Friday, May 20, 2005

The Chesapeake's Swan Song?

Tom Horton’s “Why Can’t We Save The Bay?,” an article in the June 2005 issue of National Geographic, is essentially a regional piece, focusing on the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay. This bay, however, is the largest estuary in the United States; as such, it is a litmus test for environmental degradation everywhere.

I grew up on the Atlantic side of the Delmarva Peninsula, the thin slice of land extending south from Pennsylvania. Three states share the territory, with Maryland and Delaware claiming the wider span of the peninsula in the north and Virginia holding title to the narrow, southern tail. Connected to mainland Virginia only by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 23-mile long engineering feat, the Eastern Shore of Virginia was my home for the first thirteen years of my life. My parents still live there. Like most towns on “the Shore,” as we natives call it, my hometown was almost exclusively populated by fisherman and farmers in the late 1970s. Today, however, as with so many towns on the Delmarva Peninsula, these jobs are vanishing. Instead, most folks work in the “service industry,” meaning they hold jobs at McDonald's, 7-Eleven, or Food Lion (Wal-mart has yet to arrive on the southern peninsula), but a significant portion also find employment at the chicken factories of Perdue Farms, Holly Farms, and Tyson. As those that still remember when a charter boat captain was a wealthy man and a crabber could support a family die and the younger people become more disconnected from the ecosystem, the bay suffers.

Tom Horton blames population and pollution for the Chesapeake's ails. As he points out, two times as many people now live here as in 1950 (8 million has become 16 million). Unfortunately, many of these new settlers view the bay as a “major playground.” Living in New York City, I take a certain pride in being a southern boy, but a trip home (or a look at the spread on pages 24-25 of the magazine, which features a group of beer-guzzling speed boat enthusiasts who call themselves the Battle Creek Gang) too often reminds me of what the Shore’s populace has become. As with all environmental concerns, everything comes back to population and pressure. One can only hope that the writers addressing the issue, whether popular or outdoor journalists, communicate the urgency. For the Chesapeake Bay, the situation is dire; as Horton points out, “The latest ecological report card gave the bay a failing grade of 27 out of 100.” Worse yet, a dry year means the grade would have been even lower had more excess nitrogen been washed into the bay from farmers' fields upriver.

While increasing pollution is directly connected to the burgeoning population, pollution legislation seems more practical than population control measures, which raise the ire of most citizens. But apathy is endemic on the Delmarva Peninsula; the western shore, with our nation’s capital sitting alongside one of the bay’s major tributaries, offers the most hope. Some conservationists worry that, barring drastic and immediate action, we've already reached the “tipping point."
“A lack of both political will and enforcement has slowed progress in tackling the other big pollution sources – agriculture, cars, power plants, and urban storm water. We’ve been similarly lax in containing the sprawl consuming forests and wetlands – vegetation that absorbs millions of pounds of nutrients from polluted air and run-off – at the rate of more than 100 acres a day. And the demise of oysters, which once filtered and cleansed huge volumes of bay water as they fed on algae, has been an ecological disaster. ‘It’s like someone removed 99 percent of the filter in your aquarium,’ said Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.”
As Scott Phillips, Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey states, “You’re going to have to change people’s values to improve this ecosystem.” Tom Horton seems discouraged. “Public support often seems like the estuary itself, impressively broad but deceptively shallow,” he writes. Perhaps part of the problem is the cultural divide which separates the two shores, west and east. As my father wrote in his 1982 book Wanderer On My Native Shore,
“Because the bay is divided between two state governments that rarely see eye to eye on any issue, and because the bay is further divided culturally between its city-based white-collar populations and its rural-based farmers and fishermen, the Chesapeake offers special problems in resource management quite unlike those found in other sections of the nation.”
Sadly, such challenges are no longer isolated to the Chesapeake watershed.

In May of 1607, Captain John Smith landed on the banks of the James River on the western shore, just downstream from my alma mater in Williamsburg, Virginia. Smith and his companions found an ecosystem exploding with abundance. Despite their battles with illness and sporadic attacks from the region’s Native American tribes, food was plentiful for those settlers willing to fish, hunt, and trade. Almost four hundred years later, we have nearly exhausted the supply of blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus: the translation is “savory beautiful swimmer”), American oysters (Crassostrea virginica), ducks, and most game fish species. Those species still thriving today are, not surprisingly, those which adapt well to human settlement, including the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), snow goose (Chen caerulescens), Canada goose (Branta canadensis) and the invasive mute swan (Cygnus olor). The large predators – the black bear (Ursus americanus), red wolf (Canis rufus), and grey wolf (Canis lupis) - have long since been exterminated. In the National Geographic article, Walter Boynton, a scientist working on the Patuxent River points out that, just 40 years ago, oysters were “an essential food, part of the culture – and now they’re an hors d’oeuvre.” But Boynton continues, “I wonder if the bay has become like that for many people, from being essential to an hors d’oeuvre.”

Reading Horton’s article, I thought of the closing comments my father made in his chapter on the Chesapeake watershed. He wrote them in the early 1980s, but the language is similarly eulogistic.
“A philosopher might take the long view. This benign-weather interlude we have been enjoying since the first colonists came to the New World may be coming to an end. Perhaps, in another thousand years, climate patterns will be so altered, the Susquehanna will have reverted to its primeval course and surge into the Atlantic many miles east of the present Virginia capes; or, contrariwise, there may be no Virginia capes when a rising sea drowns the coastal plain.

Will our descendants have the diversity of life that inspired such great variety in Algonquian culture? What will recreation be like on a less salubrious and species-poor planet? Will the requirements of survival be so compelling that most people will work with their heads down, oblivious to the world around them, like oyster cullers [in the Chesapeake] today?”
Dad, let's hope not.

Photo credit: Peter Essick, 2004


Les said...

hungry: i'll ignore your nasty little yankees jibe because you're sick and obviously delirious.

I had the pleasure of travelling south from ny to the florida keys in a trailer with my grandfather and his two dogs thirteen years ago. We took all local, coastal roads, and made sure to stop at trailer parks in small towns and take in the culture and sights in each state along the way. One of the highlights for me was travelling through this area you speak of (including the wonderous chesapeake bay bridge/tunnel). Talking to locals back then highlighted the full range of viewpoints that still exist today...Either people were deeply concerned about the direction of things, or they were completely oblivious to any problems.

I think that many people in this country consider themselves too busy with their own lives (paying the bills, raising families, finding scraps of time to relax and forget the world's woes), that they don't leave brainspace for the big picture. While this sounds like a horribly negative view, I also feel that if you beat a message into people's heads with enough frequency and volume it will eventually seep into their consciousness (hopefully pushing out other worthless information, like who won american idol). The hardest part is getting the ball rolling.

I find it very easy to get depressed by the rate of rapid change everywhere I look these days. Greed and laziness has opened up every sacred spot to real estate developers and other current digs, Coney Island, is about to get completely transformed into a virtual indoor mall. A century's worth of culture is about to get tossed away in a year or two's time so that the boardwalk can look like any other strip mall in America, and no one seems to even be aware of it, much less care. There are not enough voices like yours out there. I admit I'm so busy trying to make my life into something and pay the bills and spend time with my wife, that I don't get involved enough in causes like this. I do what I can, even if it's spreading the word or donating money.

The more voices like yours out there, the better, brother.

Feel better. Don't die if you can help it.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Still sick and still delirious, but at least the Mets won today. I actually have tickets to tomorrow's game and I'm determined to make it. Seeing as I'm having trouble navigating my apartment, though, I'm trying a little mind over matter mojo.

Anyway, I remember you mentioning the trailer trip once. It reminds me of John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charlie," the record of his cross country (and back again) trip with Charlie, his dog, to "find America." He made that trip in the late 1950s, but many of his observations still ring true today. I used to travel more; I hope to one day have enough money to do so again...or find someone to send me on assignment. Wouldn't that be nice?

While I'm not sure my voice is reaching anyone who doesn't already share my perspective to some extent, I agree that we need more people making a fuss. Frankly, donating money is far more than most people do. The only trouble is, once you start giving to groups you support, the requests from any like-minded organization begin to pour in. I'm a member of about ten different environmental groups, some with a local focus and others, like the Sierra Club or Earthjustice, with a more broad view. I receive solicitations from at least thirty different groups, though, and it gets very annoying after a while.

Anyway, I'll try not to die and I'll try to make the game tomorrow. Go Mets! Go Cubbies! ;)

Devo said...

I agree wtih Les... though I have trouble believing that raising consciousness is ever going to be easy, even once the ball is rolling. The power of the dark side is immense. I have a feeling that in the short term, things is gonna get real hairy-like. Of course, I'm a firm believer in eternal "balance of the force" so to speak. Everything is always profoundly perfect, but that's a very difficult conclusion to come to what with The Royal Walton family running shit and bills pouring in from every crevice. Either way, I also agree with Les that there SHOULD be more voices like yours... though again, you've lived one helluva life, and very few people will have the opportunities you've had. That makes forging new minds like yours a very cumbersome task... so perhaps your stories can be nearly as inspirational as the experiences themselves... if so, there's hope...