Preserving one's 'sense of place' Study: University of Maryland researchers interviewed Calvert County residents to determine how they perceive their lands and waters and how the feelings might affect preservation of traditional ways in the region.

On the Bay

November 28, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WHAT'S AN oyster got to do with where you live?"

The speaker had recently moved to Calvert County, one of the flood of migrants transforming rural, seafood-harvesting Southern Maryland into the commuter burbs of Washington.

His question -- both lamentable and eminently reasonable -- came in a "sense of place" focus group convened by the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. Researchers were exploring how Calvert Countians perceive their lands and waters and how that might translate into preserving the natural heritage and traditional ways of life of the region.

The questions are profound ones for environmentalists and policy-makers who assume love for the Chesapeake Bay is something that can underpin ecological restoration efforts.

What, indeed, does an oyster have to do with anything these days? Bay oyster populations are perhaps 1 percent of what they were a century ago. The oyster skipjack, the state boat, is seen mostly at festivals, not at work.

The oyster-shucking houses and ports of the Patuxent River in Calvert County are either history, as at Broomes Island, or like Solomons, fast converting to trendy, little Annapolises.

A primary interest of the researchers was the prospect for retaining traditional working watermen's communities.

In a paper called "Can A Sense of Place Be Preserved?" they concede this is a moot question for Calvert County.

They had to dip over into neighboring St. Mary's just to get enough watermen for a focus group. They estimate as few as 10 Calvert Countians still follow the water for their living.

Additionally, all residents native to the county, who probably were the majority half a century ago, now make up 4 percent of Calvert's population.

Retaining watermen and their communities does remain a valid issue for large parts of the Chesapeake, but mainly on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. Such places are important, well beyond nostalgia or economics.

"Though always a small numerical minority," the authors write, "[watermen's] work maintains the link between their communities and the surrounding waters that is integral to the sense of place" of Maryland residents, whatever their own livelihoods.

When I read that, I immediately thought of Bernie Fowler, a Calvert native and former state senator who has done as much as anyone in his region to bring about environmental restoration of the Patuxent River and the bay. He attracts national attention for his annual Patuxent wade-in, to see if the water's clear enough to see your toes.

He was deeply influenced by the commercial oystering and fish-netting cultures that flourished around Broomes Island on the Patuxent during his boyhood there. But the social environment that motivated Fowler doesn't exist anymore. What, anything, will replace it?

The Maryland researchers, David Wasserman, Mick Womersley and Sara Gottlieb, explored the "sense of place" among four groups: watermen, longtime white residents, African-American residents and recent migrants.

Womersley emphasized that the researchers' work is "not a definitive study of sense of place, rather an initial probe." They are going to do a more in-depth effort on the Eastern Shore, he said.

Group No. 1, the recent migrants, noted as reasons for moving to Calvert the same things being changed by their pursuit of the good life, as defined by suburban sprawl and shopping centers: "You have trees wildlife; living here is like being on vacation all the time open countryside."

I suspect they would be the group most likely to join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation or the Sierra Club. Yet they exhibit a mostly "generic" sense of nature, a "fairly impoverished sense of place and no involvement with the [traditional] culture of oysters, mussels and clams," the researchers concluded.

The next group, longtime (40 years or more) white residents, exhibited a deep-rootedness and a connection to the land and water that was often far more local than the county as a whole.

Although members of that group were selected randomly, it turned out that every one of them knew the others.

They considered themselves to have grown up during a "golden age" of Calvert County -- this despite the fact that they acknowledged times then were more austere economically, and involved brutally hard work.

For them, what constituted "good life" was different from that of the recent migrants -- more about meeting needs than wants, it seemed.

None of the African-Americans, many also longtime residents, spoke of a "golden age." Considerations of race, past and present, outweighed considerations of place.

They were not particularly estranged from Calvert County -- "Where you gonna run?" one said. But they expressed little nostalgia or connection to the natural world. "They liked it [in] almost as generic a way as new arrivals," the researchers said.

The last group, watermen, displayed a fascinating ambivalence. They resented the change that has supplanted their way of life. ** One talked about blocks of "junk shops" in the new, trendy Solomons, even as another spoke of how newcomers thought a shoreline full of crab pots and gill nets was "junky."

But even though the watermen railed against "too many people," and "too much development," none could bring himself to advocate anything to control these, because rules and regulation grate against their essential libertarianism.

The institute's work in Calvert reveals important questions that need to be answered. What will modern residents substitute for a traditional sense of place? Can watermen's cultures be maintained as vital links to a sense of place, or sense of bay? Will watermen support policies that might maintain them?

I look forward to seeing this work expand on the Eastern Shore, where in a few places, an oyster's still got a little something to do with it.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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