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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Chesapeake Blues on Tangier Island

Jack Lynch

Obama ’08 bumper stickers abound around the liberal enclave of Rehoboth Beach, with it’s DC area visitors, and dual status, as a family friendly vacation spot, and its undercurrent of gay subculture, not that this year’s summer respite yielded a surplus of same sex couple hand holding, nor bolder displays of its broadmindedness near the center of town – and I describe it because it stood in such stark contrast to our later travels across the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Crisfield, and on to Tangier Island, Virginia in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

On Tangier Island, like the clam shells forming the flag on a lawn in the picture above, the reds outweigh the blues by a large factor. The background talk was of putting Obama down, for the good of the country, of course.

The experience of Tangier made me cognizant of many things, the way a foreign lifestyle such as the experience of life on Tangier, always yields contemplation of the differences, and of the choices, and outcomes of life as politics.

For one, the island’s rows of modest homes are bisected by narrow roads that are more alleyway than street, and the local folk race around them on electric carts, golf carts I suppose, or bicycles of varied age and utility. Not that the mile or two can’t be walked easily, as most visitors do, and many locals. A couple pickup trucks traverse as working shuttles for trash and equipment movement, but most islanders keep vehicles on the shore in Crisfield instead for shopping expeditions and travels beyond the daily mail boat. The limitations of the island bring benefits in energy use and commuting and community accessibility.

Though somewhat hidden away from prying outsider’s eyes the same gossip and community matters persist as anywhere else in the world, glimpses of jealousies and antagonisms break the surface at times, but also, as in any close, closed culture, the interdependence and working in common in all things, of extended families, the town matters, and economic survival come forefront too.

A waterman’s
meeting brought Virginia Congresswoman Thelma Drake to the island on Saturday, hearing about the impacts of the higher cost of fuel, and the draconian measures to restrict crabbing from November to March, and she shared in the sandwich shop her determination to do something about that. A Republican from District 2 in Virginia, she works closely with our own minor familial association to Congress (my wife’s cousin is an in-law, and we’ve met him briefly at Passover gatherings; for myself, lastly back when he first ran for office in the Virginia House a dozen years ago) with Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, a person floated recently as a potential Vice Presidential nominee for McCain.

Five Virginia watermen’s associations have merged into one advocacy
group, and a lawsuit against the winter closing of dredging crabs has been filed in Norfolk. Like a world dependent on increasing oil consumption, the watermen risk killing the golden goose, crab populations have dropped recently to a third of the 232 Million pounds biomass restoration goal set in 2001, a steady decline of over twenty years time. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, stewards of Port Isobel, an island next to Tangier, and several other small islands once used as fishing and hunting grounds close by, has called the situation of the blue crab a crisis. The watermen, who call themselves the ‘farmers of the bay’, still need to learn the limitations of their resources.

Drake, Cantor, McCain, even the watermen are on opposite sides of the political island from those of us visiting this land of much grace and beauty, valuing the waters as a natural resource beyond quick income, and looking to the election for substantive changes from the kind of environmental record of the last eight years. Symbolically, for someone from Frederick, the island incinerates trash, at least what it does not haul off, dump in the waterways, reuse on houses or boats, or leave rotting ‘up a gut’ as they say of the old wooden ships left half sunken in the marshes, to die slowly by weathering away.

The island itself symbolizes more, an insular community, the sort of breath of ‘fresh air’ beyond Washington’s inside the beltway politics, but also a home grown ignorance and less education, then the fact that sprawl growth hardly exists when the surroundings are wet, and even the way that necessity makes group think much more palatable as a guiding social force – on the crabbing tour the waterman tells you that harvesting crabs does not affect populations, female crabs caught are not breeders (then displays a pregnant female from a crab pot with a bright orange ‘sponge’ of eggs beneath her body, up to eight million per female, but on average only one out a million will survive to adulthood!), and how restrictions make the basic living off the water intolerable.

The hour and a half boat trip over to Tangier made me proud to know that Frederick County had recently passed a stream buffer ordinance county-wide as an ultimate protection for the Chesapeake, and to realize just how big and potentially cleansing and productive the bay can be, if restored and nurtured. Tangier Sound, well into the bay’s southern and salt rich mix, is one of the most productive fisheries in the bay, with solid reefs and multiple islands, many donated by owners for Bay research and outreach.

The children experienced a freedom to wander safely, ride bikes without fear of cars, see the life of the waters, smell salt marshes teeming with crabs and shore birds, and form impressions that will serve them well as they learn more about the environment and bay. We were separated by the economic blues of the watermen and tourism industries, and our own political blue, but we all got along, and the differences resonated within me. The children saw ‘peeler’ soft shell crab tanks set up along the docks and crabs scuttling sideways in the shallow waters, I suggested to my daughter that she read
William Warner’s book, Beautiful Swimmers to learn more about them from an interesting source that is easily and enjoyably readable.

A trip that left us trapped in Annapolis for several hours as the Chesapeake Bay bridge was closed east bound, then turned into a twelve hour journey around the top of the bay to reach Rehoboth, became a break from the print news, a peek into the mind outside insider politics and Washington’s sphere of influence, a refreshing of spirit, and an immersion into a place and time where the thought and news came mostly from word of mouth, and opinion colored by very different factors, a conservative swing and potentially part of the deciding outcome nationally.

We can only hope that position is but a small island, declining slowly into the bay. The visitors pack back onto boats for home, where the outcome and thoughts are very different, informed by broader realities, and of a more Democratic nature. Is one right over the other?, nationally?, yes; for Tangier Island?, probably not; at least not until it has a chance to see a positive change filter down the bay and end up filling their crab baskets and wallets. In the end, it’s all about making a living, but also about sustaining that living too.

Back in Crisfield we dined on steamed crabs and the rare treat of Smith Island
cake. Maryland’s only inhabited off-shore island, Smith Island, faces many of the same blues as Tangier, and looks to tourism and it’s state endorsed cake as fuel for its economy. In the salt marshes, callinectes sapidus goes on about the business of life against long odds of survival, much like the Chesapeake watermen.

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