Traditions nourished by our Chesapeake Bay heritage

November 23, 2006|By Jack Greer

Now is the time to give thanks, and one thing Marylanders have to be thankful for is the Chesapeake Bay. With all the problems that face the bay, it may be harder now to look across the water at the rising sun with wild geese winging overhead and just be thankful for what we have.

For many of us, our traditions are tied to the bay. Rockfish in spring. Crabs in summer. Oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving. But for many others, the bay is not part of their heritage - not part of what they grew up with. So many of us have come from somewhere else, from suburban Maryland or perhaps from the other side of the country, or the other side of the world. With America's population on the move, and many people changing houses as easily as they change clothes, what does the notion of heritage mean anymore?

Do newcomers think of the bay as their home? Do they think of it at all? And if those raised on the water have to go elsewhere to earn a living, do they still think of the bay? Are they still "bay people," or do they consider themselves something else now?

I think of my uncle's father, a waterman, whose front yard was the river - whose place of work was the Chesapeake. After the oyster disease MSX ravaged the industry, he had to leave the water to make his living on land, mostly painting houses. His workboat, always bright white, stayed tethered in front of the house like a faithful horse, waiting for the oysters to come back. They never did. And yet, this man of the water never left the bay. He died in the house where he'd raised his children, with the slap of waves in earshot of the front porch.

Two anthropologists have recently published studies that help us think further about what heritage means in this day and age, especially when it comes to the Chesapeake. Michael Paolisso and Erve Chambers have come from the other side of the country to live and teach here, at the University of Maryland. They're fascinated with the culture they found around the shores of the bay, and they have lived here long enough to see changes come to those shores and to witness the disquiet and confusion over what many call a dying way of life.

In two very different studies of the Chesapeake, they both come to the same conclusion: Bayside communities are not dying, they are only changing. Like my uncle's father, they may have had to change jobs, but these local communities' roots run deep, their resilience is powerful, and they are finding their way.

In fact, according to Mr. Chambers, one of the characteristics that most defines the iconic Eastern Shore watermen is their resilience, their capacity to make do. Many of those we call watermen are accomplished engine mechanics, carpenters, painters and electricians. They are used to patching things together, to getting things to work. While we may think of heritage with a capital H, Mr. Chambers suggests that along with the public heritage of parades, museums and historical markers, there is also a more private heritage, one that he calls "cultural heritage."

This more private heritage travels through families and local communities, and through generations. What's more, Mr. Chambers says, it doesn't have to stay put. A waterman's child may travel to California, but the roots remain and the private heritage continues to speak through local accents, behaviors, memories, beliefs and core values.

Mr. Paolisso helps us to answer another question: Whom does the bay belong to? I remember a television program from years ago called Harvesters of the Chesapeake. The opening of that show began with the statement that the bay belongs to all of us, but most of all it belongs to the watermen.

Now, years later, it seems less clear whom the bay belongs to. At times it appears that the bay belongs to the bureaucrats, the experts, the policymakers. In his work, Mr. Paolisso has argued that in our efforts to restore the bay we have too often left out watermen, farmers and others who make their living from the water and the land.

Mr. Paolisso has studied the underlying cultures - what he calls cultural models - of watermen and others, and he has discovered the ways in which we are the same and the ways in which we are different. When it comes to managing an important species like the blue crab, for example, he tries to uncover core beliefs that lead scientists to respond in one way and watermen in another.

In the end, Mr. Paolisso argues that the bay does in fact belong to all of us, whether we are environmentalists, farmers or watermen. We each have our own connections with the bay that we value. We each have the private things that we care about, including our own reasons for wanting to protect the bay. And that is something to be thankful for.

Jack Greer writes about Chesapeake Bay science and policy for the University of Maryland Sea Grant College. His e-mail is

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