This column is an unintended palimpsest, a document — usually written on papyrus or parchment — that has been written on more than once. In many cases, some of the earlier writing is still a bit legible because it has not been completely erased.

It took just the flip of a switch to erase this month’s original column.

Full of creative juices, I’d left the machine on, taking a break to drive over to the hardware store and celebrate the first day of spring. At the bridge from Solomons Island, a tractor trailer skidded across the highway demolishing my car and a good bit of me at the same time. My column thus hung in hyperspace while I was ferried to a hospital in Washington, D.C.

A couple of days later, a thoughtful colleague found the computer on and turned it off. When I got out of the hospital, only vague memories of my column remained with the deadline close at hand. So, here’s my palimpsest.

It begins, appropriately, with parchment, an early “paper” made from the hide of a sheep or goat that had been thinly split and stretched until it was translucent. Inks took well to parchment and it was widely used by early Europeans for important documents.

Because it was expensive, parchment was frequently used more than once. The ink would be scraped off with a sharp knife and a new words inscribed, creating a palimpsest. This was often the case with wills, where after probate and the distribution of goods, the document’s contents were no longer needed.

This process might be repeated several times, with only the final manuscript surviving for posterity. Even in ancient times, though, careful inspection might discern hints, or sometimes whole texts, of previous documents between the lines. In modern times, ultraviolet light, x-rays and other fluorescence techniques are often able to decipher parts of or the entirety of two or three previous inscriptions written before the final document on the palimpsest.

The environmental historian William Cronin once described the Chesapeake as a palimpsest, especially in how its history has been handed down to present times.

A lot of history — and that of the Chesapeake Bay is no exception — is increasingly lost as time passes, and those who “remember” pass on. It’s as if the parchment has been scraped, particularly when outmoded files are purged after the one who was keeping them has retired.

Throughout history, there have been far-sighted individuals who sought to preserve old documents and records for posterity. Colonial explorer John Smith assembled many early accounts of discovery in the New World — and Virginia in particular. They were published and are still available in his “Generall Historie of Virginia and the Sommer Iles.” In the mid-19th century, Peter Force assembled and published the papers of the Calvertfamily in Maryland.

There are also modern organizations dedicated to peeling back the veneer of time, including the Maryland Historic Trust; the Association for Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which is excavating King James Fort at Jamestown; the National Park Service; and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as other numerous public and private organizations and individuals.

One such individual is Dr. Ed Papenfuse, Maryland’s archivist, who with his staff, continues to unearth historical information relevant to today. By default, Papenfuse is also Maryland’s commissioner of patents, as in patents from the time of Charles I and such. Several years ago, he was consulted in a convoluted case about shoreline rights, a controversy that was resolved by tracing claims back to the original Crown documents.

While efforts are made to preserve historical records from earlier times, there are instances of more recent losses.

When the Chesapeake Bay Program’s research phase ended in the early 1980s and its office was shut down, its voluminous records were dropped off at an another EPA office. Faced with already bulging storage areas and a seeming lack of interest in a program that was being shut down, overzealous staff began throwing files by the armload into a dumpster one evening.

The next morning, the acting Bay Program director, Virginia Tippie, and her administrative aide frantically tried to recover as much of the work as possible. Despite their best efforts, the Program had a difficult time years later reconstructing the reports from some of those early research projects.
History almost repeated itself in the early 1990s, when Johns Hopkins University, faced with financial constraints, shut down it Chesapeake Bay Institute in Shadyside, MD. Marcia Olson, a statistical analyst working for the Bay Program and now the principal Bay Program data analyst at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, managed to salvage or cobble together papers and computer tapes containing the CBI’s extraordinary monitoring data for the Bay dating back to the 1940s.

As useful as saved or rediscovered documents might be, there is also a hazard as the context of old documents is lost with time. Could John Smith have been an early real estate marketer for the Chesapeake, and would this have influenced his descriptions? Many documents throughout colonial history provide different slants on the same issues: One colonist reports the fabulous abundance of game and profusion of harvestable crops whileanother says he has seen neither hide nor hair of all of the abundance of which he had been assured in London.

Mike Hirshfield, vice-president of the environmental group, Oceana, has described the puzzle of isolated windows into the past with the concept of “serial memory loss.” While young members of one generation are exposed to the stories of their parents and grandparents, and might even remember these in later years, environment is largely defined by experience — the sights, sounds and scents that indelibly imprint memory on each of us. Thus, it is these perceptions, not those of the previous generations, that these young members, once they grow old, will pass on to their children and grandchildren.

“When I was a girl, we could see the grasses out there where Daddy’s log canoe sailed over them…” But what is lost is her grandfather’s memory, 100 years earlier, of seeing oyster shells on the bottom in more than 2 fathoms of water.

This serial memory loss goes on until generations now living define the “good environment” of the “good old days” by what they remember from the 1950s and ’60s: “I could see my sneaker when wading in 4.5 feet of water,” says former Sen. C. Bernard “Bernie” Fowler, and this, in an embodiment of serial loss, becomes the goal for restoration.

It’s good to set any goal realistically, but the reason that I, a scientist, have slowly evolved into a historian is to assure that the palimpsest goes back as far as possible and that we not forget whence this great Chesapeake really came.

Regardless of what is practical to achieve with today’s technology and enthusiasm, we should never forget how far we have really fallen.