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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Deal Island: The Beauty of Reconstruction

Gravel tumbled beneath the tires of our Washington College Bus as we pulled into the ship yard. We filed out into the biting cold, rushing into the reconstruction tent, to meet Professor Weist on site. We huddled like penguins in the arctic as wind whipped through the tent, listening intently to Professor Weist’s commentary. He informed us that this skipjack was constructed in 1901, and that she is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

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Source: Coastal Heritage Alliance

Great care is taken in reconstructing this. Members of the Coastal Heritage Alliance work on this project as shipwrights would have in the past. While there may be slight alterations to the Kathryn, this is done simply to ensure their work will last longer, as technologies have advanced. I was awestruck that such dedication is given to using the same methods  of previous generations. This waterman culture found in the Chesapeake is not only on the water, as I previously thought. It extends to the land; to the methods of construction of the skipjack.

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Source: Coastal Heritage Alliance

We had the privilege to work on her ourselves, branching off into different sections. Some students were planing, some creating bungs, some painting boards already a part of the Kathryn. I was lucky enough to work with the next panel to be placed on the stern of the skipjack, tarring the board before it would be screwed into place. Our Chesapeake Semester group got to sign our names on the inside of the plank, to commemorate our hard work.  Working on this project has given me a new appreciation for this culture. I have dipped my hands into the waterman’s paint, soiled my workpants with the waterman’s tar, and rinsed my hair with the waterman’s sawdust. I feel a stronger connection to what we strive to do in the Chesapeake Bay; as environmentalists, we strive to Save the Bay, in turn saving the oysters. And the way I see it, we’ll be saving these watermen, too.

World Wide Watermen

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Communities have been constructed around waterways for centuries. Peru has a rich, distinct connection to the water due to the Humboldt Current. This is similar to our estuary, the Chesapeake Bay. Both of these have supplied society with rich culture and delicious foods.

The Humboldt Current is an upwelling along the coast of Peru, which brings nutrient dense, cold water to the surface. This is the perfect habitat for Anchoveta, which has become an incredibly important species to more than just the ocean. As a keystone species, the aquatic ecosystem would collapse if all of the Anchoveta disappeared. Unfortunately, this fish is becoming overharvested, which threatens the ocean and the economy based around this little fish. Peru has become a crucial component of agriculture in the world, as they produce fish by-products. Fishmeal is used to feed livestock, especially to chickens and farmed fish. Also, this fish is processed into fish oil, which is consumed by humans. An entire economy has become based around this species, and not enough focus is being spent on the health of the fishery. Pollution from the processing factories wreak havoc on the health of the ocean, and this pushes Anchoveta out to deeper waters. This makes it more difficult for watermen to bring in their catch, as they remain at sea longer. In addition, not as much is able to be caught and processed because the health of the fishery is in decline. This trend has been occurring with our own fisheries of the Chesapeake, particularly the oyster.

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The oyster in the Chesapeake Bay has produced an entire culture on the Eastern Shore. Watermen have been working the waters for centuries, and pass these traditions down to their children. Unfortunately, there is just  one percent of the original oyster population left in the Bay, which creates a difficult situation to continue this tradition. Watermen focus on the profit that can be derived from harvesting oysters; they do not dwell on the health of the fishery. Meeting with Captain Wadey proved this; he declared himself that he would have extracted the last oyster in the Bay. The oyster is important to the Bay’s health too – these organisms filter the water, thus cleaning it. Having fewer oysters drastically decreases the health of the Bay. There is a vicious cycle occuring here: more people move to the area who desire these delicate creatures, which leads to more extraction. However, more people on the shore leads to more pollution, which results in needing more oysters in the Bay to help clean it up. Again, the watermen see this as an opportunity to sell more oysters, and will merely  do what is required to harvest as much as they are able to. Even with quotas on the fishery and restoration projects, there has been so much damage that a moratorium may be the only true solution to prevent a total fishery collapse.

Both locations are ecologically diverse, yet human intervention has led to similar environmental concerns. By working closely in either fishery, it may be possible to discover a solution to the declining populations, and apply to other areas around the world.

Conceptual Island Comparison: PDP and Smith Island

While an Island is typically defined as land surrounded by water, I declare that it is much more than that. An island is an isolated area with distinct cultural aspects. Parque de la Papa is an island of the mainland, with a special distinction based around its main food source: the potato.

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Parque de la Papa depends 3,600 varieties of potatoes for nourishment, and it has also become a very important part of the culture here. The starchy vegetable supplies the caloric needs of individuals working hard in the fields here, as agriculture is the main source of jobs in the highlands. The cultral signifigance can be seen with just one example of a potato, with a name that translates to “That which makes the daughter-in-law-cry”. This knobbed potato determines whether or not a woman is ready to be wed, depending on whether or not she successfully peels it with little damage to its flesh. There is very little outside influence on this culture, as they are tucked away 10,000 feet above sea level. However, there are environmental factors affecting the success of this culture. As temperatures and conditions are changing, the land area suitable for crops diminishes. This results in the younger generation to move to other areas, such as the city of Cusco, to make a better living. A smilar issue can be seen with Smith Island, located in the Chesapeake Bay.

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Smith Island fits the stereotypical definition of an island, but also falls under the isolated cultural aspect. This small landmass is centered around the watermen culture, with crabbing as its main source of income. This is a family tradition, as the profession is taught to family members at a young age. However, environmental change is making it more difficult to successfully make an income in this fashion. Crab populations are declining, which makes it less profitable to become a waterman. Even though fewer crabs results in higher prices, the price of equipment has gone up as well, and ends no longer meet. Children have left the island to find better opportunities to support themselves on the mainland. This small island will eventually become a memory, as the average age of individuals living here is steadily rising.

Both of these locations are distinct in many cultural and geographic ways. However, they face the same issues, as they are both isolated environments. Hopefully one day there will be an effective way to preserve the cultures here, and the success story can fuel the future success of other island-like communities.

Religion through an Envionmental Lens: Smith Island

We loaded up the ferry with out belongings for the next two days, and began our journey across the bay to Smith Island. Speeding off across the water, the scent of brackish water overcame our senses while we ate lunch on the deck, hair whipping around our faces. After an hour of travel, we stepped onto the dock of a quaint little town, Ewell. It appeared to be nearly a ghost town, a few elders rolling by on their golf carts as they traveled through the heart of town. Leaving the dock we passed a Smith Island museum, Ruke’s, and a church. Ruke’s is a small grocery store and restaurant, with delicious food. First time I’ve ever had a soft-shell crab, and I couldn’t have tried it at a better place! Our experience here was interesting and enlightening, interacting with townsfolk and walking the streets at night to look at the stars.

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Smith Island: Land Loss

Smith Island is a culturally distinct, 1200 acre mass of marsh lands inhabited by just over 200 individuals. The population is in decline as it has become more difficult to make a living as a waterman. We stayed in a quaint home located in Ewell, courtesy of Michelle. This town is comprised of an elderly population, with very few members below the age of 50. Smith Island hosts a very religious community, with multiple churches in a town. We were presented with an opportunity to attend part of a Revival, which was a colorful experience.

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Pastor Rick, Smith Island

Pastor Rick introduced the guest Minister, who took control of the pulpit and shook the audience with his message. While he paraded around the front of the church, waving his arms about wildly while telling his story, I couldn’t help but alter the point he was making. Pastor Willy lamented that we must pay attention to the warning signs Jesus is sending, or else prepare ourselves for an eternal afterlife of torment. All the while asking us to embrace God and serve him selflessly. But this guest Minister made an excellent point while discussing the warning signs. While he expressed this in a religious sense, I applied his message to our environmental mission. Mother nature has given us countless warning signs to change the path which we are sprinting down before it is too late to reverse the damage that has been done. A current example of this would be the rising temperatures this time of year – it is uncommon for it to be warm enough to swim in the Atlantic in early October. Tropical Storm Karen pushed the heat north, which heated our system, but this can be linked to climate change. Our strengthening storm systems are a result of changing weather patterns, and these disrupted patterns wreak havoc on the earth. These are all warning signs of a wrench in the cycle, which unless we begin to take measures to reverse some of the damage we have inflicted on this planet, we will all be tormented by the effects.

That Minister knew what he was talking about after all!

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.