“The bay never essayed truer, nor flowered more gloriously, than in its creation of Smith Island and Smith Islanders. . . . [P]laces like the island are art—made all the more artful for contriving nothing, for simply being.”—Tom Horton, An Island Out of Time.
The Chesapeake Bay’s Smith Island is a timeless place, a throwback to earlier and simpler times, steeped in history, wildlife, wild lands, and the charm and spirit of days long past. The world around Smith Island accelerates, at an increasingly rapid pace—like the expansion of the Universe itself—but Smith Island, and Smith Islanders, never seem to change. Severed from the mainland by a ten mile water crossing, Smith Island still moves to the age old rhythms of the tides and seasons. Sundered from its surroundings not just by inconvenient geography, Smith Islanders have their own unique culture, way of life, and dialect—all of which are destined to disappear beneath a flood of Biblical proportions.
The culprit, this time, is not the sudden wrath of God, but rather something creeping, insidious, and inexorable: sea level rise resulting from Earth’s warming climate, something to which the low islands of the Chesapeake are particularly susceptible. Smith Island’s fate will likely follow that of hundreds of other islands on the Bay which have already disappeared over the past century: to become an Atlantis of the Chesapeake, submerged and lost forever beneath the flooding tide. Even if it were not for the rising seas, a changing world seems to be leaving Smith Island behind, and its population and economy shrink year by year.
In 1608, Captain John Smith was the first European to see the Smith Island group, calling the archipelago the “Russell Isles” in honor of the physician who saved him from a stingray’s poisonous barb. It was another Smith, however, who lent his name to the island: Henry Smith of Jamestown, who was granted 1,000 acres on the island in 1679. First used by English settlers to graze livestock, by the mid-1800s oystering and crabbing became the basis of the island’s economy. The marked decline of the native oyster population throughout the Chesapeake Bay due to pollution, harvesting and disease has greatly reduced oystering, and the island’s way of life is now primarily dependent on the crab harvest—and in recent years, Smith Island layer cake, now the State Dessert of Maryland.
Few men ply the waterman trade these days—and even fewer of them are young. Most crabbers today are old men, their backs hunched from decades of pulling heavy crab scrapes from shallow waters. It seems a dying way of life, likely to slip away into the mists of history; preserved only for a short time in fleeting memories, perhaps longer in photographs. Time eventually erases everything; we can but revel in each moment, lament the inevitable passing into the next—and bow our heads before the coming storm.
Technical details: Canon 5DIII, 17mm, ISO 400, f/11, 1/640 second. Click on the image above to see a larger version.