AN ISLAND OUT OF TIME: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake.
By Tom Horton. Norton. 352 pp. $25
"Two things I never felt bad over— poachin’ oysters or takin’ waterfowl." Who is speaking, a friend of the environment or one of its enemies? When it comes to the Chesapeake Bay, the answer is far from simple. The speaker is a Smith Island waterman, a member of a community that has long depended on the bay for its survival. Yet as native son and environmental journalist Horton shows in this lyrical memoir, the watermen no longer enjoy an untroubled relationship with their home. Instead, they must deal with the fact that the bay is, as Horton observes, "a world-class resource, polluted big time, and now the object of unprecedented restoration efforts."
But Horton’s main concern is not with the politics of conservation. It is with the interconnectedness of people who have for generations lived as intertwined with one another as the salt marshes are with the bay. As one islander says, "You know just how to avoid an argument, and you know just how to start one." Sustaining this balance is a deep sense of tradition—some Smith Island families go back to the 1600s. Only recently has modern life intruded: electricity in 1949, telephone lines to the mainland in 1951. While younger islanders struggle with the enticements of the outside world, pattern and routine remain strong among the older. As one remarks, "I’m 55, and I’ve been crabbing right here for more than 40 years. This boat is nearly the same age....Ifyou were to put me in a new boat, I don’t think I would even know how to crab."
Still, hovering over Horton’s vivid account is the clash between environmental activists and communities that, like this one, are part of the "ecosystem" the activists are crusading to save. The waterman who doesn’t regret poaching oysters or taking waterfowl tells Horton how "one freezing winter we sent up to Crisfield for corn and fed thousands of starving redheads [ducks] right off the stern of our boats." Such people should be heeded when they protest. "Whenever you make a law that applies to everywhere," the same waterman says, "it can’t apply over here. We got no industry and no farmland—just our marsh and the water, and nobody takes care of us but ourselves."