Throughout the Chesapeake, where the mixture of salt and fresh water is just right, thin wafers are tumbled by the tide. Faded remnants of once robust oyster beds, these are middens- oyster shell beaches testament to the Chesapeake's past oyster populations. Made up of discarded oyster shells, middens still exist where often no oysters thrive today. Beach glass and pebbles are mixed into the softly crumbling oyster shells, and often beachcombers will find arrowheads or pottery and other detritus from the people that came down to the shore, ate oysters here, and left. Middens can be hundreds or even thousands of years old. Some are colonial, many are pre-colonization remnants of Indian winter camps. All are ghosts of a sort, haunting our contemporary landscape with reminders of the winter feasts savored, centuries ago.
I love middens, but then again, I love to feel like I am cheek-to-jowl with the past. The experience of almost-tangible time travel is addictive. Middens powerfully convey that feeling, existing along Chesapeake tributaries too fresh, too sedimented, or too degraded to support the delicate balance of an oyster colony. HERE, they say, is what this Bay used to be like. You could fill your belly on an oyster bar where today there's a marina, a road, an empty stretch of cornfield, the terminus to an overgrown trail. Oyster middens convey a subsistence past where today only a convenience culture persists. Like old paint peeling off a wall, middens reveal history hidden just below the surface- faded, but persistent, and beautiful.