Case Analysis: To Save or Not to Save? Disappearing Cultural Hubs

Islands in the Chesapeake Bay have been inhabited for centuries, allowing for cultural niches to form. These areas have prospered, though have been shaken by the negative impacts their cultures have faced. The specific coastal environments that make these locations distinguishable play a key role in the development of these cultural areas. As the shorelines are receding, these areas are under threat of potential extinction, such as the fate of Holland Island. This poses a difficult question: do we defy nature, and attempt to save the culture by way of rebuilding the island? Or do we let nature take its course, destroying both the island and potentially the culture?

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These cultures are incredibly unique. Do we have a responsibility to preserve small cultures such as these? People may feel that abstaining from interfering is morally wrong; that we need to save this nearly sacred ground. If the land is lost, we lose the significance of people’s local knowledge – and what use would this knowledge be if they were displaced from their home land? Mere memories that would turn into folk tales. We perceive cultures as significant pieces of the past, present, and future. We are able to see into the past through traditions and patterns that people follow. Specific to island communities in the Chesapeake is the skipjack. These boats have been present for centuries, and invented to smoothly sail over the contours of the waterway. Presently, these cultures are celebrated annually with festivals such as the Oyster Fest. We take pride in having these individuals, keeping up family traditions and passing the watermen’s work boots down to children and grandchildren. Cultures can be projected into the future, in order to prepare us for future occurrences. For example, the oyster dredging can be seen as a positive and negative aspect of the business. While the watermen claim it helps fluff the oyster bars, removing sediment, and keeping the oysters happy, others will present information opposing this. Dredging also rips up any sub aquatic vegetation, or SAVs, which results in depleted oxygen and reduces the population of other species.   However, there is also the ethical obligation to allow nature to take its course. By adding bulkheads and extra sediment to these islands, we disrupt the cyclical nature of these environments. Some people believe that for every action is there a reaction at least equivalent to what had been done. Using this, it could be said that when we try to save these islands, just for strong hurricanes that wreak havoc on these environments, it is because they are meant to slowly disappear with time. Therefore, two conflicting ideas are apparent here, creating a complex situation.

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If we strive to save the culture, it would be beautiful to see this flourish. This culture has survived for centuries, beginning with the oyster market boom. We can see its history through the hundreds of oyster can brands that were created to keep up with the supply from years past. The small island culture is the source of character for the Chesapeake Bay. They have been able to survive in these small communities because of the fruitful harvest the Bay has provided for centuries. Skipjacks were created specifically for this region, all based around the desire to harvest oysters. The white boots these men wear are symbolic of the long hours, hard work, and dedication put into this career. Prolonging the survival of this culture presents an opportunity for their children to become involved and continue the traditions of the culture. But at what cost?

Attempting to stave off the inevitable disappearance of these islands will only produce further issues. Many methods of preserving an island ultimately destroy other habitats. It starves environments of sand deposits and other essential materials. Feeding money into methods such as bulkheads and depositing dredge material may buy more time, but it can not truly save the island. Waves eat away the shoreline for an eternity, and will not cease this behavior merely because of human intervention. And why buy more time for these individuals, just to make them ultimately move away from their homeland?

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There is no simple solution to this predicament. However, I believe the most practical solution will be to have these individuals move off of the islands. It is not easy to consider this the best solution, but there are many reasons that submission to Mother Nature’s desires is best for everyone. Attempting to save these islands is futile at best. Of course it may buy more time, but even so, would it still be the island these individuals once lived on? The answer is simply no. By adding land, it results in the opportunity to have more development pop up, and also distorts the heart of the island. It would result in changing the location of marinas, which would be a large shock to the community. In addition, this culture is already being influenced by outside forces. While the impact has been slight, they have proven themselves to be relatively resilient to individuals on the main land. Therefore, these watermen would be able to adjust to living on the mainland, with slight changes to their culture. The truth of the matter is that individuals are leaving the island for reasons other than erosion. There are no jobs here. This culture is already beginning to fade, as younger generations do not see it as a profitable field. In retrospect, moving away from these small islands sooner than later may ultimately preserve more of the culture than if they wait until the water is at their doorstep.

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Culture Shock: Peruvians and Americans

A young boy ran by, throwing rocks at his small herd of piglets. He shyly smiled at our group1393884_771692342847931_481413038_n, quickly returning to his siblings. At this moment, Becca decided to give them each one of her soles in order to repay the children for letting us take their picture. The children appeared to cower as she approached them with her charming smile, but warmed up to her as Alejandra explained what the situation was. However, they smiled through their confusion, rolling their shiny coins across their tiny, dirt-encrusted palms.

We all snapped pictures of the children with our fancy, high-tech cameras, their eyes widening at the clicking and beeping coming from the devices. After their first photo shoot, I turned the camera around to show the children what we captured. They were shocked, and I realized this may have been the first time they had seen themselves in something other than a reflection in a window, or a glassy lake. As for our little Alejanda, this two year old girl may have seen herself for the very first time. I realized we may have made a dangerous mistake by talking to these children.

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Parque de la Papa is where we interacted with these children. An incredibly traditional area; a strong belief system placed in the natural environment, generations of knowledge passed down to individuals. This region focuses on trading, not monetary gain. The little income they have can really only be used in Cusco, although we did pass a few small shops driving through the mountain range. The sad realization is, that this was such an insignificant exchange for us in the grand scheme of things. Passing a single sole onto each of these children was such a simple task for the Americans to do – it hardly amounted to anything in our minds. But to these children, it was a life changing interaction. Their mothers may never be able to do what we did. While she can supply them with endless love, patience, food, and a home – money is a twisted material that can make all of those important aspects of life appear irrelevant, unnecessary.

Had we not been present at this moment in time, these children may have continued playing with their piglets, happily enjoying the bliss that is childhood. A dastardly chain of events may have come from this simple gesture though. This single sole may intrigue the children enough to pose for more pictures from the gringos that visit. Which will perpetuate this exchange, and increase the likelihood of them jumping onto the money train. It will carry them down into the city of Cusco, with varying jobs of modeling as natives of the highlands for pictures, or perhaps establishing themselves in shops. Regardless of the specific job, ultimately they may remove themselves from their native culture. All resulting from a single sole.

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A similar shocking realization occurred at Machu Picchu. While enjoying our tour of this wonder of the world, I lost track of Sonya’s voice as my eardrums were flooded with pleading voices. I looked around, and a gaggle of young boys approached me asking for a photo. So of course I obliged, crouching down for their mother to take our picture. I was incredibly overwhelmed, laughing with the children as they put their arm over my shoulders. They thanked me graciously, and scampered off to see the rest of the ruins. This interaction left me perplexed for the continuation of the tour. Why were they so impressed by a gringa?

I began observing all of the natives milling about the ruins. While I believed they stood out, I realized it was truly us who clashed. We were adorned in t-shirts, hiking boots, khaki cargo pants, all of the outdoorsy materials that come to mind when you think ‘hiking’. But everyone else was dressed to the nines. Sporting their boxy Beats headphones, “fresh kicks”, and even high heels. This last asset completely blew my mind – wearing heels, to HIKE? And not even just hills, but MACHU PICCHU?! After a short conversation with Mike, however, everything came together and made sense.

These children are coming from poor areas within Peru. School trips come to Machu Picchu, for while we see it as a Wonder of the World, Peruvians may view it as we see a national monument. Fun to come and look at, a neat tribute to their ancestors. For others, this is a sacred area, as many Apus are reflected in many areas of the site. This presents itself as an occasion to put on your best clothing, your best smile, and show off what you have. And this certainly put everything into perspective for me.

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We are an unrealistically lucky set of students. We were easily the youngest travelers visiting this beautiful mystery site, equipped with the best accommodations offered. Although I was excited to take pictures with the children we met at Parque de la Papa, and the boys at Machu Picchu, I truly believe we left a grander impact on their life than theirs on ours. Although they appear in different forms, the Peruvian children and the American young adults really shared a similar experience. For this is easily a sliver of my life – an incredible, life changing experience  – but still just a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of where I may end up, what I can accomplish. But it has planted the traveling bug in me, and I now desire to travel around the world. For some of these kids, it could have been the highlight of their childhood. Visiting Machu Picchu, seeing truly a work of art; receiving their first sole, seeing a picture of themselves for the first time. And this may have also redirected the course of their life. That’s the power of cultural divides. This just goes to show: no matter how many miles, languages, and skin colors divide us, we are all innately human. Our experiences, though they may seem heavily divided, are truly similar while looking through the right lens.

The Mighty Susquehanna

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We scrambled into our canoes, eager to begin our journey on the mighty Susquehanna. I remember Doug imploring us to rip our eyes away from the beautiful landscape and look beneath us – what did we see? Was it the murky, contaminated waters we had been warned about before beginning our adventure? Quite the contrary – the water was clear. Had it been in a water bottle, nobody would have been the wiser, and could have thought it came straight from the tap. But I was immediately overcome with disbelief. If this was the water flowing into the bay, why does this beautiful river have such a bad reputation?

An interaction between Nature and Culture unveils itself here. Our current means of obtaining sustenance is a reflection of our culture, which inevitably negates natural cycles found in nature. Intense manipulation of the landscape is the first problem in the agricultural equation. Tilling topsoil increases the rate of erosion, which increases turbidity of the water. Normally, an increase is viewed as a positive effect, a net gain. However, turbidity is frowned upon, as it is a lack of water clarity. Now, an important point to make is the lack of farming in the area we paddled through. The upper Susquehanna consists of residential communities and strip malls, not agriculture. But the upper part of river did not always appear this pristine. Susquehanna Outfitters owner, Steve, informed us about his childhood experience on the river – which was nonexistent.

Steve shared with us some dark history of the beautiful waterway. Coal mining was an intense business decades ago, and coal dust saturated the river. Soot stained the water black; there was no life in the water. Yet another example of how our culture destroys the beauty of nature. Coal mining was certainly beneficial to society, however, annihilated biodiversity in the river. Steve informed us that many of the islands found on the river are built upon coal dust deposits. This, therefore, could potentially lend itself to contaminating the river water, as the pH level of the water would be negatively influenced by the acid leeching from this widely used energy source. Yet Steve taught us a valuable lesson – inspect the invertebrates of the water to determine its health.

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After dividing into groups, we conquered Steve’s simple assignment:  inspect the underside of as many stones as possible to fill up the immaculate dividing containers bestowed upon us. In simpler terms, put a different organism in each section of the ice cube tray. I couldn’t believe how simple this experiment was, and how crucial it is in order to determine the health of the waterway. We discovered a plethora of species, including crayfish, mayflies, and assorted worms. The importance of the exercise was not simply find the organism, jump for joy that there is sign of life, and move on. Steve broke it down a step further, organizing them by how toxic of an environment they can survive in. The mayfly was the most important, as these critters cannot survive in highly contaminated waters. But the question is, are there mayflies throughout the river, or just at the top?

Had we been able to continue to the lower Susquehanna, I’m positive we would have discovered more turbidity due to agriculture. We came across many individuals throughout Journey Two that claimed the Bay is filthy due to the Susquehanna. There must be some reason behind all of the fuss over this river. But if this is not the case, then we must go back to a smaller source. We must discover the health of the brooks and streams that feed the Susquehanna. Everybody is willing to point fingers at the larger issue in order to keep them from changing their ways.

Agriculture may not back up immediately to the Susquehanna, but to smaller tributaries that feed the mighty river. This would require tighter restrictions and regulations to clean up the issue. While on the Chester River there are buffer zone requirements, these are not always abided by. The same may be true to areas feeding to the Susquehanna. If there is no land and vegetation to deter run off from entering the stream, then obviously contaminated water will find its way to the bay. In order to solve this problem, it must become a community wide effort, and everyone must stop pointing fingers. Nobody wants to point to themselves in the mirror, telling themselves to clean up their dirty farming practices. But this is what must occur in order to see any positive result in the bay.

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Only so much can be accomplished once contaminated waters reach the bay. But if we begin at the source, minimizing the chemicals and sediment seeping into the freshwater system, then the Bay may have some hope. A cleaner Bay may be seen in the distant future. The transformation would not occur over night, but I challenge farmers along this mighty, beautiful waterway to clean up their practice. If you love the Bay, and you want clean water, then you need to be willing to take the first step. Start cleaning up your act today to ensure clean water for the future.

Case Analysis: Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

The Chesapeake Semester presents a fabulous opportunity to gain hands on field experience, as we discovered through the first twelve day journey. Prior to departure, Professor McCabe held a lecture discussing Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Leopold presents the notion that society must make the transition between instrumentally valuing the land and learn to value the landscape intrinsically. Instrumental value is placed on objects that individuals cherish merely for what it gives to the person. For example, cell phones are valued for what they allow us to do: contact people in different areas. Intrinsic value is applied to something for the nature of itself. Therefore, human beings and priceless works of art may possess intrinsic value. Difficulties arise once a request is made for individuals to consider intrinsically valuing the land. Nature has always been perceived as a commodity: how many crops can fit onto this plot of land, what type of structure can be constructed on these soils, how profitable are these pelts? Leopold claims, “A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state”(Leopold, A Sand County Almanac). While traveling around the Bay, I considered Leopold’s proposal, digesting the paradoxical system we were participating in.

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The mobile classroom rolled over seemingly endless miles of impermeable surfaces, passing hectares of disturbed lands: flecked with buildings or transformed into sterile, monoculture fields. Absorbing this, I reconsidered how I viewed the entirety of the journey. Prior to remembering Professor McCabe’s lecture, I could barely contain my excitement to travel around the area and discover these interesting, new locations. However, I began to think about the impact we made during the adventure. Snaking our way around the Bay, we covered over six hundred miles. Just in this six hundred mile stretch, try to envision the amount of deforestation that occurred in order to pave the way to our destinations. How much earth was displaced while creating the quarries that provided the construction companies with stone to pave these roads?  Consider the amount of fossil fuels burned in order to cart ourselves to these various regions. Thinking back to the origin of fossil fuels, how much destruction of land and aquatic ecosystems occurred in order for us to explore these areas?  And think of the vehicle used – a large, fuel inefficient bus. This hunk of metal, rubber, and plastic was created from materials which wreaked havoc on the environment during extraction. Countless hours were dedicated to developing the quarry, from which the iron ore was extracted in order to create the steel shell of the bus. As most tires are petroleum based, that is another material that comes from the oil rigs. I will refrain from delving into the disgusting concept that is plastic, which now finds its way into everything. This paradox has left me stumped – this semester is an opportunity to experience systems that desperately need tending to in order to thrive once more, like the Chesapeake Bay. This semester sheds light on potential career paths, one which may promise a better environment for our future children and grandchildren. Choosing this phenomenal program stemmed from a similar desire to make a mark, make a change, make a difference in the world, all through an environmental lens. Yet from the get-go, we pollute the environment. The idea is there, yet our actions do not correspond with our desires.

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Dr. Schindler brought this concept to my attention one night while camping at Chino Farms. He expressed his concern that individuals walk to the local farmers market, with their reusable bag, and purchase goods directly from the farmer. Sporting a smile, they pat themselves on the back for their good deed and travel home, content with their ‘green’ action for the day. But what did this actually accomplish? The food was still grown by another individual, delivered to this community environment, and is not that much different from purchasing the vegetables from the supermarket. At first I disagreed with him, annoyed with the fact that he dismissed these people as simply demonstrating a valiant effort to be more environmentally conscious. However, reflecting on our journey, as well as his words, I now agree with his opinion. This ‘valiant effort’ concept pertains to the journeys also. Yes, it is incredible to visit these locations and I would have hated to miss this great opportunity. But it does contradict what we hope to accomplish: reducing our impact and minimizing our involvement in the cycle which negatively impacts the Chesapeake.

I suppose this is the part that becomes most painful: deciding what is most important in our current societal situation. We are always making compromises, ensuring it is always in our favor. Take the idea of a land ethic. Few have committed themselves to sustaining a lifestyle which fits this description, because it becomes inconvenient. I hate knowing my mode of transportation contributes to the unsustainable, insecure reliance on finite fossil fuels, and that it adds to the demand for oil. But I also want to travel to Peru. Our human nature is highly contradicting, and this makes it incredibly difficult to adhere to what we perceive as our moral obligations, especially when discussing the environment. Because while it is an organic, animate system, we have detached ourselves so much from the beauty of its existence, creating blinders for ourselves to see simply the extractable resources of the landscape.