The Voice of Smith Island Chris Parks returned to tell the world about his home

September 03, 1994|By Helen Chappell | Helen Chappell,Special to The Sun

Ewell, Md. -- There are those who say all watermen are philosophers. There are others who say the two occupations couldn't be more different. And then there's Jonnie Christy Parks, the waterman-philosopher of Smith Island.

"The two are compatible, if not downright symbiotic," says Chris, as his friends know him. "Now, take pulling crab pots. It's like Sisyphus rolling that rock uphill. The work never ends. . . . It gives you time to think."

Chris Parks makes his living the way everyone does on this isolated and marshy rise of land, 12 miles off the Eastern Shore in Chesapeake Bay. "There's no alternative out here," he says. "You make your living from crabs or you don't make it."

But he also has an unusual role on an island where people often feel alienated from the mainland. Chris Parks explains out here to someone from over there.

His medium is the letter to the editor. In such places as Smith Island, where there is no local government, such letters often are the only forum for debate. But in a community in which most people leave school early to work on the water, few feel comfortable expressing themselves in writing.

So when an issue arises -- say, when the state threatens to crack down on housewives who pick crab meat and sell it commercially -- Chris Parks is the man people turn to give voice to Smith Island's thoughts.

He's an ideal man for the job -- a college graduate with a degree in philosophy, a former newspaper reporter, and a native whose family goes back 300 years on Smith Island.

"Better than anyone else, Chris might be able to explain Smith Island to the world because he is of Smith Island," says the painter Reuben Becker, an island resident for 22 years.

Still, it is a role Chris is not entirely comfortable with. "I don't want anyone to think that I'm special," he says.

Since this is Sunday, Chris doesn't have to pull crab pots. But he's thinking about it, talking about the Tao of work and the study of truth on Smith Island, where he tries to follow the precepts of the philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

"Out here, I'm very close to nature, to the cycles of the seasons and the water, and that, for me, is a good life," he says. "Living simply and close to nature, that's important. I can't experience that in town. An island is a great place to be a philosopher."

A slightly built, crag-featured man with a full head of thick, wiry, dark hair and intense green eyes magnified by glasses, Chris, 37, walks along the narrow lanes of Ewell like a kid let out of school. From time to time, he makes a point by gesturing with gnarled, work-hardened hands. His posture has an almost rabbinical stoop, as if burdened by the weight of scholarship.

Living like Thoreau

Out here in the Chesapeake Bay, caught between the old ways && and the shock of the new, Chris is idealistic enough to believe it's still possible to live like Thoreau in the latter half of the 20th century.

This is one of the last waterman's communities, where three centuries of cultural identity have not yet been blurred by pricey new boutiques and rich retiree condos. Yet Chris knows the outside world has finally found Smith Island, and that life here is changing.

The seafood industry, once the mainstay of the island's economic life, is in serious decline. Many people have left the island or gone into service jobs in the budding tourism industry; just this week, ground was broken for a tourism center.

This outpost is Chris' obsession, his dream, his life's work. If he tends

to see this place through an idealized mist at times, he's not alone. Smith Island seems to exert that influence on a lot of people who enjoy its slow pace, tight-knit community and Eastern Shore character.

Chris speaks often of an idyllic childhood spent on the water with his late father, a waterman. He recalls a simpler time when there were plenty of crabs and oysters, and the mainland was just far enough away. Now, "over there" has become a symbol of all that he dislikes the most about mainstream culture.

"Society's plastic umbilical cord of material goods and consumerism is beginning to corrupt us out here," he wrote in an essay. "We see the junk on TV, and we want it, when we used to be satisfied out here with so much less, with a simpler life."

Return of the native

His perspective is that of the native who has been away and come home again. Lots of people leave Smith Island and go to college, go away. Chris is the only one who got his education and came back.

He says he was always bookish. "I read because I wanted to learn. My father used to say that he liked to read when he was young, too," he recalls. He finished high school, and after working with his father on the water for several years, saved enough money to enroll in Salisbury State University.

"I was," he says ruefully, "a 25-year-old freshman." Four years later, he graduated, then spent a few years kicking around the mainland, trying to find a place where he could fit in.

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