'Smith Island': the present, out of time

June 09, 1996|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,special to the sun

"An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay," by Tom Horton. W.W. Norton. 316 pages. $25. Smith Island is a salty world of marsh muck, crabs and terrapins, a world inhabited by watermen and ghosts of centuries past, where independence is tempered by the rhythms of weather and meddling intrusions from the "the mainland." Its 8,000 acres of mostly wetlands face a new millennium in which environmentalists, fickle crabbing seasons and children full of wanderlust may leave the island deserted. And the rising waters of the Chesapeake Bay may eventually swallow Smith, turning it into nothing more than a smudge on a nautical map.

If the cosmos conspires in such a way, it is good Tom Horton has written a book that wonderfully intertwines the beauty and sensuousness of nature with the poetry of 400 islanders who dredge humor and wisdom from isolation. "An Island Out of Time" is compassionate and steely-eyed. Mr. Horton, a sort of wisecracking Thoreau, is in love with the island, but he's also truthful - although less comprehensive than he could have been - about its future.

He understands what environmentalists often miss about those who live off the bay. He writes: "After years of trying to come to an analytical understanding of the bay ... I have concluded the only real understanding comes from sharing the bay's fate, which requires patience, self-reliance - a certain reverence. Share the bay's fate. Maybe that is what people here have always done best."

A fine writer and author of the book "Bay Country," Mr. Horton spins off sentences like: "A lone crab, an escapee from the steaming pot, scuttled from under a building and preceded us down the path, dancing sideways, seeking salt water." Mr. Horton is also a deft listener. He must have miles of taped conversations. One islander keyed him in to how islanders respond to newcomers: "I told a new preacher that came here: half this crowd is going to love you, and half's going to hate you; and if you're here long, the two halves'l switch."

The book is full of such folksy wisdom. Mr. Horton is right to let the islanders have their say. But sometimes they say too much. Their Old World speech is a delight to listen to, but on the printed page that charm can quickly vanish. Mr. Horton should have been a more diligent editor.

But as a storyteller, he's splendid. "My street, really just a path, had no name," he writes. He takes the reader on a journey through creosote-scented marshes, aboard skipjacks and into crab picking houses. He skillfully balances the cries of the environmentalists with the hard realities of boat captains and watermen who since the 1600s have earned their livings off rockfish, ducks, turtles, oysters and, of course, crabs.

Environmentalists aren't alone in threatening the island's future. The state wants to regulate everything. Young islanders are leaving for the mainland. The lore of Smith has simply lost its lure and life has become much more complicated than outwitting the shifting Bay winds. Mr. Horton captures this and his book is for anyone wishing to understand how a small piece of the world can endure for centuries off nature's bounty and then find itself tumbling toward extinction - just as the tourist boats arrive from the mainland.

Jeffrey Fleishman is a national correspondent with the Philadelphia Inquirer . He has reported on the crabbing industry, wetlands destruction and Smith Island.

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