This week’s post is a special installment of Beautiful Swimmers- written by CBMM’s director of education (and author of this blog) Kate Livie, it is a featured piece for the Maryland Humanities Council’s “Let’s Be Shore” project, which focuses on water quality/ quality of life issues on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. You can check out the rest of their project’s blog, videos, and articles here: http://letsbeshore.org/ and Kate’s original post here: http://bit.ly/L68RX0
Now on to the story:
“Tell me some words that described the Chesapeake Bay,” I say to the group of students clustered in an Indian-style semi-circle at my feet. They wave their hands, eager to respond, and as I point to each in turn, they share their one-word assessments:
As I listen to these kids describe the Chesapeake they’re familiar with, I remember opening my eyes underwater in the Chester River as a child, like them. The water swirled with eddies of sediment, and my hands, parting the current before me, looked as pallid as the underbelly of a perch. Emerging from the waterside, my sister and I would look at each other and laugh: silt moustaches, like the remnants of a glass of chocolate milk, would cling to our upper lips as a thick particulate ring. I wouldn’t have described the Chesapeake I knew then as dirty, even though it was, or polluted. I would have said, “swimming,” or “crabbing,” or “fun.” All of my associations with the Bay came from first-hand experiences, and most of them were magical: swimming at Cacaway Island, waiting with a dipnet for a dangling jimmy to emerge on a slow trotline, screaming into the wind as the Whaler plowed through rolling wake at the turn on Devil’s Reach. Listening to my students at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland, I’m struck by two things: how far away most kids today are from the intimate and wonderful relationship I enjoyed with the Chesapeake as a child, and the inevitable question: will my grandchildren know even a shadow of the Bay I love?
The author trotlining on the Chester River as a kid.
I know I’m a rarity around here these days––a professional young adult committed to making the Eastern Shore my permanent home. So many of us from the next generation have moved away to follow jobs and the promise of opportunity, but a number of young folk have listened to the siren call of our roots and come back to settle in our hometowns. It’s a compromise, of course. You give up big concerts and ethnic food and the promise of a plethora of well-paying professional opportunities for the languid summer days, familiar faces and crooked brick sidewalks of home.
There is never a day that I doubt my decision–it just feels right. Watching an ombre sunset of oranges and pinks over the salt meadows at Eastern Neck Island, I know continuing my family’s legacy along the Chester and deepening my roots was an inevitability rather than a choice. But accepting my place in the line of six generations of Bay residents comes with responsibility as well as rewards. At this watershed point in history (all puns intended), how will we Chesapeake people shape the future of the Eastern Shore we love so well?
Storm clouds hover over Eastern Neck Island. Photo by author.
As the director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, this thought is a constant thread through the weft of my professional as well as personal life. Just as our lives along the Bay’s edges are defined by the constant presence of the Bay and its tributaries, so too is the Chesapeake Bay increasingly defined by the people living in its watershed. Our population swells with each successive decade in the area surrounding the Bay, and in response, the quality of the water, and abundance of wildlife, and the lush acreage of marsh meadow both above and below the waterline attenuate accordingly.
When you live on the Eastern Shore, the signs are hard to ignore because they’re everywhere. If we haven’t yet reached the tipping point from which we can never return, we soon will. Every summer, the dead zones, fed by a thick blanket of human, animal, and chemical waste, stretch their suffocating boundaries farther– and the fish they kill float tumescently on the water when I run my dogs out at Sassafras. The oyster population, once one of the Bay’s keystone animals, hovers at one percent of its original number– and the native oysters we shuck at Thanksgiving are thick and furrowed with MSX and Dermo. Even watermen, in my childhood as natural and expected a part of the Bay landscape as the blue heron, have been forced away from the coves and creeks where they once made their daily bread. Nowadays, just a few communities struggle on, and people come to museums like mine to see the tools and traditions that watermen developed in response to the thriving ribbons of life that used to pulse through the estuary.
But in spite of everything, and even if the words my students use to describe the Bay they know are accurate, it isn’t too late for us to change. It isn’t past the point where we can all agree that maybe we’re going about this the wrong way. There needs to be a balance between what is sustainable for us as humans, and what is sustainable for the Chesapeake’s environment. Ideally the balance would weigh both goals, human and environmental, as equally important. It’s an approach that makes sense, especially when you consider how irrevocably entangled we are now, and have always been, with our landscape in the Bay.
I believe the first step towards finding that harmonious balance is to foster that old Bay magic I know so well from my childhood as a semi-aquatic creature. It’s not really about turning off light bulbs, or recycling, or making sure that your toilet saves water, despite what all those ‘Save the Bay’ campaigns have told you. That can come later. The first step toward Chesapeake stewardship is first and foremost about feeling a passionate sense of respect and regard for this Eastern Shore place where we’ve been so lucky to settle. By awakening engagement in the people that live in the watershed, and encouraging the feeling in individuals that the Bay is just a little bit theirs alone to treasure, we can encourage stewardship. Those opportunities to spark a connection with the land and water are easy enough to find, too: they’re present in every osprey whistle, every snapping turtle laying eggs in your driveway, and every lunge of the crab’s claws as it hides under your picnic table to avoid the cookpot. Because its those moments that make this Eastern Shore place worth saving: for our kids and for ourselves.
Kate Livie is a Chestertown resident who is also the director of education at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where she has worked in various capacities since 2008.