Had I not known better, I’d have declared I was walking around outside our barns, intent on feeding calves and cattle.
Just moments before, a pair of full-grown cats had dashed right between my feet, nearly causing me to trip. As it was, I was moving along at a steady pace with a group of others, headed to visit a museum located at — and paying tribute to — a most fascinating place we’d long dreamed of visiting.
More than two dozen of us, farmers, conservation professionals and staffers of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, were hustling along a narrow street on Tangier Island. It was a get-to-know-one-another-better weekend, with watermen and soil-health and conservation-minded farmers having a bit of opportunity to better understand the similar challenges of their profession.
Our base was the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s educational outpost on nearby Port Isobel Island, once part of a much larger Tangier land mass. Dedicated mostly to student education, the rustic, camp-like setting provides hands-on opportunities for hundreds of youth to learn about the bay environment. We were incredibly fortunate to be among a small number of adults occasionally offered the same experiences, trying our hands at setting crab pots and dredging for oysters, examining the fascinating life that lives in the underwater grass beds and testing water quality.
Tangier Island is a small spit of land — mostly sand and marsh — located about mid-point in the Chesapeake Bay, just south of the Virginia state line. Residents of Tangier, like farmers, are highly dependent on weather. Most make their living as watermen, harvesting the seafood delicacies so many of us enjoy: primarily crabs and oysters. Tangier Island watermen literally spend most of their life on the waters of the Chesapeake, harvesting sea proteins with low-set, modest and utilitarian boats designed specifically for their work.
Like farming, it’s a dangerous profession with long hours, irregular income dictated by erratic market swings, lots of regulations and somewhat isolated from the mainstream. Most of these watermen families — like many farmers — continue a way of life that traces back for a multitude of generations, when European immigrants tended small farms and harvested the bay’s bounty, as Native Americans had done for eons.
In his book, “Chesapeake Requiem,” author Earl Swift details how Tangier, and other islands that dot the bay, were once — during the age of ice that froze much of the Northeast under glaciers — part of a long peninsula jutting from the mainland. Ocean levels were several hundred feet lower than today. As glaciers melted, they carved large rivers, like our Susquehanna, and caused ocean levels to rise, flooding much of what is now the floor of the Chesapeake Bay. Only the highest points of those peninsulas remain, islands surrounded by water.
And the islands continue to shrink. As the Earth’s oceans have continued to rise, already having eliminated numerous once-inhabited land bits dotting the bay, Tangier Island continues to steadily erode, year by year; the high point on the island now is about 4 feet above water, on a calm day.
Every summer storm, every hurricane, every high tide takes a toll, as bits of delicate marsh, buffeted by constant wave motion, break away from the island’s edges. In fact, our visit to the Tangier Island museum had been pushed back from the previous afternoon, because a high tide had pushed water up into the streets and yards of the waterbound community.
Like farmers, the watermen and their families love what they do, despite the uncertainties, dangers and challenges. And, while farming has lost land to urban and commercial sprawl, these islanders simply lose land, as bits and pieces break away and slip beneath the Chesapeake’s waves. A rock barrier, installed several years ago, has helped slow some erosion, but the inevitable continues.
And the Tangier watermen and their families ponder how long they can continue to exist. Our brief acquaintance with their livelihood and lifestyle was a tremendously educational, enlightening and sobering weekend, enforcing the importance of how delicately and critically entwined the environments of land and water will always be.
Now, about those cats. There are lots of them on Tangier Island, many roaming free but looked after by the town’s residents. Likely the first cats arrived a long time ago, perhaps to help control the rodents that inevitably turn up in any place that people live and work. Like the watermen, their feline generations persist and thrive in this isolated, almost-haunting setting. A fellow visitor related that he understood that periodically a veterinarian from the mainland comes to spay and neuter some of the four-legged residents, helping to hold the rodent-patrol population to somewhat of an even keel.
Our barn cats would surely envy their Tangier Island cousins. What feline wouldn’t enjoy fresh, Chesapeake Bay seafood as part of its regular diet?
Ferries regularly run to Tangier Island from both Eastern Shore and the Virginia mainland, offering landlubbers like us a chance to glimpse this tiny spot of unique commerce, lifestyles and a vanishing piece of American history.
It was a weekend that will forever be etched in our memories.