FISHING CREEK – When asked where he was from, Phil Jones answered simply, “the Eastern Shore,” in the garbled Scottish-sounding accent of Shore natives.
When pressed, he just chuckled. “You’re asking for a family tree? What’s that?” he asked, half-joking.
His twin brother, Paul, could not do much better. He thought the Joneses came from England, but he could not be sure offhand.
“We’ve been here for as long as I can remember,” he said, furrowing his brow.
“That sort of family history is typical on the Eastern Shore,” said Michael Paolisso, a University of Maryland anthropologist who has done field work with watermen.
Eastern Shore folk often describe themselves as having been there “forever,” Paolisso said, as indigenous to the landscape as the marshes, fish and crabs.
One thing the Jones brothers know for certain is how to build boats: Five generations of Jones men — or more, Phil could not positively say — learned the trade on the Shore.
They learned to build boats at their father’s business, P.L. Jones and Sons in Crocheron. Their grandfather had a business in Bishops Head, and so did their great-grandfather and generations of Joneses before that.
Now, Phil owns P.L. Jones Boatyard & Marina on Hoopers Island, where he builds Jones 42s, a boat that is the culmination of an evolutionary chain of family carpentry experiments.
Phil keeps his great-grandfather’s tools on the walls of his workshop — a huge manual drill that bored holes in the sides of wooden ships and giant wooden patterns for tracing the shape of the hull and divots in the boat’s front.
Wooden ships are relics now, Phil said, but he did use the old tools to help contour the mold he uses to cast modern fiberglass boats. So the past did not die, Paolisso said, but has been recycled to fit the needs of the present.
The same could be said for the Joneses or hundreds of other Shore natives who have given up their livelihoods as watermen as the crab and the oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay fell to all-time lows.
But the Joneses had a longtime family business to fall back on. They simply adjusted their trade to building more luxurious pleasure cruisers instead of the plain working boats they mainly built when watermen dominated the shore’s economy.
Watermen tradition is one of the last “primitive” cultures, an occupation in which a man can be truly independent, Paolisso said. While the world evolves to a more structured, industrialized place, watermen continue to live off the land.
“It’s a culture, a society, that is dependent on natural resources. That makes it somewhat unique,” Paolisso said. “We have very few communities that survive based on natural resources. We don’t have many hunter-gatherer societies left.”
But Phil is not sorry that the watermen population is trickling off.
“It’s a change,” he said. “It’s like a cycle.”
Paolisso said he was not surprised by that stoic attitude: Phil is a waterman, after all.
He said Phil’s attitude echoes a universal waterman belief that he discovered through a survey he took last year, which asked watermen to choose statements they thought best described the state of the Chesapeake Bay and loss of the oyster population.
Watermen identified most with the idea that “unpredictability is nature’s own way” of managing the world, Paolisso said.
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