic as it sounds," said Clarke, 28, "I like to get up in the freezing cold and stoke the stove."
This is the story of guy who carves his own way. If he wanted to, Chris Clarke could be in Washington or New York doing the graphic illustrations that sell beer and cigarettes and real estate. He could be plugging in the microwave and the VCR along with the rest of his acquisitive generation, instead of feeding a stove frozen chunks of Eastern Shore oak. He could be watching his investments, instead of the thunderheads rolling in from South marsh Island.
But six years ago he and Iris left temporary digs on Long Island, seeking affordable beauty. One day they drove down the narrow road from Manokin to Upper Fairmont and kept on going after the scrub pines gave out. They rounded a bend and came upon a scene neither was prepared for -- miles and miles of subtly shaded marsh, and off in the distance the 16 white and pastel clumps of houses that signaled the humble community of Frenchtown.
"I thought," said Clarke, "Wow!"
They were in luck, sort of. A dwelling was available in this barren outpost, a 100-year-old watermen's derelict on two acres, for $20,000. Impossible beauty lay both ways -- Tangier Sound out the front window and Goose Creek out the back. But there were, as they say, problems.
"The toilet was cracked in half from being frozen, the windows were all broken out, the roof was full of holes," said Clarke. "The kitchen floor was old linoleum, buckled so bad that when you kicked it it shattered to pieces, and everywhere you looked inside was covered with straw and bird leavings."
The Clarkes were looking for a rental. On impulse, they bought. "We went back home (to Rochester, N.Y.), got married, went on our honeymoon and then came back here to move in. When I walked in the door," said Clarke, "I thought, 'Oh my God, what have we done?'"
What they had done was buy a pile of wooden wreckage in the middle of a wasteland, surrounded by a community of folks with nicknames like June Bug, Blue Dot, Bebop and Brother -- people who made a living digging turtles from the mud, scraping soft crabs from the grassy shallows, tonging oysters and trapping muskrats. How did the college-kid artist and his computer-programmer bride fit in with the descendants of families who had wrested a living from the pungent mud for generations?
"I haven't got a nickname yet," Clarke said. "You have to be local for that."
But "old Chris," said his neighbor, Billy-Boy Meredith, whose roots here go back at least 100 years, "is all right."
To get by, Clarke bussed tables at Peaky's Restaurant on the highway for four years, then got a job digging and potting shrubs at a nursery. One summer he scraped soft crabs with a neighbor. Meantime, he and Iris tackled the house and, when there was time, he painted.
In the Blue Room at the Tidewater Inn, where he showed his work during the Easton Waterfowl Festival last November, Clarke was the only wildlife painter not of the painstaking-attention-to-detail school, that crowd of ultrarealists who believe a feather out of place on the representation of a duck or goose is a hanging offense.
"The trouble is," said Clarke, "John Q. Public believes the best painting of an apple is the one that looks the most like an apple. I believe that's not painting.
"The reason you paint is to capture mood and motion, the essence of things. Watercolors are spontaneous, and that fits in with my need to share the things I see. 'Wow, look at that!' is the attitude i have about everything. And with watercolors, a few blibs and blabs and splotches can convey it, and capture the essence."
Having seen a few of his paintings, which captured the essence of things I have treasured, and having briefly enjoyed his boundless energy, I made a point to go visit Clarke in Frenchtown one day last week.
When I arrived he was crewing cream of quail soup for lunch, and he had a half-dozen steelhead trout medallions skewered up to saute in butter. The wood stove was churning out a thick and palable shield of heat and out the window the northwester whipped Tangier Sound into a froth.
Some of the plumbing pipes were still frozen from the night before. There wasn't much luxury out here, Clark conceded. No VCRs. No microwaves.
But there was silver in the moon, and gold in the setting sun.
"I don't know how many times in the last six years that I've stood at the window," Clarke said, "and watched a thunderstorm roll in . . . "