An Evolved Chesapeake Ethic

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Photo by Kailani Clarke 

Ben was right. He warned us at the start of Chesapeake Semester that we would look up and see that it was November, that the time would blink by. It’s December now, and I find myself looking back on the entire tumultuous semester, and what has changed, and what has stayed the same. This is especially interesting in regard to my Chesapeake Ethic, and how our readings and experiences have altered and enhanced it. Though my views have remained fundamentally the same, in that I believe we, as inhabitants of the Bay country, have a mandate to protect and take care of it, many of the previously grey areas have come more into focus. There was a lot I didn’t know going into this semester, and I am proud to say that I am at least a little less ignorant than before. One example of this is in farming.

Though I have been on the Shore for five years now, and have become quite familiar with the sight of combines on 213 and the smell of chicken shit wafting on the breeze, I did not actually know that much about agriculture on the Delmarva. Journey 4 is not yet over, but through the readings and the field experiences I have already felt my view expand. Kant’s and especially Singer’s pieces on animals inspired me to, once again, scrutinize my species’ relationship with the domesticated and wild creatures we grow or harvest for food. The excerpt of Singer’s work “Animal Liberation” was particularly mind-twisting, but questioning our speciesism toward animals used for food was an interesting and expansive exercise. I have always known to express and extend empathy toward all living things, but imagining all animals to deserve the same moral consideration as humans is something I have never tried before. It has left me with plenty of fodder for later ruminations, and it made our visits to the Davis’ poultry operation and to St. Brigid’s farm even more layered. Berry’s “A Return to Husbandry,” in which he reminisces of the times before industrial agriculture made me look at Trey Hill’s farm through a more critical light as well, wondering if, despite Hill’s advances and progressive work, it truly is just a band-aid on a dying, broken system. Overall the farming readings further reinforced the reality that there is no truly polarized issue, especially in one as expansive and uncertain as how to feed the world without destroying the environment.

Another area where my ethic has changed is the harvest of wild things. Spending time with several of the hunters in the group has changed my view on the culture around the practice, and increased my appreciation for it. Though I have long known about the fierce culture of the Chesapeake watermen, my understanding and respect of their way of life and their practices of working the water has deepened. Though part of me recoils at the killing of anything, I understand the necessity of it, and how people like those of Smith Island sustain their livelihood and culture through harvest.

Perhaps the most profound and challenging shift for me occurred in the re-imagining of the wild. This was spurred mostly through William Cronon’s piece, as well as several of the Berry readings, especially “An Entrance to the Woods.” The wild, for me, has always been a landscape in which to dream. It is where I am allowed to run away to. As someone who mostly grew up outdoors, and who struggles at times to find a sense of belonging among my own species, I have always felt the in tune with the world when I am out in it, alone. The wild, as I knew it, was defined by danger. It was often empty of people and mostly untouched. Its rules were those of nature, and to survive you had to set down parts of your human-ness, and pick them up again on your way out. You were forced, utterly, to pay attention. To become a piece of where you were. In many ways, my view of the fundamental wild has held firm, though I imagine it now in a broader context. I still think the true wild is defined by danger, and the necessity to pay attention and defer to your surroundings. But I know now that there is no land left in my country, and indeed in most of the world, that has never felt the altering touch of my species. Many of the empty places in the lower 48 were stolen from the Native Americans. With where we have come, as humans, there is no wild left that comes without a price. Perhaps there never was.

This saddens me, but I take comfort in knowing that it doesn’t take much to connect with a sense of place. Yes, I long to go get myself lost in some lonely and alien land. I have always longed so, and always will. But I have also learned, as Berry and Burroughs did, to go into the tiny wilds just outside my door. That energy I seek is everywhere. It’s in the waste-spaces on the margins of the road. It’s in the boughs of the beech tree, as they grow russet with the coming cold. It’s in the night sky over the stadium. It’s at my fingertips. In this again comes the call for attention.

This, I believe, should be applied to a larger Chesapeake ethic. It’s not terribly complicated. From this experience I have gleaned a few absolutes that form the backbone of this ethic:

 

Look up, and pay attention.

Realize that nothing is black-and-white.

Everyone, in the end, is just trying to live and provide for those they love, so be good to each other, no matter how angry you may be.

Care for the land, for the world, however you can in the position you are in.

Question everything, and challenge most of it. There is always more to the picture than meets the eye.

Dig. Innovate. Seek.

Tell the story.

Everything– everything– is connected.

 

Perhaps this will be enough.

Or if not enough, at least, a place to begin.

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In Reaction to “Slow Violence”

“Slow violence,” I think, is one of those concepts I was always aware of but had never entirely given a name to. Reading this excerpt was affirming and illuminating to me for several reasons, all of which have had some impact on how we have perceived certain experiences in the Bay region and will influence our experiences in Central America.

As an environmentalist and an American, I recognize that I too often think inside a bubble. Fighting to preserve wild places, like US National Parks, and devoting energy to other first-world environmental causes looks pretty entitled next to the poor family in upland Guatemala subsistence farming and living on approximately one US dollar a day. Having the luxury to fight for the environment is just that– a luxury. I’m not struggling day to day to put food on the table for my family. But having traveled extensively before college, often to places where severe poverty was all around me, I think I know what that looks like and what it does to people, though being privileged enough to not experience it myself.

With this in mind, I try to travel and view other people with an empathetic outlook. Though I am an environmentalist who wants a healthy oyster ecosystem in the Bay, I do not blame the waterman trying to make a living for the stock collapse. I do not hold at fault the Amazon tribesman who poaches endangered bushmeat because he needs to bring protein into his family’s diet. That kind of ecosystem abuse in the service of staying alive is, I feel, and as Nixon alludes to, a function of the capitalist economy that almost dominates the globe. In this economy, money is the god. And the god demands sacrifices. These are often offered in the form of environmental degradation, species depletion or extinction, and the proverbial economic shafting of third-world countries. I am not a political scientist, but I would guess that these sacrifices are chosen by social blindness and lack of empathy. The poor, the animal, the inhuman, are disposable. At least that’s what history seems to suggest.

So how to we break this cycle? After reading Nixon, I think that the effort should be two-fold, grassroots and top-down. On the ground, the “environmentalism of the poor” is a powerful, local force. People fighting for the preservation of a place may be motivated by the cultural value it holds as well as the basic survival instinct. If a group of people draw most of their everyday subsistence resources from a particular patch of forest or savannah or desert, and an oil or timber company decides to claim all of it for their industry, the local pushback garnered from that could be formidable. From the top-down, there needs to be a change in social and economic thinking. There must be a shift in the narrative about developing countries, so that people like Lawrence Summers don’t officially suggest expediting toxic waste to their shores in order to improve the aesthetic and quiet the dissenters of the first world. Through greed and industry, the human connection has been removed from the global consciousness. If we are to move toward a sustainable future, and improve the lives of humans on earth while keeping our planet healthy, this must change.

That’s where we come in– the writers.

One of the most gratifying aspects of Nixon’s piece was his acknowledgement of the storyteller’s power. As a writer who is the daughter of a writer, I feel that far too often our efforts and influence are overlooked. The simple fact is, we are everywhere, in every field imaginable. And we are gifted with the power to transport readers to a different world. A science writer can translate complex concepts into interesting, pertinent content. An environmental reporter can illustrate the front lines of climate change. Most importantly, a good writer can make you care. That’s why writers will be important to improving the lives of impoverished people while finding solutions to maintain environmental integrity. To change this global narrative, we must wield this power wisely. We must take the blind, the entitled, the apathetic, and make them empathize with people they’ve never met and care about places they’ve never been. Rachel Carson did it with Silent Spring, helping lead to regulation one of the most harmful chemicals in ecological history. Edward Abbey catalyzed a passionate, if violent, environmental subculture with The Monkey Wrench Gang. Language is one of the greatest gifts to the human race. It is immensely powerful.

We have a responsibility to use it for good. And we, people privileged enough to live comfortably, have a responsibility to try and make the world a better place, and have the most holistic understanding of it. I will keep this in mind on our upcoming travels, and when processing where we have already been.

Among the Hollow Trees

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“Why do you think you find comfort in the woods?” The counselor leans forward slightly into the expectation of my reply. I gnaw gently on his words. I am a first-semester freshman in college. It’s November, and I am in the deepest, coldest thought spiral I have suffered from in years. I don’t understand this at the time. I’ve been to therapy before, but not since my early teens, and this was before I was formally diagnosed with generalized anxiety featuring strong OCD tendencies. This was before I understood why certain thoughts made my guts cave in on themselves. This was when I still slid for days into a mental twilight of self-loathing and fear, and in the riptide there were but a few rocks to which I could cling so I wouldn’t be swept out to sea. Among these rocks were the woods.

“It’s not even the woods, necessarily,” I replied to the counselor. “It’s nature in general– the sky, the trees.”

“And why do you think the trees are comforting?” he asked.

Because, I wanted to say, they always had been. In a blink I was out of the small, soft-toned room at WAC’s Health Services, and I was standing in a meadow on the edge of my favorite forest.

I am spoiled on the wild. I know that. Since returning to Delmarva, and chafing among the monocultures and flatness and relative lack of wonder and danger, I have learned that you have to find the wild where you can. Size doesn’t matter. Isolation and solitude do. If you can find a woods big enough to hide in, you have found a woods big enough to hide from yourself in. That was often what I needed, and it was what I needed now. In my mind, I was at the entrance to the woods. It’s a tricky trail. Upon moving into a house, my mom quickly made friends with a neighbor, Sharon, who showed me the way in. Sharon’s woods are really just a buffer zone. Bordering the neighborhood and adjacent to two huge ag fields, the woods are maybe half a mile long and an eighth wide, a fringe of tulip poplar and oak around two central streams that joined into one, Earle’s Branch, which runs to the Corsica River. It is quiet, but for the breath of the leaves and the sound of the stream’s shivering clarity among the stones. I know from experience that sometimes it is all I need to feel at peace again, this lonely silence. It is similar to what Wendell Berry writes in his essay “An Entrance to the Woods:” “Nobody knows where I am. I don’t know what is happening to anyone else in the world. While I am here I will not speak, and will have no reason or need for speech. It is only beyond this lonesomeness for the places I have come from that I can reach the vital reality of a place such as this.”

I walked through the outer edge bramble and briar, ducked through the narrow copse of sumac, and joined the deer trail, a small but established track hidden from outside view. I followed it in. The ravine opened before me. I leaned against the massive tulip poplar that for me marked the threshold. To my left, near the headwaters of the branch, was the hollow tree I had stumbled upon when Sharon first showed me the woods. I’d cleared out the deadwood, swept out the dry leaves and snake bones and filled the hollow with soft pine needles. I would curl up in there under a blanket, feeling safe and small, and look up the tree. Once I heard a rhythmic tapping up the trunk and looked out to see a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker pecking away for lunch. When I placed my hand on the tree’s muscular root, I could feel the impact of the woodpecker’s bill tock-tock-tocking down through the veins of the wood. I felt an odd current of connection, like the tree was a live wire and there we were at either end, two parts of some strange and necessary circuit.

Encounters like these were not uncommon in these woods. Often I brought by dog, but on the occasions I didn’t I could feel the trees watching me, murmuring of the stranger’s passing. I’d seen deer and buzzards, had a yellow jacket inch toward me on a log until my nerve broke. I knew where the foxes raised their young, and where they left their gnaw-bones. I knew of the barred owls and from where they liked to watch. I knew every tree that was hollow. I could bring anything to those trees and they would swallow it without protest, allow me to pour my moods into their bones so they could send it up into their leaves to be useful. In the woods I didn’t need to talk. The land did all the speaking, and I could follow its words to the river, where most things made sense again.

I allowed myself to return to reality, so the counselor’s office in late November, where everything was cold. “Because they don’t care,” I answered to his question of why the trees. Because they do not hate me like I currently hate myself.

“Don’t care, or…?” he pressed.

“Don’t judge,” I amended. “They don’t judge me. They just listen. They’re just there.” And often at times like this, that was enough.

 

Works Cited 

 

Berry, Wendell. “An Entrance to the Woods.” Recollected Essays, 1965-1980. San Francisco: North Point, 1981. Oct. 2017. Web.

Among the Hollow Trees

 

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“Why do you think you find comfort in the woods?” The counselor leans forward slightly into the expectation of my reply. I gnaw gently on his words. I am a first-semester freshman in college. It’s November, and I am in the deepest, coldest thought spiral I have suffered from in years. I don’t understand this at the time. I’ve been to therapy before, but not since my early teens, and this was before I was formally diagnosed with generalized anxiety featuring strong OCD tendencies. This was before I understood why certain thoughts made my guts cave in on themselves. This was when I still slid for days into a mental twilight of self-loathing and fear, and in the riptide there were but a few rocks to which I could cling so I wouldn’t be swept out to sea. Among these rocks were the woods.

“It’s not even the woods, necessarily,” I replied to the counselor. “It’s nature in general– the sky, the trees.”

“And why do you think the trees are comforting?” he asked.

Because, I wanted to say, they always had been. In a blink I was out of the small, soft-toned room at WAC’s Health Services, and I was standing in a meadow on the edge of my favorite forest.

I am spoiled on the wild. I know that. Since returning to Delmarva, and chafing among the monocultures and flatness and relative lack of wonder and danger, I have learned that you have to find the wild where you can. Size doesn’t matter. Isolation and solitude do. If you can find a woods big enough to hide in, you have found a woods big enough to hide from yourself in. That was often what I needed, and it was what I needed now. In my mind, I was at the entrance to the woods. It’s a tricky trail. Upon moving into a house, my mom quickly made friends with a neighbor, Sharon, who showed me the way in. Sharon’s woods are really just a buffer zone. Bordering the neighborhood and adjacent to two huge ag fields, the woods are maybe half a mile long and an eighth wide, a fringe of tulip poplar and oak around two central streams that joined into one, Earle’s Branch, which runs to the Corsica River. It is quiet, but for the breath of the leaves and the sound of the stream’s shivering clarity among the stones. I know from experience that sometimes it is all I need to feel at peace again, this lonely silence. It is similar to what Wendell Berry writes in his essay “An Entrance to the Woods:” “Nobody knows where I am. I don’t know what is happening to anyone else in the world. While I am here I will not speak, and will have no reason or need for speech. It is only beyond this lonesomeness for the places I have come from that I can reach the vital reality of a place such as this.”

I walked through the outer edge bramble and briar, ducked through the narrow copse of sumac, and joined the deer trail, a small but established track hidden from outside view. I followed it in. The ravine opened before me. I leaned against the massive tulip poplar that for me marked the threshold. To my left, near the headwaters of the branch, was the hollow tree I had stumbled upon when Sharon first showed me the woods. I’d cleared out the deadwood, swept out the dry leaves and snake bones and filled the hollow with soft pine needles. I would curl up in there under a blanket, feeling safe and small, and look up the tree. Once I heard a rhythmic tapping up the trunk and looked out to see a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker pecking away for lunch. When I placed my hand on the tree’s muscular root, I could feel the impact of the woodpecker’s bill tock-tock-tocking down through the veins of the wood. I felt an odd current of connection, like the tree was a live wire and there we were at either end, two parts of some strange and necessary circuit.

Encounters like these were not uncommon in these woods. Often I brought by dog, but on the occasions I didn’t I could feel the trees watching me, murmuring of the stranger’s passing. I’d seen deer and buzzards, had a yellow jacket inch toward me on a log until my nerve broke. I knew where the foxes raised their young, and where they left their gnaw-bones. I knew of the barred owls and from where they liked to watch. I knew every tree that was hollow. I could bring anything to those trees and they would swallow it without protest, allow me to pour my moods into their bones so they could send it up into their leaves to be useful. In the woods I didn’t need to talk. The land did all the speaking, and I could follow its words to the river, where most things made sense again.

I allowed myself to return to reality, so the counselor’s office in late November, where everything was cold. “Because they don’t care,” I answered to his question of why the trees. Because they do not hate me like I currently hate myself.

“Don’t care, or…?” he pressed.

“Don’t judge,” I amended. “They don’t judge. They just listen. They’re just there.” And often at times like this, that was enough.

 

Works Cited 

Berry, Wendell. “An Entrance to the Woods.” Recollected Essays 1965-1980. San Francisco, North Point, 1981. Oct. 2017. Web.

River, Forgive my Existence

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Photo from Chester River Packet, tripadvisor.com. 

There is something inherently feminine in the lines of a boat. I don’t think that’s sexist or crazy; indeed in the nautical world vessels have been assigned the pronouns of “she/her” for centuries. There are conflicting reports as to why, but I think it has to do with the poise in gunwale and transom, arcing and sloping with the quiet power of a ballerina or an empress. That’s not to say my masculine brethren are lacking in elegance. Have you seen Patrick Swayze in “Dirty Dancing?” I have male friends in the martial arts world whose movement is animated poetry. But to me, especially in small sailboats, there is a womanly quality that shines through, a grace I have found nowhere else.

Given this, I think my consternation was justifiable upon seeing the name painted on the stern of the newest addition to the WAC waterfront’s fleet.

Bentley?” I asked my brother, Kaeo, in disgust. “Seriously? I think that might be the worst possible name for this boat.”

“I know. I’m trying to get Ben to let me change it. Ben!” Kaeo hollered over the water, to where Ben Armiger, Waterfront Director and my brother’s boss, was motoring away in one of the dock’s Boston Whalers after having dropped us off on the boat in question. “Can we change the name of the Sharpie?” Ben shrugged noncommittally before leaving us to our own devices aboard.

The source of this debate had recently been donated to the waterfront, and Kaeo and Jack and I were taking her out for a sail. The Sharpie (I refuse to call it Bentley, a deeply boring and snobby appellation), is a small, two-masted sailboat, with a shallow draft and a length overall of maybe 20 feet. The exact dimension and design varies by model, but ours was a comfortable size with a cozy, covered cabinhouse and a spacious cockpit. Her hull and freeboard are a sleek forest green, and sitting merrily on her mooring off the waterfront docks she paints a pretty picture indeed. I could see my brother was giddy to take her out.

A stiff breeze was shimmering up the river from the north. We freed the sails, raising the main first before casting off the mooring and setting the mizzen sail. Within seconds we were off and sweeping onto the river’s broad back. The Sharpie handles like a dream. With Kaeo at the tiller, we played music on his phone and dodged the sailing team and crew shells, hiking up on the windward rail to keep from heeling too far. It was late afternoon. The sun was setting behind the armory, and as the light matured the river grew bronzy. We ran toward the cutbank, the last curve downriver before Chestertown becomes hidden by the meander. We joked about not coming back. Down the wind and water lay Conquest Beach, Corsica River, Eastern Neck, thousands of hidey holes of marsh and pine. Before moving onto Osprey in 2008, Kaeo and I grew up on this, taking kayaks and dinghies into the silty arteries of the Bay’s many rivers with our parents. The further in or up you go, the farther back in time you travel. Away from the shore, away from school and work and connectivity, the river becomes the universe, and we became kids. In this tiny boat, with the wind at our backs, we could go anywhere.

Except Ben would probably call the police on us for theft of school property. I checked my watch. Kaeo had a Spanish lab in half an hour, and Jack and I needed to do homework. Stifling sighs, we jibed and headed into the wind, away from the beckoning cutbank and what lay beyond, back toward the dock. As we returned, I thought about a line in Tom Horton’s book Bay Country, about how, even as someone who tries to live her life with as little environmental impact as possible, I am inevitably still part of the problem. In speaking about wanting the best of both worlds when it came to the Bay, Horton cautioned his readers to “have no illusions about the process we’re both part of” (Horton 1987). Though today we were in a sailboat, whose mode of power does not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, there was still the construction of that boat to consider, and the maintenance afterward. From some angle, recreation on the Bay, in almost any form I can think of, will harm it in some way.

And yet, with restraint, I think it’s worth it. The Bay needs to be protected, yes, but not placed in a vacuum. Edward Abbey, the dissenter, environmental author and father of “monkey wrenching” once wrote, “It is not enough to fight for the land. It is more important to enjoy it.” My reservations on Abbey aside, I share his ferocious love for the land, and recognize the truth in his words. To protect something, you must love it. To love it, you must know it, and to know it, you must be out in it, body and soul. Boats, especially small, graceful ones of the sailing variety, help with this. Whatever damage we may have done today by being here, sailing on the river, I take solace in knowing it is outweighed by the love and the gratitude the act generated, and the drive it reinforced to protect this place.

 

Works Cited 

Horton, Tom. “Bay Country.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Print.

The Wisdom of Dinosaurs

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Photo from Cape Gazette: Counting Crabs Under Moonlight

Last spring, I got to witness time stand still. The night was clear and quiet on Delaware Bay as I, my mom and a few other students from my high school followed a scientist along the marsh trails of the St. Jones Reserve near Dover. For that night, as they have done for millions of years, scores of sepia bodies were pulling themselves from the surf to mate. In the light of the full moon, we were hunting dinosaurs. Not the Jurassic Park kind, no. But just as old, if not older. As we followed the beams of our headlamps toward the beach, I thought I could hear the clatter of our quarry as they piled against one another. Muddy grass turned to sand, and we came out onto the beach. It was late, near midnight, the tide the highest it would be that night. Riding it onto the welcoming sand, spiny and alien in the moonlight, were thousands of horseshoe crabs.

This wasn’t my first time seeing this. Every May and June, on the new and full moon tides, groups of volunteers like us come out for the Delaware Bay Horseshoe Crab Spawning Survey, an event that, since 2001, has collected data that helps researchers and scientists monitor the population of horseshoe crabs coming into Delaware Bay to reproduce. “Trippy” didn’t cover it. This was the second or third time participating in this survey, but something about this night was special. The Delaware was quiet but teemed at its meeting with the beach, where the arthropods we were here to count moved and piled within the foam. A faint haze lent the full moon a witchy air, enough shadow to let some stars peek through the velvet sky. I tried to focus on what we were here for instead of drinking in the night.

We divided into groups and started the survey. Every few feet the pacer would set a quadrat, a meter-by-meter square of PVC pipe, onto the crabs. The recorder stood ready, and I, the counter, rolled up my sleeves and started counting. The water moved over and back as I ran my hands over the hard bodies in the sand, sometimes gently lifting the smaller males off a massive female half-buried in the sand. Though I grew up around these guys, finding their desiccated carcasses above the high tide line or rescuing a spawner who got stuck on the way back to the water, the feeling of their blunt claws and legs, parts of a body more closely related to spiders than actual crabs, as they clambered over my hands still gave me shivers. Couple those peds with a half-moon shaped body that can reach the size of a hubcap, a back segment like a spiny skirt, and a triangular tail ending in a frightening but harmless point, and I’m reminded with every touch that I am in the presence of the prehistoric.

For an article she wrote for Chesapeake Bay Magazine, my mom, Wendy Mitman Clarke, brought home almost more knowledge about the innocuous marine arthropods than my eight-year-old brain could digest. From her, and the resulting story, I learned that, besides having copper-based blue blood that’s been used pharmaceutically and possessing ten eyes, horseshoe crabs more than qualify for Marine Invertebrate Social Security. Though the exact evolutionary age of the species remains uncertain, arthropods like the ones in my hands have been around for about 450 million years. And through the demise of the dinosaurs, through climate change and continental drift and catastrophe, they have performed this sexual careening and kept on surviving. In fact, it was horseshoe crabs’ mild-mannered steadiness that nearly led to their line being ended by a far less world-wise species. In the 19th and 20th centuries, people would pile horseshoe crabs in the sun during spawning to be ground up and used for fertilizer (Clarke, 2008). Though this, coupled with fishing pressure by those who use them for bait, caused a sharp downcurve in horseshoe crab population, surveys like the one we were performing had yielded positive data for their recovery (Clarke, 2008). Yet I fear for them.

According to the “Intro to Climate Change” lecture in our CRS 246 class, some of the impacts of climate change will be sea level rise, change in habitat distribution, ocean acidifcation, and change in species distribution, among others. The Delmarva Peninsula will get a double whammy in sea level rise. As the Gulf Stream weakens, water typically drawn east will cause higher tides here in the west Atlantic, and the land itself is sinking here through isostatic glacial rebound. Delaware Bay hosts more horseshoe crab spawning than anywhere else in the world (Clarke 2008). From a scientific standpoint, I do not know how climate change will affect the future of horseshoe crabs; that is a question for a piece far longer than this blog. But from what I do know about how climate change can affect an ecosystem, I worry.

There is no question humankind is accelerating and exacerbating climate change. I worry for the horseshoe crabs and their ancient brethren, who in all their years have never had to survive this multipronged anthropogenic pressure. Yet I hope for them too. Nothing is more humbling than being in the presence of a living thing whose existence is testament to staggering longevity. The elders I counted inside my quadrat that night have been here a long, long time. Walking on the beach now along the Delaware or in some back creek of the Chesapeake, whenever I see a curved shield of mahogany pushing up the sand to lay eggs, or the onionksin shell of a young crab that just shed its exoskeleton and grew a little, I feel a nudge of hope. If creatures like them can survive this long, maybe they can survive us too.

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A tagged crab. Photo from Cape Gazette: Counting Crabs Under Moonlight

 

Works Cited

Clarke, Wendy Mitman. “Limulus Lately: An Update on the American Horseshoe Crab.” Chesapeake Bay Magazine. February 2008. Web. http://www.criver.com/files/pdfs/emd/endotoxin/qc_en_a_limulus_lately.aspx

Farewell for a Waste Space

 

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Diamonds in the daytime don’t give pause

To many, yet I turn my head, admire

The tips of meadowgrass, like bluebird’s claws

They snag the dew and snarl the sunrise fire.

 

And who has noticed humble chicory

Monarch of the margins, pinning down

The stardust from the owl’s balcony

To then bloom softly from the flower’s crown?

 

And I should give my thanks to which fine cook?

No cosmic palate scorns the glory here

Of forage-foods at every touch and look

Weeds, to any hungry walker dear.

 

To here I give my love, this earthly shrine,

No space here wasted, every inch divine.

 

-“In Praise of the Waste Space,” a sonnet I wrote this summer

 

 

Since returning to Bay country, one of the aspects of my old life I longed for the most was the wild. I have always been drawn to the arcane layers of a landscape, where the features of a place speak a language older and stranger than the relatively gentle tones of the Eastern Shore. After four years of knowing the blue emptiness of the open ocean or the tangled forests of Maine and Guatemala, the wild’s hold on me has only increased. Yet every now and then I’m reminded that even here on Eastern Shore, sandwiched between monocultures and paved downtowns, exist little patches of the unclaimed. I found one last week by the boathouse.

Ben had asked us to meet him at the WAC waterfront for a photography assignment. It was late morning, sunny and dewy, and the group of us squinted at Ben as he told us to spread out and start taking pictures. I was soon drawn to the meadow on the southern side of the property. It wasn’t an imposing space, maybe three hundred yards by two hundred, and mostly composed of thigh-high grasses, sprinkled with bolts of color where the wildflowers raised their flashy crowns. At first I was apprehensive– my sandals and leggings were useless against chiggers and ticks– but I tossed off the worry and stepped over the lip of the waste space. Just twenty feet in, the sounds of the morning were muffled. I could no longer see my faraway classmates. The meadowgrass was taller on the north side, forming a head-high buffer between me and the boathouse. I was abruptly alone, which was why I had come.

Alone, but hardly lonely. As I walked, camera held above the night-damp touch of the grasses, I cast my senses outward. Cicadas rattled and churred from unseen perches. The quieter white noise of other insects was peppered now and then with the call of a bird. Grass swished on my shoes and stroked my legs with gossamer fingers. The further in I went, the more I felt myself slipping into the primitive, tapping into the collective consciousness of the meadow, the same way I do when walking alone into any space unmarked by human hands.

With my camera before me, I started to study the space and its residents. I knelt in the dampness and took pictures of a cicada upside down on a twig, two powder-blue butterflies mating on a stalk of grass, a spider in her web turned crystalline with dew. I dodged wasps and skirted bees, flinching minutely with each step in fear that I should be unlucky enough to discover a ground nest the hard way. Flowers still flushed with summer’s abundance exploded out of the greenness, Queen Anne’s lace and Jerusalem artichoke swishing their bright skirts alongside dancers whose names escaped me. At every hand was the world in slow motion as the meadow existed quietly.

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I was in deep at this point, surrounded for a good distance on each side by the thick grass. I couldn’t judge how long I’d been in the meadow, but I figured we’d be gathering again soon. The stinging insects were starting to wig me out too. In a few long, quick bounds, I traversed a low patch nearby and jumped onto the lane of trimmed grass bounding the southern side. I continued to poke along the edge. Before I started back to the boathouse, I knelt to photograph some chicory, my favorite flower. I straightened, and read the sign below which the chicory grew:

 

FUTURE SITE OF

SEMANS-GRISWOLD

ENVIRONMENTAL HALL

 

Oh. Right. This was where they would be building the new waterfront classroom. I tried to temper the sudden flare of confused sadness brought on by this reminder. It was hardly the first time I’d seen a waste space suddenly disappear under some new development. But this was a unique and conflicted sting. I wanted the new classroom to be built. You can learn all there is to know about something from a book or lecture, but until you experience it with every sense, taste and touch and smell it, you will not truly know it. A classroom on the water would help with this. Yet I mourned for the meadow, its quiet bustle, a mosaic of detail which the students in that future classroom will never know about. Where is the line drawn between progress in the name of helping and teaching, and preservation in the name of aesthetic and ecological integrity? Practically, we cannot leave the wild perfect. We never have; even now, with our technological advances, we need it to survive. But we certainly cannot keep our current trend of using it all until there is nothing left.

In his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon points to the Romantic movement and pilgrims seeking the sublime in the wild to ways in which the concept of wilderness gained power and started to feed the modern environmental movement. “Although God might, of course, choose to show Himself anywhere, He would most often be found in those vast, powerful landscapes where one could not help feeling insignificant and being reminded of one’s own mortality,” writes Cronon. I have known these spaces personally, where the metaphysical membrane between this world and others grows thin. Yet I would argue that this power is also present in the median of the highway, in the seagulls picking garbage from the landfill, in the lot about to paved under. As a reminder of this, I ask the future keepers of the Semans-Griswold Hall: do not dock the land around the building. Do not make it perfect. As a reminder of what was, and of the balance we must maintain, let the space grow up around again, erratic and untouched. Let it be wild. Let it be.

 

Caretaker: My Chesapeake Ethic

My Chesapeake Ethic began young. I grew up on Weems Creek, a silty tributary of the Severn River on the Western Shore, now clogged with derelict boats and crusted with waterfront homes too big to be practical. As a kid, I did not understand the temptation of real estate developers to gnaw up the shoreline and sell the scabs for millions. I only saw the sycamores and tulip poplars being cut down across the creek, and the trash collecting among the phragmiti at the mouth, and the fact that when my big brother and I waded into the water of our cove, we considered it newsworthy if we could see our toes. One of my earliest memories is of my parents banning us temporarily from playing on our favorite beach because a few people upstream had gotten infections from swimming. For as long as I can remember, the Bay has been sick.

That’s not to say it hasn’t gotten better. It’s hard for me to imagine my parents’ Bay, when the ospreys, so common and familiar now to almost not warrant remark, had been spectrally rare. I had never known the scarcity of rockfish that spurred the moratorium in the Eighties. What I did know, from school and my family and simply being on the water: the Bay was better, but it was still sick. This was the fault of my kind.

Humans have made use of the Chesapeake Region for thousands of years. I try to dream up the wild ancestor of the sleepy, marsh-bound flatness I grew up on– a Bay with elk and bears and wolves, where the oyster bars caused navigation hazards and the clarity of the water had been several times greater than the 3-5 feet I was used to. A Bay where the native people survived on the natural abundance of the estuary. It was only in the last 500 years or so, after the arrival and colonization by the Europeans, when the anthropogenic demand outpaced the Bay’s ability to keep up. Tobacco fields drained nutrients from soil that once harbored vast forests. Oysters started to decline. The shad were fished almost into oblivion. By the time I was born, the Bay had been through centuries of exploitation, the consequences of which were really only starting to be significantly understood and addressed in the handful of decades before 2000. I refer to the movement to ban DDT for the sake of the birds of prey, the rockfish moratorium, and the general shift in public consciousness from the Bay as a boundless provider to a limited ecosystem. Still, by then, the Chesapeake had been immunocompromised. But while there continued to be people who either did not know or did not care about their respective roles in the Bay’s illness, there were many people who did.

Among these people are my parents, and many of my friends and teachers, who brought me up to be a good steward of my home. Recycling and picking up litter was the norm in my household. Every morning we biked to school instead of taking a car. My father and I were careful of the number of fish we drew and kept from the water. I grasped and held inside me from pretty early on the idea that every act had consequences, and the little things added up. A body is comprised of cells, cells of atoms. As the boats and houses slowly choking Weems Creek drove home to me, there were a lot of people in the Bay. The actions of even one of us could lead to damage or deliverance.

As I said, when I was young, these big ideas were vague truths I was only beginning to understand. When I was eight, my family and I moved onto a 45-foot sailboat, and spent the next four years essentially as ocean nomads. In comparison to the rainforest of Guatemala, the green cays of the Bahamas glittering in the blueness like beads on a chain, and the other incredible places I was lucky enough to call home for a time, the brown water and stinking hot summers and overpopulation of the Chesapeake seemed constrictive. No one in my family wanted to end back up in Maryland, after leaving from an increasingly crowded Annapolis. But after my mom accepted a job at Washington College in Chestertown, on the Eastern Shore, we warmed to the idea of coming back to Delmarva. I was, and still am, a restless teenager. Though I went to a fantastic high school, and we found a house in a nice neighborhood with a big meadow behind it and woods nearby, for the first few years living on land I was terribly homesick for our traveling life. Inertia made part of me resist our return.

Then I went to college, and everything changed. My first year at Washington found me the happiest and most excited about where and who I was in a long time. But the crazy growth I’ve undergone in the last year has had an unexpected byproduct: my chronic wanderlust has quieted. I still dream of journeys to distant lands, but having more freedom and free time in college has led to me to reconnect with where I come from. In learning more about the Chesapeake, I was appalled by how much I did not know. Luckily, between my mom’s status as Director of Media Relations and my having spent a lot of the last five summers hanging out at a liberal arts college, I’m surrounded by experts. Ornithologists reintroduced me to the birds. Master gardeners taught my mom and me how to cultivate local crops. Primitive technicians showed me which common weeds could nourish a hungry forager. In this weird, slow homecoming I’ve been undergoing since moving back to the region, my love for the interlocking pieces of the Bay country has grown.

John Burroughs, in his essay “The Art of Seeing Things,” celebrates the power of attention. In looking and seeing, in hearing and listening, there is secret divinity. “The eye sees what it has the means of seeing, and its means of seeing are in proportion to the love and desire behind it,” writes Burroughs. “The eye is informed and sharpened by the thought.” Since learning more about the Bay country, the more I have tried to experience it deliberately. I sharpen my reception of what is around me. When I walk, I seek. I listen for voices I recognize. I try to remember the wonder inherent in the land. I remind myself that the tiny pieces before me, around and underfoot, make up this place, fragile and imperfect and abused, and deserving of our love and protection. The Bay has taken care of humanity for millennia. In this age of change, it’s imperative we continue to return the favor.