BISHOP’S HEAD, Md. – The dirt road leading to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Karen Noonan Center for Environmental Education turns more into stream at high tide.
It runs through salty marsh water, the only way to get to the center unless you have a jet boat like life-long waterman Jessie Marsh.
Pulling into a cove to dock, Marsh, 31, looks like a captain with his black boots and mustache.
He is an educator, just back from leading another children’s field trip. But he is distinct from the center’s other staff.
Marsh is a Smith Islander, bringing to the job his intimate experiences of an enclave saturated with the color of the past and the traditions of the Chesapeake.
Marsh says he tries to show his charges what it was like for him to grow up, “to give ’em the love for the bay I have….If they love it, they’re a lot less likely to pollute it.”
And he is a living bridge between the foundation and the island, where his family has been part of the tight-knit waterman’s community for about 200 years.
The foundation and the islanders have long clashed over restrictions on the area’s rich fishing and crabbing. Islanders blame the foundation for government regulation; foundation officials say they are only trying to protect the bay.
Just over a year ago, hostilities flared in a suspected arson fire in a foundation shed. Even today, signs posted on Smith Island tell the educators to leave.
But Marsh says it’s the foundation that “may help save the island.”
Smith Island is nestled in Tangier Sound in the lower bay, near the imaginary line separating Maryland and Virginia waters. It has roughly 400 residents.
Ten years ago, it was never in the news, Marsh says. The foundation, by publicizing its problems, has put the place on the map.
One of those problems is sea-level rise, a phenomenon Marsh attributes to melting glaciers adding water to the world’s oceans. Many scientists say this is because of global warming, a theory in some dispute.
But there is no disputing the impact of sea-level rise on Smith Island. Geography that once loomed above the bay is now submerged in its depths.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation came to Smith Island when Marsh was a teenager in 1978, and he “hit it off good with them,” helping with field trips, showing workers what the water was like, and generally getting involved.
He hired on a year ago, boats the hour-and-a-half from Smith Island to the center and lives on Bishop’s Head while he works.
Jennifer Hicks, 24, the center’s manager and head educator, calls Marsh “a living resource…all watermen are. He knows the commercial side…as well as the natural side.”
Marsh was offered a position several times, but didn’t want to give up his waterman’s freedom, Hicks recalls. Even working for the foundation, she says, “he’s his own man…a wild mustang.”
Indeed, Marsh can find his sympathies pulled like the moon on the tide.
When Maryland cut short last year’s crabbing season, he says, he understood why the foundation had called for action — to preserve the crab population.
At the same time, he knew the heartache of watermen in the peak of their season, catching bushels of crabs as they came down the bay.
“I stand behind my people, too, on a lot of things,” he says.
But Marsh sets himself apart from watermen who see the foundation a threat. When he first encountered the environmentalists, he says, he had a better sense of what they were about than “90 percent” of the islanders. “I agree with a lot of what they were saying.”
He and Smith Island have a lot at stake.
The island is losing young people, especially women. For the last 20 years, girls have gone off to school, met somebody, and come back to visit only every few years.
“Too many bachelors,” Marsh says, only half in jest.
Sitting on the center’s porch, Marsh lights up a cigarette while recalling a Smith Island field “where we all used to play ball.”
That field is now part of the marshes.
Smith is actually several small islands, and Marsh’s family first lived on Shankes, at a site his brother showed him from a speedboat when he was 8 or 9. “There was three trees a-standin’ there,” he says.
No longer. Shankes Island has sunk into the bay.
Marsh, a local history buff, says research occasionally takes him “through the grave yards” to look at the head stones. “I know most of em by name.”
But the bones are now exposed to the salty air and water, victims of the rising sea.
“The idea of Smith Island ending could make me cry,” Marsh says.
Then the waterman, looking gruff, adds that he is not the type for tears. -30-