Who’s On Top?

“Damn” by Kirstin Webb

While camping at Chino Farms last weekend, a five-thousand acre research farm that partners with Washington College, I contemplated the concept of humans controlling nature. I was enjoying the beautiful river scenery when I noticed the sharp contrast between the picturesque,  uncultivated naturalness before me, like a preloaded computer screensaver or National Geographic magazine cover, and the metal and concrete dam on the edge of it all. The rusty handle boasted of humans’ ability to control that river, adjusting its flow like a faucet. This made me wonder if humans really control nature as well as we think we do, as it seemed ridiculous that one faucet could be sufficient to control the whole river. After learning about the environmental factors that influenced the settlement of Jamestown a few days later, it became obvious that more often than not, nature controls us.

"Gateway" by Kirstin Webb
“Watergate” by Kirstin Webb

In 1606, one hundred and four settlers traveled up the Chesapeake Bay, made landfall, and established Jamestown. Captain John Smith became president in 1608, bringing some direction to the settlement and ordered a well to be dug. However, life during that period was incredibly difficult and the environment was uncooperative. One of the biggest droughts in history started just before Smith and the first settlers arrived and lasted until 1612, as evidenced through the close proximity of the rings on tree cores for those years. This dramatically affected corn and other crop production. People also got sick with diseases such as dysentery and typhoid fever from dumping human waste and trash into the river, which stuck around and leached into their drinking water. Additionally, there were the feelings of sluggishness and bloating commonly referenced in primary documents, which was due to salt poisoning from the settlement being located in the freshwater-saltwater transition zone. This means that in July and August the salt wedge seasonally intruded further upriver and saltwater got into the well. By, “ January 1608 only thirty-eight of the original settlers were still alive” and “fire destroyed most of the crude buildings in Jamestown and most of the freshly unloaded supplies” (Nash, 47).

Dubbed the Starving Times, the winter of 1609 was extremely harsh due to the occurrence of a mini-ice age and the population disintegrated from six hundred to just sixty in one season. People became so desperate as to eat their leather shoes and new archeological evidence has revealed that one man even cannibalized his wife. In previous years the Native Americans had brought the colonists food, but since they still hadn’t figured out how to provide for themselves after three years and the drought put strain on feeding their own tribe, the colonists were left hungry. Also, the relief expedition that was supposed to bring supplies to Jamestown was hit by a hurricane at sea and shipwrecked, leading to both the discovery of Bermuda and the starvation of hundreds of people. (Dr. John Seidel’s lecture The Jamestown Experiment: Clashes of Culture and Environment)

The illusion of having control over our environment through technology prevents us from acknowledging the awesome gravity nature has on our lives. Although in Cultural Materialism, Marvin Harris suggests that the foundations of culture are based upon our environment; that our first level of culture, which he calls the Infrastructure, is how we use technology to deal with the environment. It makes sense then that even though we can build dams like at Chino Farms or try to settle new territories like at Jamestown, nature always controls us in the end.


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