An Island out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeakeby Tom Horton
Smith Island is a marshy archipelago in mid-Chesapeake Bay, nine miles from the mainland, home to 150 watermen and their families. This book is a portrait of a people who have remained intimately connected to the place in which they live, far past the time when "place" and "nature" any longer have immediate consequence to most of our lives. Tom Horton lived for nearly… See more details below
Smith Island is a marshy archipelago in mid-Chesapeake Bay, nine miles from the mainland, home to 150 watermen and their families. This book is a portrait of a people who have remained intimately connected to the place in which they live, far past the time when "place" and "nature" any longer have immediate consequence to most of our lives. Tom Horton lived for nearly three years on Smith Island, recording through observation and interviews the traditions of oystering, crab catching, churchgoing, hunting and poaching, and the social rituals of these fiercely independent men and women. His beautifully elegiac story is about community and isolation, harvest and exploitation, and the risks and charms of being different from the surrounding world. Like Ian Frazier's The Great Plains, this is a book that grows from a vast and unique geography. The grassy shallows and the hidden bottoms of Smith Island, and of the Chesapeake, once supported a variety of waterfowl and marine life that astonished the early explorers. The decline of these natural wonders and the attempt to restore the health of Chesapeake Bay is one part of the story; the other is an effort to give voice to a distinctive people whose three centuries of working and being constitute an eloquent statement of humans in nature.
With his wife and two children, Horton moved to the hamlet of Tylertonpopulation a little less than 100on Smith Island in 1987. He was there to teach environmental education classes to schoolchildren, but he was really on a quest to plumb the spirit of the place, one that "does not shout its virtues, but yields them only to probing and observation." Smith Island is classic Chesapeake material, its citizens harvesting the savory blue crab the bay surrenders in hundreds of millions of pounds each year. But the crab industry offers diminishing returns and is going the way of the now-defunct shad and rockfish fisheries, the towns on the island slowly dying. Horton gets to know the fisherfolk, people who understand "the invisible, subaqueous Chesapeake . . . as well as a farmer knows the contours of his homeplace," maintain the last fleet of working sailcraft (Maryland law requires that only boats under sail dredge for oysters), and stalk terrapin in the off-season. These characters, some of them near-mythic in Smith Island lore, offer Horton the pearls of their experience (there are long swaths of first-person, Islander narrative), and he gorges on them: how the winds and tides move the blue crab about, where the terrapin hide, why the oyster beds have gone flat, how the island population manages. Gratifyingly, the island women get equal air time: describing the quicksilver art of picking crabmeat, the not-so-quicksilver art of giving birth aboard a storm-tossed vessel, how they shape both family life and community from impossibly rough circumstance. Horton is everywhere: taking the island doctor's testimony; marvelling at the island artist's tale; attentive to micro-dialects, sacred groves; tracking the seasons' shifts.
"There is a beauty and eloquence to their lives," says an off-island resident. The same could be said of this book.
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The DAWN comes up windy, shuddering the bedroom window. Senses kick in behind shut eyelids, divining the day's priorities from a puff of air. How hard is it blowing? From what direction? If it's southeast, better get out to the dock and drop the stern line on the skiff and let it swing, or it could swamp; and all my neighbors will likely be home early from workeasterlies make the crabs they seek bury out of reach in the bottom. Northwest? If it maintains from that direction, the tides won't make up high at all; forget any thoughts of taking the big workboat in shoal water tomorrow. Northeast? Sleep in. Cancel the pediatrician. The ten-mile run to Crisfield on the mainland would be just too rough and wet for a sick kid.
When you live and work on an island, you play these little chess games with Nature continuously. You become attuned, almost subliminally, to the winds and moon phases, to the ebb and flood of water and the lengthening and shortening of the days. And then you leave, one late-summer day, for the mainland, for the dream home you have bought, spacious and modern in a quiet, leafy suburbgood schools, neat playgrounds, near to major malls. Life there is so very much more convenient and predictable and controllable. Soon, you don't even notice the wind outside your bedroom window.
IN 1987 my wife, Cheri, and I decided to move to Smith Island, a fishing community of about five hundred souls in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. We rented our Baltimore row house for enough to cover the mortgage and took the two kids out of private schools. I would run environmentaleducation trips for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which owned an old island house with twenty bunk beds. It meant a pay cut of about $35,000 a year from our mainland jobs (I a reporter, Cheri a social worker). Perhaps it seemed strange in Ronald Reagan's America of the eighties, with its emphasis on upward mobility of the most materialistic stripe; but in the midst of a prospering journalism career, I felt a need to shrink my prospects, narrow my horizons, and move on to smaller endeavors. As an environmental reporter I trekked through Amazonian rainforests, followed famine across Africa, and researched ozone destruction above Antarctica; but my roots were deep in less fabulous places.
A long time before I came to write about the overarching environmental issues of our day; well before I discovered Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and the other great naturalist-philosophersbefore all that I just liked to muck around in the marshes of my native Chesapeake. I fished those soggy edges for striped bass, hunted the potholes for black duck, slogged through the clingiest black ooze this side of quicksand, and combed the wracklines for driftwood. I loved to hear the pock and slurp of waves in the marsh's honeycombed banks, to whiff the robust flatulence of its decaying organic matter, and watch sun and moon work filigrees of gold and silver on intricate braids of water and grass. To anyone who wondered how I trained as an environmental writer, the most meaningful answer was that I grew up liking to muck in the marsh.
John Steinbeck, in The Log from the Sea of Cortez,(*) wrote of his expedition collecting marine life along the shores of the Gulf of California: "It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again. "What he meant was that we can spend the next ten thousand years identifying individual creatures and dissecting them down to the level of the gene and the atom, and we may similarly roll back the curtains of heaven itself with our telescopes and spaceships; but the fullest wonder lies in comprehending nature's patterns, the wondrous webs of interdependence that entangle humankind in all creation, above and below. Smith Island, whose marshbound residents for about three centuries have paid serious attention to both God and crabs, and where the little white villages on clear, calm days float magically between sea and sky, seemed well stationed to observe tidepool and stars alike; and my kids were reaching marsh-mucking age.
SO IT WAS that in the spring of '87 we moved to the town of Tylerton, last Stop on the ferry, unfrequented even by the tour boats to the island's other two communities. The population of 124 was mostly descended from English and Welsh colonists who came here beginning in the late 1600s. Half the town was named either Marshall or Bradshaw; also fourteen Tylers, thirteen Corbins; smatterings of Smiths, Marshes, Tulls, Evanses, and Lairdsand now, far the first time in history, four Hortons.
I took a house that had stood for 170 years, said to be the oldest on the island. It occupied a little peninsula of lawnrare as emerald in those low-lying and salty environs. Huge old hackberry trees that shaded it bore every spring and fall a bonus crop of migrant warblers, orioles, tanagers, and vireos, glad for a rest on their way to and from the tropics. Every window and door had a view you would pay serious money for on the mainland, and there were thirty-six of them. That nearly half of these faced broadside to the North Pole would not strike us until our first winter.
My street, really just a path, had no name. With only sixty-seven houses and centuries of close acquaintance, islanders had never thought addresses too important. This gave United Parcel Service fits, and Federal Express and the Baltimore Sun circulation departments refused to deal with it at all. If you are not at a certifiable point on somebody's grid, in modern America you scarcely exist; so we made up our own addresses. As the mood struck, we resided on Water Street and Waterview Boulevard, Harbourview and Horton Pike. A friend once addressed me thus: "Tom Horton, His Own Way." Connie, our postmistress, took it all in stride. She knew where we all were.
We also resided "Up Above," as opposed to those Tylertonians who lived "Down Below," and this distinction was important. Assignments at PTA, Ladies Aid, and such were made on this basis, as in: "Up Above brings the meat dishes this time, and Down Below makes the desserts; all pitch in on the salads." Another island village was grouped into "Down the Field" and "Over the Hill." The whole island is nearly flat as a billiard table, and I once asked to be shown the "hill." Well, everyone knows sort of where it runs . . . maybe it has gotten wore down over all this time, people said.
Half a minute's walk either way along my street, or most any other in Tylerton, would land you in the water. It was a great part of what so charmed visitors when they first saw the island towns as the boat from the mainland neared the islandthat they just ended, rather than bleeding off in the scattered jumble of strip development and suburbia that so uglifies much of the mainland. This abrupt edge between civilization and nature seemed less confining than you might think. The sun and moon rose at one end of my humble street and set at the other; and from where the pavement stopped the view stretched unimpeded, westward toward the mouth of the Potomac River; eastward across Tangier Sound and the vast prairies of salt marsh along Maryland's Eastern Shore. From my front door I could skip an oyster shell into the true Main Street of Tylerton, the channel of Tyler's Creek.
Everything entered and departed town this way: the ferry, the preacher making his Sunday rounds; crabs migrating, stingrays spawning; also sea ducks, black skimmers, diamondback terrapins, and the occasional shark. Between the channel edge and my front yard, egrets, herons, and gulls progged the shallow, submerged grass beds for soft crabs and-minnows and grass shrimp. Here, the ancient territories of animals still overlapped, maintained some semblance of balance with the territory of humankind. One morning I watched a great blue heron battle a great black-backed gull two hours for a huge eel speared on the former's marlinspike bill. The eel proved the toughest customer, finally eluding both birds. Once an otter, the most secretive of marsh dwellers, loped onto my lawn and watched as I mowed grass.
One image is especially savory: Hand in hand, I walked Abby, six, down the lane back to the one-room school that served pre-K through sixth grade. Hot early-autumn sunshine simmered down through the hackberries that had arched this path for centuries. Odors of steaming crab mingled with mown grass and the faint perfumes of salt and creosote that cling to older waterfronts. Overhead, Canada geese called, and in the shallows snowy egrets sipped minnows delicately. A lone crab, an escapee from the steaming pot, scuttled from under a building and preceded us down the path, dancing sidewise, seeking saltwater. It recalled Thomas Hardy's description of an English village so rural that "a butterfly might have wandered down the main street without interruption." Abby skipped along. So did I.
Tourists who take the half-day boat ride and seafood lunch special to Smith Island generally think the place unique, but ultimately dull and monotonous overall. There is in fact little variety in the vegetation of the tidal marsh that covers all but a Few of the 8,000 acres here. Few plants on earth have evolved to tolerate salt, and the Chesapeake hereabout halfway in miles and in salt content between the ocean at its mouth and its river-dominated headwaterspermits fewer species than flourish in even the meanest woodlot on the mainland. The marsh is amply compensated, however, because those few plants that can pass salt's stern muster grow like gangbusters in the nutrient-rich broth swishing hourly through their roots on the ebb and flood of the tides. The marsh may never draw aesthetic favor away from New England hillsides in autumn, hut it is among the most productive of earth's natural systems, guilelessly surpassing all but the most energy- and labor-intensive applications of human agriculture. This is all well documented in the literature of ecology, and doctrine by now to generations of environmentalists. But there is more to marshiness than scienceor even art and literaturehas documented. Like so much about Smith Island, it does not shout irs virtues, but yields them only to probing and observation.
A marsh-clad island is a place alive. It ripples sleekly beneath the wind's stroking, altering mood and texture with every caress and pummel. Its salty sameness stretches a perfect artist's linen beneath the sky, a playground for the romp of light, and exquisitely responsive to every shift of sun and season and weather. A thousand channels and cricks and guts rive the marsh, and through them the bay perfuses Smith Island like some great, amorphous jellyfish. And these watery thoroughfares, the main means of travel within the island, do something quite profound. They seldom run straight for long. They curve. I doubt George Santayana, the philosopher, ever went "gut running," an island sport that consists of racing one's skiff through the fantastic maze of loops and whorls and meanders the marshways make. But he would have understood the thrill. In his classic treatise on form in the Sense of Beauty (1896), Santayana wrote of the pleasure we take from the curved line: "at every turn reawakening, with a variation, the sense of the previous position . . . such rhythms and harmonies are delightful."
For one accustomed to the straight and the angle of mainland road snivel, moving through the island's arteries is at first disorienting. Landmarks are sparsethree villages and half a dozen hammocks of trees spread across twenty square miles of low marsh and interior waters. Your angle of orientation changes continuously. Leaving Tylerton, one moment the town is holding reassuringly off one shoulder; the next it has hunkered down out of sight behind a hammock; then it reappears, broadside, all its homes in view and looking larger than life, only to begin contracting. The landforms seem conspiring to trick youmerging, hiding, elongating; from unexpected directions, pouncing.
Ultimately this physical and psychological to-and-fro becomes deeply stimulating, even sensuous. One contemplates the island's shape-shifting as you might slowly rotate a crystal, regarding familiar objects embedded within from an infinity of perspectives. Straight lines may never be proven inherently inferior, but from galaxies to the shells of whelks, it does seem the bent of the universe to orbit, oscillate, cycle and spiral, to meander and to turn.
Whorled and whirled may be the way of the world, and of Smith Island; but "flat" would be your first impression of the place. We had been there for months when I mentioned on an evening walk to Cheri how remarkably the lights of Tangier, half a dozen miles across the water, were twinkling in the clear air. What lights? she said. She had never seen them. It struck me then that she is five feet nine and I am six feet six. The additional elevation lent a whole different view. This flatness extended far beyond and below the visible island, radiating for miles in every direction along the most gentle of underwater slopes. What looked to be a limitless quantity of water surrounding us was in fact extraordinarily thin, ranging in depth from inches to a few feet. This shallowness fundamentally shaped island and islanders. Sunlight easily penetrates to the bottom in these skinny waters, growing lush meadows of aquatic vegetation that attract nearly every type of fish and fowl associated with the Chesapeake Bay.
Prominent among these is the savory blue crab, of which the bay yields more than 100 million pounds annually. Crabs must periodically shed their hard, spiny shells to grow; also, in the females, case, in order to mate. When soft, they are a delicacy and quite valuable. This molting and mating occurs each summer throughout the blue crab's range, from Texas to Long Island; but it is more concentrated and accessible than perhaps anywhere on earth in the grass beds within a twenty-mile radius of Smith Island. Islanders, who depend absolutely for their being on harvesting the soft crab, are connected to the grasses and the bay's essential shallowness as intimately as stalking herons or speckled trout cruising the submerged jungles for prey.
Here, within a day's drive of some 50 million moderns, exists a culture exquisitely attuned to its natural surroundings as only predators can be. "Left or right?" I asked an old neighbor lady one day as I fumbled to rum the burner on her gas stove to light it. "Turn it east, honey," she replied. I got similar instructions on a construction project. "Drive that nail more to nor,west." liven the phone exchange here, HA5, came from Hazel, the big hurricane that devastated the place back in the 1950s.
You could track the progress of crabbing just as accurately through the collections at the Methodist church as through any landing statistics kept by the state. In May, when the first big crab run hit Tyler's Creek, money put in the offering plate might go in a week from $200 to more than $2,000, on attendance of about forty persons.
Just as the elemental, chameleon marsh seemed at first glance monotonous, the fishing life of the islanders also struck outsiders as dreary and repetitious. In fact, every day demanded a complex assessment of tide and temperature, wind and changing season, and a dozen other considerationsmany more felt than articulatedthat would influence where to work, for how long, in what manner, and how much income there would be. It was physically hard, often uncertain to the point of overstress; but seldom uninteresting. Life on the mainland came to seem predictable by contrast. A shift in the breeze scarcely ever affects where one will sell insurance, or dictates how much paper can be shuffled by day's end.
STRICTLY speaking, you do not actually move to Smith Island. No post office by that name exists or ever has. One moves to Ewell, the "capital City" of about 250, or to Rhodes Point, at the end of the island's only true road, extending two miles across the marsh-from Ewell; or one goes to Tylerton, the smallest and most isolated community, reachable from the other towns only by water.
Rhodes Point, they will tell you in Ewell, was called Rogues Point until a century or so ago for good reason, the implication being that some of the rogueishness lingers yet. Ewell, say the Tylertonians, is noiser (with maybe-forty cars t Tylerton's couple), and is just a tad full of itself. As for Tylerton, well that is where the "holy rollers" still hold sway, where the Methodist religion, which is taken right seriously in all three towns, predominates most. Life there, feel people in Ewell and Rhodes Point, must be unbearably small town and dull. Over the centuries, things have gotten pretty well sorted out. I doubt you could muster a skiffload of islanders who have the slightest desire to move from the town where they live into one of the others.
Moving to Smith Island was not such a dislocation for me. I grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore, close to the Chesapeake and its marsh islands. But Cheri was from Salt Lake City, and had never lived outside cities. As for Abigail, six, and Tyler, nine, they had grown up playing in Baltimore alleyways. The closest they usually got to water was the storm drain. How would they fit with the kids of crabbers and fishermen?
The enormity of it hit one steamy June day as I prepared for the family's arrival. The house was an oven. The church had asked that even our single downstairs air conditioner be turned off: the pumps the crabbers used to keep water flowing over their catch needed all the available electricity. Clouds of biting insects swarmed outside. From under the kitchen, a rat, perhaps the only thing my wife hated more than bugs, was gnawing away. What had I done, committing my family to some personal dream of living on an island in the bay?
We were liberal, big-city Democrats. Tylerton was red-white-and-blue conservative. Cheri and the kids are Catholics, and Smith Island uniformly practiced a staunch and fundamentalist brand of Methodism. If you want to talk evolution, make sure you smile when you say it. The island has never opted for local government in its centuries of settlement. There are no jails, no police, no mayor, no town council. The church, to a greater extent than anywhere else in America, fills the role of government. If we didn't fit in, little Tylerton could become confining indeed.
The day before Cheri and the kids were to join me, a woman from down the street stopped by to chat. She came bearing the traditional Smith Island welcoming gift, an eight-layer cake. She said how glad everyone was to see our family moving in. Then she said something that I thought at the time was quaintperhaps an island way of speaking"It's so good to see your lights at night." It would be months later before I understood fullyand sorrowfullywhat she meant.
That first summer on the island was instant paradise for Tyler. He was off fishing in a skiff with a couple islanders before he had unpacked all his bags. He roamed the town and adjoining marshes at will with the island kids. Lest this sound like stepping into a Huck Finn tale, I should add he also spent hours glued to the video games at the Tylerton store, and pestered us endlessly for a Nintendo like one of his compatriots had. Abby, shyer than her big brother, stuc-k closer to home; but it was not long before she was out on the dock with a buddy, enticing baitfish into a Mason jar filled with bread and dangled by a string into the water. "Minner, minner, come get your dinner," they sang, and fed their catch to the local cats.
Those first weeks were toughest for Cheri. I had my job, taking groups of schoolkids around the bay and marshes. The kids had playmates. "Mom, why can't you pick [crabs] like the other ladies?" Tyler asked. All Mom's skills as a clinical social worker seemed worthless here. She was welcomed, but she had landed on one of earth's greatest seafood plantations at high harvest season. The income crabs provide between May and September is the great bulk of the year's money for most islanders, and both men and women are feverishly devoted to catching and processing the crustaceans, rising early as 2:00 A.M. and going until 9:00 P.M., six days a week. Only their religion stops them every seventh day. The pace was so frantic, it seemed if the church hadn't stopped them, the people would have had to invent another reason to take a break, or risk burning out by the Fourth of July. It wasn't only the islanders who needed the rest, a waterman said. "The crabs need a break, too." And Monday morning was nearly always the best catch of the week.
Summer's bugs were vanishing before the frosts, the frenzy of crabbing season was slacking off, and Cheri's spirits were picking up. She was busy with PTA and helping out the Methodist ladies with church suppers. In a town the size of Tylerton, everyone's help is needed. We felt valued in a way rarely experienced on the mainland. If islands, by definition, isolate, then they also amplify their residents, sense of community. "It ain't much to look at, but we're close," a crabber said to me. Slowly but surely, we were forming bonds with people whose different cultural and educational backgrounds would, on the mainland, have segregated us surely as concrete barriers. Shortly after the Exxon Valdez had spewed oil across Alaska's Prince William Sound, I was leaving to cover the disaster for Rolling Stone magazine when Tyler came back from evening church. "They prayed for you tonight, Dad, that you come back all right." I had an insane urge to fax Rolling Stone: "Trust the staff there is praying for my success in this difficult endeavor."
With the Halloween Social approaching, Cheri was asked to bake a cake for the traditional cakewalk. This is played something like musical chairs. You plunk down a quarter and walk to music around a circle of numbered sections chalked on the wooden floor of the community hall. If the music stops and leaves you on the number that is drawn, you win the cake. Now cakes are treated on the island only slightly less seriously than crabs. You are offered eight-layer cake in Tylerton routinely as people on the mainland brew visitors a cup of instant coffee. No one expected Cheri to produce one of these masterpieces, but she felt less than three layers would be laughed at. The old kitchen floor tilted south to north, and so did her first efforts at a cake. She went next door to the kitchen where we housed the kids on educational tours; there she produced a cake that slanted east to west. By now there was nothing to do but make the icing as thick as possible, slap the layers together, and try to refrigerate the whole mess to a gluey integrity by showtime.
"You bring the cake, and for God's sake don't let it slide apart," she said as the time for the social arrived. I opened the refrigerator. One layer was in the back corner; another layer was in another corner; the third had begun to slide down the back of the refrigerator between-the shelves. As it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise. At the social, we realized that the islanders, who could be incredibly gentle and sensitive, were the severest of cake critics. Each cake was cut in half and displayed-before the circle formed for the cakewalk. "Nah, I wouldn't risk a quarter for that one," I heard as a gorgeous specimen was paraded around; and only a few people walked to the music. I kept thinking, what if we had brought a cake to the cakewalk and nobody walked? It would have been the ultimate humiliationworse than wearing your oilskins tucked so they drain inside your hip boots.
My own work of motivating schoolkids to "Save the Bay" was going well. Few if any islanders thought of their community as an incredible educational tool; but on the final day of a field trip, I would play an ace that seldom failed, relying on the kids, inevitable fascination with Smith Island. On a large map that covered parts of six states, we would travel from the tiny island north to Cooperstown, New York; westward out across the Blue Ridge and Shenandoahs into West Virginia; and south almost into North Carolina. All that immense land, nearly a sixth of the eastern seaboard between Maine and Georgia, lay within the drainage basin, or watershed, of the Chesapeake Bay, I would tell them. What that meant was that everything humans in those 64,000 square miles did to pollute, from felling forests and farming destructively to flushing toilets and bombarding their lawns with chemicalsall of that was eventually carried by rainfall and forty-odd rivers downstream to the Chesapeake.
Ultimately, the most important grade for our civilization would be how well we achieved a long-term, stable accommodation between nature and human numbers that grew without limit. The Chesapeake was as good a final exam as anywhere on eartha world-class resource, polluted big time, and now the object of unprecedented restoration efforts, even as population in its watershed burgeoned from 15 million to 18 million in the next few decades. Literally in the center of this struggle lay little Smith Island, some 500 souls totally dependent on a healthy natural environment, downstream from the other 15-18 million of us. If you go away from here remembering only one lesson, I would tell the kids, make it this: How responsibly you live back home helps determine whether this place survives. There were very few skulls and hearts that pitch did not penetrate.
WINTER hit hard and fast that first year on the island. The big nor'westers came screaming down Tangier Sound with nothing to impede them for thirty miles of open water and marsh before they slammed broadside into our uninsulated house, which had no central heat. We used to sit, huddled under blankets in the living room, watching the mainland weather mention "winds 6 to 12 knots, variable," while the house rocked in the grip of 30 knots and gusting. We began keeping items like salad oil in the refrigerator so they wouldn't freeze overnight.
If winters could :be harsh, they always started well because of the Christmas holidays. Christmas is a big deal on Smith Island, and Christmas lights are an especially big deal. "You are going to put up lights," a neighbor told us, friendly but firm. It was the only time I can ever recall being told to do anything in this place where independence is valued nearly to the point of anarchy. I was never big on Christmas festivities, to Cheri's everlasting despair; but I managed a few cheap strings of lights, tucked into some cedar branches that I and the kids cut from the big heron rookery in a hammock out on the marsh. Everyone's lights looked great. They helped to disguise the fact that the town had been growing darker, and not just from the shortening days.
The "Save the Bay" house had been closed up for the winter. The few summer residents were gone until spring; and some of the older widows had left to live with children in Ewell or on the mainland until the weather warmed again. We went away the week after Christmas, returning in early January. One night, I walked outside. It was drizzly, a fog was rolling up Tangier Sound. Swans bayed like lost souls in the blackness down by Horse Hammock Point. The foghorn moaned out by the jetties above Ewell. All the Christmas lights were gone now. On my street, only three of seven houses had lights on. The other four were empty, or inhabited only by summer people"gone dark," as the islanders said. A great wave of depression rolled over me as I thought about the neighbor who had welcomed me; how glad she was to see, finally, a house reversing the trend toward darkness.
Tylerton, you see, is dying, and perhaps the rest of Smith Island too. I do not even like-to put those words down, but statistics compel it. In 1980 the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, my employer on the island, had done a census of the town, and there were 157 people. I updated it in 1987, and there were 12. By 1995, the year-round population was hovering around 80. The whole island, listed in the U.S. 1980 Census at around 675 (somewhat overstated, the preacher at the time thought), is closer to 400 today.
Old people are dying, ten in Tylerton alone within a recent five-year period) and only one baby was born on Tylerton (and five on the island) in that time. Teenage boys are still trying to make it on the water, although more than ever are eyeing jobs with the State Police, or as guards at the new maximum security prison on the Somerset County mainland. Teenage girls seem to have no such conflicts and are leaving. They feel there must be more to life than marriage to a waterman, than picking crabs and cooking and cleaning house and raising kids with limited access to shopping and night life.
Ten percent of Tylerton's population are bachelors. An island mother once interrupted my conversation about worrisome trends in seafood abundance in the bay. The Lord would take care of rockfish and oysters. What worried her was this: "Who's goin' to be left for my son to marry?"
I FELT more and more frustrated about Smith Island's future during our last few months on the island. Tylerton seemed at the point that even two or three more families, leaving could doom the place as a viable community. One day I got a new map of Smith Island and the bay for the education center: a LandSat image that showed the whole watershed from space in astounding detail. On it, you could cover Smith Island with your thumb; and among this thumbprint of marsh, smaller than grains of rice, were three slivers of white, signifying the precious high ground to which clung Ewell, Tylerton, and Rhodes Point.
They were so inconsequential, droplets in an ocean, and yet . . . I got out an old interview I had done years before with Russell Schweikart, the astronaut. Like others who had taken the dramatic step of leaving earth, his altered perspective of the planet had evoked deep emotions: ". . . you realize that little blue and white thing is everything that means anything to you . . . all of history and music and poetry and art and war and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it is on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. . . . "
This book is a quest for the spirit of Smith Island, an attempt to give voice to a people whose eloquence lies simply in their three centuries of working and being here against all odds. A Chesapeake poet, the late Gilbert Byron, once called such fishermen "the greatest poets/who never wrote a line." Their lives are essayed in a fluid environment, inscribed on the hidden bottoms of grassy shallows and oyster beds. Each day, though they have been at it for centuries, the slate is wiped clean; and in a day my children may live to see, as global warming proceeds to raise the level of the oceans, the waters may close atop Smith Island, erasing all physical evidence that the poetry ever existed.
WHEN OUR FAMILY left Smith Island in 1989, the Bay Foundation held a pig roast for us and most of the town came. It was a fun day, long on eating, short on speeches. Many people seemed down, "out of heart," as they would put it. There had-been five funerals in recent months, and in a place that close, even one death hits everyone hard. There were more summer people around than I had ever remembered. As more homes go dark, news of their relatively cheap prices is getting around as far away as New York. The "outsiders" who buy them have been, on the whole, nice people. A few single ladies from cities sought the place because they heard it was actually safe to walk anywhere at night arid leave your door unlocked. All of them think Tylerton charming, and hope it doesn't ever change; but more and more you hear lawn mowers and power tools going on the Sabbath, and see people strolling in the streets, beers in hand, unmindful or uncaring of the local taboo on public drinking. Some holiday weekends now, for the first time in their long history,islanders wonder whether the place is theirs any more.
We had closed up the old house weeks before, when we put all our belongings on a-48-foot workboat and took them forty miles up Tangier Sound to the headwaters of the Wicomico River where our new home would be. At the pig roast, one of the new educators for the Bay Foundation came up and told me someone had left a light on in the house. It had been burning day and night now for some time. Did I want him to turn it off? I knew about the light, I said. I know you are preaching energy conservation to the groups that came, but please, let it hum a while longer.
FNT[(*)(New York; Viking Press, 1969).]FNT (*)(New York; Viking Press, 1969).
Meet the Author
Tom Horton has written numerous books about the Chesapeake Bay. He lives in Riverton, Maryland.
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