What’s in the Water

The walking fish are the least of it


First they brought in sandbags. Then herbicides. And then the biologists came back wearing yellow coveralls and respirators. Waiting for them were reporters and locals and tourists, clustered along the highway. The biologists sprayed chemicals into the small pond, and as they did, the snakeheads were seen scurrying for shore, trying to balance on lily pads, and leaping in the air. Everywhere, fish out of water, gasping.

If you’ve heard of my Maryland hometown, Crofton—a suburban development tucked into the nook of three highways—it’s probably because of this, the Frankenfish Incident of 2002.In May of that year, an amateur angler fishing in a pond behind the Dunkin’ Donuts caught a strange fish with a rattlesnake’s diamonds. He snapped a few pictures to send around for identification, then released the fish. By summer, the state and federal governments and even the national media were involved.

The problem: snakeheads, or so-called Frankenfish, can live for three days out of water; the media breathlessly reported that they could walk, actually walk, across land for short distances. And the pond the snakeheads were swimming in was only seventy-five yards from a branch of the Patuxent River, one of the rivers that lace through central Maryland and feed the Chesapeake Bay. Once in the Bay, the snakeheads could travel up any of the other feeder rivers. They might even crawl into the tributaries of the Potomac, dubbed our “Nation’s River,” and end up in the water that rushes alongside DC’s most famous landmarks—the Pentagon, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument.

We had had other invaders in Crofton, of course—a rumored cancer cluster in the fancy development built on a swamp, a crime-filled weekend in 1990 that culminated in a woman raped and murdered at the library—but this was the first to have made the national news.


What the biologists were spraying into the pond was a naturally occurring chemical called rotenone. Plants containing rotenone—such as jicama, mullein, and the prosaically named Florida fishpoison tree—have been used to poison fish for centuries, and now a synthetic version is also available

Rotenone is typically dumped into ponds and lakes to get rid of a particular invasive fish population, but it has also been used as a reset button. In 2014, ecologists poisoned one lake in San Francisco, which had been overrun with carp, goldfish, and other non-native species, to restore it completely “to the way it was before Europeans arrived in America.”


What else was in the water in Crofton—the Europeans. John Smith of Jamestown fame, and then English colonists, and then the ferries full of immigrants.

My hometown was built on the estate acquired by one of these immigrants, a French Huguenot named Mareen Duvall, who arrived in the colonies as an indentured servant, the property of another man, and ended up as one of the largest slaveowners in all of Tidewater Maryland, with eighteen slaves in his household: seven men, four women, five boys, two girls.

Perhaps Duvall could afford to buy so many people because he didn’t have to pay for land. Starting in 1664, Duvall began acquiring land “negotiated” away from local tribes and planting tobacco. He ended up with more than 2,800 acres, which, over the following three centuries, would pass from Duvall’s descendants, to the family of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, to the Jesuit priests who ran Georgetown University, back to more Duvall descendants, then to one Chaney family, and then to a farmer named E. L. Shaw, who left it to his housekeeper, who promptly sold it, in 1962, to one W. Hamilton Crawford.

Mr. Crawford got his start building segregated developments in Louisiana. But then he set his sights on the old Duvall plantation twenty miles from DC and decided to name this bit of suburbia Crofton, from croft, an enclosed field.

The name was apt; Crofton was, at first, a true gated community, a “sundown town.” After dark, the large iron gates were pulled shut, and a watchman had to let you in. Mr. Crawford acknowledged in 1983: “We decided to put up the gates at a time when there were various racial problems . . . to give people what they wanted.” And here’s what people wanted and were willing to pay for: the fantasy of Manor Life, complete with a country club and a Village Green—and racial and ethnic homogeneity.


I was not around that summer to watch the biologists poison the pond because I was 4,500 miles away, wading in the waters of Lake Domasa, a popular tourist spot in eastern Slovakia, not far from where my father grew up. I was watching a toddler without a diaper gurgle and splash on the shore. I was sucking in my stomach and enviously eying my cousin, tanned and thin in her white bikini, too distracted by and self-conscious of my own body to realize what else was in the water: an entire village. Six of them, actually.

In 1965, the Communist authorities dammed up the Ondava River and flooded the valley that held these villages, most of which dated back to the 1300s. Far below the inner tubes and the windsurfing boards bobbing on the lake’s surface was the church where half my ancestors were baptized, the blacksmith shop where they bought the shoes for their field horses, the sawmill where they took their timber. 


I don’t know what infected my own parents, whose immigrant families had once been described in the same terms as the snakeheads—alien, fearsome, with an indefatigable libido and a ravenous appetite—to make them scrimp and save to live inside a gated enclosure.

I do know that the era of the Crofton gates roughly corresponds with the era of broken windows theories and zero-tolerance policing—the idea that a landscape transmits messages and that a broken window on a rundown rowhouse is an invitation to ruin, a breach that will let everything dark within us leak out.

And I see how this kind of fear plays out, how it might even start to poison. My own son was once obsessed with bunkers, with any sort of enclosed space. The backs of the worksheets he brought home from first and, then, second grade were always covered in crisp pencil strokes, some divisive enough to tear the paper, detailing various rectangular beehives.

This is where you go during a zombie outbreak, he solemnly informed us.

The things he drew in these enclosed rooms: ray guns and lasers, empty chairs with computer screens, security cameras in the corners.

 This will keep us safe. A prison of his own making.

You know the funny thing about Crofton, the ironic fact I discovered while writing this essay? The name may have been selected for its uppity Anglophile-ness, in honor of a small township in Cumberland County, England, but it also has a much darker meaning. In the 1850s, a penal philosophy emerged, the Crofton system, named after the Irish penologist Sir Walter Crofton.


The snakehead panic in Crofton began when one man—an immigrant, a foreignerbought two live fish from a New York market, planning to make a traditional medicinal soup for a sick relative. But the relative recovered, so he put the fish in his aquarium instead. When the two fish outgrew the aquarium, the man dumped them into a small pond behind a strip mall, across the street from the lake on which I learned to ice skate.        

This pond was completely man-made, as was the lake, as are all the ponds and lakes in the area. Some of them hid secrets. At the bottom of another man-made Crofton pond, next to a park where I played as a child, were two slave houses. And I had grown up oblivious, staring at my reflection in a pond that had drowned the evidence. 


In the Crofton system, there were three stages:

In the first, inmates were held in solitary confinement.

In the second, they performed work. The more diligently they worked, the more marks, or “credits,” they received.

In the third stage, when inmates had accrued enough credits, they were released to intermediate prisons, a forerunner of our halfway houses.

If they behaved themselves, they could return home under a precursor of our parole.

But their sentence was never truly over. Inmates were always under surveillance, never really free.


Wanted posters were hung around town. Uncle Nicky’s BBQ offered a “frankenfish po-boy” (although it was discovered to be just catfish), and the restaurant owner’s daughters hawked T-shirts, pulling in a tidy profit. The snakehead made David Letterman’s Top 10 List, and Stephen Colbert showed up to do a skit for The Daily Show about innovative ways to destroy it—for example, by introducing even more predators to the ecosystem: piranhas, scorpions, owls, and African condors.

And then the yellow-suited biologists showed up, got into a small boat, and fired up the outboard motor.

When all was said and done, Maryland spent around $110,000 that summer to kill six snakeheads and thousands of their offspring by poisoning and draining three Crofton ponds. Then they came back with electroshock equipment. More than a thousand pounds of dead fish in all—including plenty of snakeheads but also crappies, bluegills, pickerels—were hauled off to a landfill.


Any residue from the rotenone rapidly biodegraded. But the plans for a scenic snakehead trail were never realized. Uncle Nicky’s BBQ was abandoned, caught fire, and was then torn down to make way for an apartment complex. The highway was enlarged, and more strip malls went up. What is in the old fishing hole now? Candy wrappers, plastic six-pack yokes, cigarette butts, and the rainbow sheen of engine oil. The iron gates still stand at the entrance of town, and the snakeheads, somehow, survived.

Maybe a few of the snakeheads seen scurrying for shore made it, hidden in the underbrush, and dragged themselves around for three days until they found yet another manmade pond where they could indulge their indefatigable libidos. Or maybe another foreigner bought another set of fish that outgrew another aquarium, and dumped them in yet another pond. However the fish managed it, two years later they were sighted in the Potomac River, and now they are established residents. 

Like the streams and creeks that run through his old plantation, Monsieur Duvall’s bloodline seeps right into our nation’s capital. He must have had a libido as indefatigable as that of the snakeheads. He reproduced rapidly, leaving behind at least a dozen children, who survived to adulthood and scuttled off to their own plantations to reproduce as diligently as their father had. Among the indentured-servant-turned-slaveholder’s many exponentially great grandsons are a Supreme Court Justice, a vice president, and two presidents—Truman and Obama.

In the years I lived on his old plantation, what seeped into me? In telling this story, am I trying to scrub clean the pond of my childhood? Become the biologist in his yellow coveralls, the rotenone, the reset button?

All I know is that I don’t go home all that often because, when I do, driving up the road past the old iron gates—never closed now, but still standing at the ready—I feel uneasy. I’m never sure whether I’m entering as a visitor or an inmate, or whether I ever earned my way out.

About the Author

Shelley Puhak

Shelley Puhak is the author of two poetry collections, the more recent of which, Guinevere in Baltimore, was selected by Charles Simic for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre and The Baltimore Sun.

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