Chesapeake Bay as the Wellspring of American Culture and Identity | WYPR

Chesapeake Bay as the Wellspring of American Culture and Identity

Mar 21, 2018

The Chesapeake Bay's lower Eastern Shore.
Credit Tom Pelton

It was April 26, 1607. Three English ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery, were sailing across the wind-swept Atlantic Ocean when their captain, Christopher Newport, saw the low-slung coast of the new world and entered the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Newport, Captain John Smith and the other founders of the Jamestown colony, had not come for freedom.

In that way, they were different than other English colonizers of North America: the Pilgrims, who landed farther north 13 years earlier and established the Plymouth colony. The Pilgrims were religious separatists who endured the alien landscape because they hungered for religious liberty.

By contrast, Jamestown was established by the Virginia Company of London strictly as a for-profit business. The corporate mission was to find gold, as the Spanish did when they plundered the Aztecs almost a century earlier.

When Newport’s company failed to turn up anything but iron pyrite -- fool’s gold -- in Virginia, the desperate and starving souls of Jamestown finally discovered America’s first profitable business – and their salvation -- by cultivating tobacco on fields stolen from Native Americans. 

Thus, the American enterprise was born – with the sweat of African slave labor -- on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Over the next four centuries, the Chesapeake would prove central to the formation of American character and identity— as the artery into which freedom and bondage, capitalism and democracy, brilliant idealism and brutal genocide, flowed into our nation and took root.

The Chesapeake Bay is as deep with history as it is physically shallow-- a meeting place for north and south, freshwater and saltwater, land and sea. The bay was the site of the final battle of the Revolutionary War, at Yorktown.  And it was down the bay that the Great Liberator, Abraham Lincoln, travelled by steamboat to Richmond to conclude the Civil War and touch the hands and hear the songs of the slaves he freed.

This mixture of clashing ingredients is why it is so important to understand and protect our nation’s largest estuary. If we Americans disregard the Chesapeake Bay as simply a place to dredge oysters and crabs and dump pollution, we are dumping on our own heritage. To respect ourselves, we need to respect the Chesapeake Bay.  

For the last 35 years, Maryland, Virginia, and the other regional states and federal government have spent billions of dollars in a campaign to clean up the bay.

After years of no improvement in the bay's overall health, the last eight years, we have finally seen some progress.  Pollution limits, imposed on bay region states by EPA in 2010, finally appear to be working to reduce pollution, improve water clarity, and thus stimulate an expansion of the bay's underwater forests of grasses.  But the Trump Administration is now threatening to dismantle all that progress by slashing EPA's budget and power.  

The arguments of the anti-regulatory forces fighting the bay cleanup echo those made by the Virginia Company of London more than 400 years ago: We're all just here for the paycheck, folks. 

In this line of line of thinking, the bay is not a sacred place of beauty and life to be cherished and preserved -- but a strip mine where we dig up resources, drain farmland, and build backdrops for our lucrative real estate developments.

“Save the Bay” has been the war cry of clean water activists for half a century. But it’s time we stop and be honest with ourselves: We cannot both save the bay and save the culture built on wringing gold from the dirt, no matter what the cost.

Today, after 10 years on the radio, and five years of research and writing, I will finally be releasing my book about the bay, called “The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

 It’s the work of my life, about something I love. Check it out at your local bookstore.