Stalking 2: Smith Island

“On the  islands, elements of our human and natural heritage have been able to flourish well past the time they could still exist, sullied, on the mainland” (Horton p.107).

Smith Island. The name is simple, but the stories surrounding it hold a greater mystique of the wonders of the Chesapeake Bay. Being from New Jersey, I had never heard of Smith Island until this summer when prepping for my semester studying the Chesapeake Bay and watershed. I first came across the island in Tom Horton’s great novel of the Chesapeake, Bay Country. One of my personal favorite chapters of the book entitled “Pleasures of the Islands” delves into the people and lifestyle of Smith Island from Horton’s vantage point of having stayed there. What I read described a small yet vibrant Methodist community, who was best known for their waterman business in “soft-crab central” and their famed dessert: the multi-layer Smith Island Cake. I knew that over the course of the semester I would have the wonderful opportunity to visit and stay on the island and perhaps get a taste of the culture that Horton so brightly describes. Having now completed Journey Two and visited the island I have an enriched outlook on life on Smith Island and how it has and has not changed over the 25 plus years since Tom Horton wrote his book.

Smith Island is an island located 10-15 miles off of Crisfield, Maryland, the only way to get there being a 45 minute ferry ride by a local captain. The island is quite isolated, school children have to take a boat to and from school on the mainland each weekday. That being said there are not many children on the island, which as the last inhabited island in Maryland is only home to less than 300 residents (dealing since the publication of Bay Country). The island is home to 3 communities: Ewell, Tylerton, and Rhodes Point; each of which have a strong sense of Methodist religion and a classic Chesapeake watermen culture. It was very interesting to get a sense of the island in the past before visiting it today.

Change or lack thereof is a big deal on Smith Island. This close-knit community has maintained it’s sense of culture over hundreds of years. Tom Horton justifies, “About change, the legendary resistance to it among watermen assumes a radically different look in the context of the bay environment in which Smith Island and Smith Islanders have been steeped for more than three centuries” (Horton p.116).  Somehow the watermen business has continued to survive and be successful on this island. “Similar to the species he preys on, the bay waterman has survived down the decades by being flexible enough to switch easily among whatever changing opportunities present themselves…’They are resistant to changes that would restrict their livelihood and ability to adapt to changes…watermen may be the epitome of change'” (Horton p.117).

While the watermen community may be thriving on Smith, there a current changes regarding the island’s structural changes due to sea level rise and erosion. Whether the islanders would like to admit or believe it or not, the water is rising and unfortunately it will eventually take the island with it. In 2013, there was a government offer to buyout willing homeowners on Smith Island with relief funds from Hurricane Sandy. It’s no surprise that it was not accepted and was shut down by the community. Luckily, it spurred acknowledgement of issues on the island, which has no formal government (due to the church being the community center). Smith Island United was created and along with the Smith Island Community Vision Steering Committee, the Smith Island Vision Plan was published in 2015. This document is “A vision for how Smith Island will look, feel, and thrive in coming decades” (Vision Plan). The vision’s goals are to: sustain and grow the waterman culture, increase viability and diversity of the local economy, develop and maintain infrastructure, develop reliable and sustainable transportation, and to acknowledge the “need to grow the year-round population of the island” (Vision Plan).

Mark Kitching, a waterman and member of the Smith Island Steering Committee, supports change and development of the island, but does not see any evidence on the island to support theories of sea level rise. While it may not be on their minds or visible to them, the community of Smith Island is changing along with our sea level. In Bay Country, Tom Horton predicts, “Forces are at work that probably will extinguish, or greatly diminish, the islands’ special qualities in many of our lifetimes. A number of bay islands already have vanished or dramatically receded from wind and wave erosion in the last century. That retreat will only accelerate as our profligate incineration of fossil fuels warms the global atmosphere and melts more of the polar icecaps, causing the sea level to rise at a rate unprecedented in many thousands of years” (p. 108).

Having traveled to Smith Island and seeing how passionate and rich their surviving community and culture truly is was truly valuable. Even though projections of climate change and sea level rise predict an unsightly future for the island I hope that the islanders can instill and practice their vision and goals, and that Smith Island will be sustained and kept as the Chesapeake treasure that it is.

References

Horton, Tom. Bay Country, “Pleasures of the Islands: Smith Island”. 1987.

Smith Island Vision Plan. 2015. http://www.cbuilding.org/sites/default/files/150611_Smith_Island_Vision%20Plan_Final_Draft.pdf

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