At a meeting of the Maryland Sea Grant Advisory Committee the other night, the talk was of an upcoming visit by a national review team, and how to explain the issues most important to people around the Bay. One of the topics proposed for presentation to the visitors related to the “sense of place” which is so central to the mystique we all share for the Chesapeake. It got me thinking.
The majority of the review team happen to be coming from California, a region, if you will, most noted for what might be called a “non-sense of place.” How can you explain to an outsider what it is about the Chesapeake region that makes us put such value on communities with tradition and character? Why do we worry so much about how the land and the water come together? And about how we have balanced nature with the imprints of mankind in some very special ways that we think are worth keeping?
You have to start with the 111,000 miles of waterways that drain a huge land area of mountains and forests and farms, and form into long wide rivers that eventually enter tidal waters. There are other estuaries with a large river or two, but nobody else has a combination like the Susquehanna, the Potomac and the James, each running hundreds of miles to the Bay. It gives all of us a sense that there are great remote worlds out there in the mountains and the valleys to which we all have an almost mysterious connection.
And then there are the tidal rivers and inlets, all a result of the drowning of the Susquehanna River thousands of years ago. There are similar broad bays and tidal reaches in other places like New Jersey and Delaware and the Carolinas, but here in the Chesapeake, nature ran amok and created more than 6,000 miles of tidal shoreline reaching into every nook and cranny of the ancient landscape — nearly double the mileage of the entire California coastline crammed into an area a couple hundred miles long and a few dozen wide. This is a landscape it takes a lifetime to learn, and even then there will be gaps.
All of these tidal reaches give a look to the Bay. Because so much of the waters are near to land and protected from the elements, the characteristic scenery of the Bay is flat and smooth water leading long and slow through marshes to the low flat land. Sure, we have our share of storms that can kick things up, but that special Chesapeake look is of gentle, shimmering waters reflecting a sun that sits way down low in the sky at the beginning and the end of the day.
And along with nature we value our traditional communities whose livelihoods depend on the three f’s: — fishing, farming and forestry. We spend enormous amounts of effort to nurture these economic activities because we like the values they represent and want them to prosper. We also try to make them fit into a watershed where 15 million people live all over the landscape, consuming the very forest and farmland and fishing villages that support traditional economies.
So we work to make them “sustainable” places, which often means that government tells these very independent people how they have to constrain the fishing, or how they have to manage their farms, or how they have to replace the forests being harvested. This does not make for easy relations, but it is the only way we have all found to try to assure that the fishing villages continue to exist as the pressure on the fish and shellfish increase; that the farming communities can absorb the effects of enormous expansion in the poultry industry in recent decades; and that our mountain towns avoid boom and bust as forest products increase in value so that they are now second only to poultry and eggs in Virginia, and have made Pennsylvania No. 1 in hardwood production in the nation.
As a result of these struggles to keep the traditions alive, we have an invaluable treasure trove of special places. Louisiana has its Delacroix, Grand Chenier and a few other towns with real character. Maine has its Jonesport, Machias and Cutler up away from the tourist areas. But the Chesapeake has hundreds of such places tucked away in coves and tidal reaches and river valleys. Even if I restrict it to names with the same first two letters, I can come up with Safe Harbor, PA and Sassafras MD and Saxus VA, all remarkable places, right off the top of my head.
From the extent of all this, we sometimes get a sense that the Chesapeake basin has an almost limitless power to absorb. Because these places still exist in the face of all the pressures of development and changing economies, we can lull ourselves into thinking they will always be there. Are we pushing it?
Some would say yes. For me, perhaps the most troubling message from the large number of comments received from the public during the development of the new Chesapeake 2000 Agreement had to do with public access. A great many people were very upset that we included a commitment to increase public access points to the Bay by 30 percent by 2010. They felt that such access improvements would threaten the fragility of the Bay and its communities.
To some extent, this can be attributable to the NIMBY phenomenon — those with access fearing the arrival of others to disturb the peace. But I came to believe that there is a deeper fear that we may be overloading the very places we value for the calm and the isolation they give. Yet is it fair to tell the vast numbers of watershed residents who are asked to provide the political support for the restoration of the Chesapeake that they can’t see it up close unless they buy a shorefront property or learn about the few scattered places where they are allowed to reach the water?
This is the crux. Are we saving the special places around the Bay only for those who live there and are part of the traditional economies? Is the task for the rest of us to ferret out these places as part of the mystique of the Bay? I frankly think it may be. Or, is there an obligation to make these places better known and more available to the general public? Unfortunately, I don’t think we know how to do that without destroying the very values and character that we seek to preserve. We all know places where this has happened.
We have to respect the limits of nature’s powers and our ability to deal with the effects of man. Our legacy will be measured in how many of the special places survive.