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.