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.


My Current Chesapeake Ethic

In Bay Country, Tom Horton references the importance of context in forming ethics, so I will examine how my contexts color my current Chesapeake ethic. Personally, when I think about the Chesapeake Bay I think about home. Not any particular living space, but the natural surroundings that are familiar to me. One place that has been important in shaping the sense of home that I view the Bay with is on the Wicomico River, at my grandparents’ house. I have crabbed with my grandfather there, and fished with him in the little tributaries and creeks across the river. I have grown up playing on their beach and exploring the nearby marshes at low tide. I have an attachment to the familiarity of that place, which is aroused whenever I interact with new areas of the bay region. My context of home, however, doesn’t strictly apply to myself, but also to the crabs and fish we catch and the minnows that congregate in the shallow waters near my grandparents’ beach. It is their home, too. One strong example that reminds me of this is the pair of osprey that return every year and hatch new young. I have watched as they feed their babies and teach them to fly. I have learned to whistle to them like my grandfather, and have a neighborly affection for them.

In the preface of Bay Country, Tom Horton states that,

“We bay dwellers move in a far richer and more extensive matrix of subtle relations and ancient connections with nature than we can yet explain or admit” (Horton, XIII).

For me, this connection between nature and the feeling of home has a spiritual component. For even with a scientific understanding of a place, we can be in awe of its aesthetic depth or uncomprehending of nature’s intricacies. Once when I was very young, my family was boating home in the evening after a fireworks show and there were magical splashes of green behind our wake from our disturbance of comb jellies- it was nature’s bioluminescent finale. Witnessing a display so remote as that reminds me that I am just a tiny particle in the infinite universe, and then I zoom back in and am amazed and grateful to be here. Viewing the bay with this lens allows me to have the, “greatly expanded appreciation of all the ways in which we and nature fit together,“ that Tom Horton says we need just as much as we need our religions. (Horton, XIII)

So, after examining the context with which I relate to the Chesapeake, I broke down my ethic into three categories: be aware, be grateful, and be open. The first means that I always try to be aware of how I’m affecting the bay: what I’m putting into it, how I’m using it, for recreation, relaxation, or for securing dinner, and how I’m either helping or hurting it, by perhaps causing erosion via boat wake or helping prevent erosion by planting grasses. The second category means I appreciate the resource by not taking too much, throwing back immature female crabs so they can breed for example, and caring about its health. Lastly, be open refers to the ethical necessity that I learn as much as I can about the Chesapeake Bay and the issues and controversies surrounding it in order to uphold the first two categories of being aware and being grateful. As John Burroughs says in The Art of Seeing Things,

“the eye sees what it has the means of seeing, and its means of seeing are in proportion to the love and desire behind it” (Burroughs, 158).

Since I consider the Chesapeake a home, it is in my ethic to educate myself and continually update my knowledge: to be be aware, be grateful, and be open.

Photo: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/00/b7/e8/00b7e8908a4eb84ed17062b943195f04.jpg