May 19, 2019

SlackWater’s Circumstantial Evidence Part II

SlackWater's Circumstantial Evidence Part II

The SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work has been published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online and some published here. The work below was first published in Volume IV Crassostrea virginica in spring 2004.slackwater logo

By Anne Grulich

New homes accommodate the tides by building on pilings or specially engineered “floating” foundations like that of the Lumpkins’ home next door to the Morgans. Ground level floors are louvered garages or storage spaces, built to be expendable when the inevitable storm surge rolls in below the living spaces. All over the Island, height mediates the boundary between land and sea in clever ways, from pilings to raised roofs to tall well heads. Norma Redden’s home on Russell Point is a good example.

Russell Point reaches tentatively into St. George Creek. It’s as close to sea level as a place can be without going under. One particular October afternoon, the tidewater had seeped to the edges of the roadway; gullies and marshes were brimming. The Island has often been full to bursting, with not even a full moon or storm to blame. At such times it seems as though every grain of sand and even the particles of clay have reached maximum saturation, as though at any moment their cohesive bonds will release. We are like water spiders here, relying on surface tension and the laws of physics to support us on the meniscus. It is a marvelous feeling to be in this fleeting state of equilibrium facing east and talking of sunrises. Even inside the Redden home, you feel outside.

Norma Redden began as a “part timer” on the Island, visiting nearby Piney Point as a child, and finally purchasing her own Island acre for $10,800 in 1972. She moved in permanently in 1995, after the Metropolitan Commission’s pumper-grinder sewer system replaced the Island’s failing septic fields, and after she complied with building codes requiring her to raise her roof so she could raise the level of the first floor. This is what kept her interior dry during Isabel. The water crept up the steps but never trespassed the front door.

When I came inside, she offered me a variety of soft drinks, and I naively suggested water. Never ask for water on an island after a hurricane. If well heads are submerged in a flood, the wells must be disinfected by pouring chlorinated water directly into the well head, running hose water for an hour or two into the well, then drawing the chlorinated water into every household plumbing fixture, and letting it sit 24 hours. The whole system is then flushed out by running the hose until all traces of the chlorine disappear. Redden’s well was not submerged, but her neighbor’s was and she was not taking any chances of contamination. Sipping Coke, looking outside through a wall of windows facing east, I saw that the Redden well head stood about three feet tall, and I’ve since noticed this in several places around the island.

Redden collects the unbroken century-old bottles that wash up in her tide line and stores them unceremoniously in boxes under her house. Aqua medicine bottles embossed with “Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Kidney Liver and Bladder Remedy” and “Chamberlain’s Colic Cholera and Diarrhea Remedy” speak volumes. From 1850 to 1900, fraud and misrepresentation of medicines was rampant. With no federal drug regulations in existence, quack remedies, often with alcohol and opium as the chief ingredients, were widely available. According to The Bottle Book by Richard Fike, the Chamberlain brothers did business in Iowa, Australia, Canada, and South Africa before they were bought out by Pfeiffer Chemical Company in 1939. The Kilmer brothers distributed remedies in Binghamton, New York, beginning in the 1870s, until a son, Andral, began widespread promotion of their most famous Swamp Root Remedy in 1888. Some time after 1924 the company was sold to Diebold Products of Stamford, Connecticut.

Redden’s bottles have the round-edged, soft opacity only sand and salt water can lend to glass. The soluble salts of the brackish St. George Creek environment alter the composition of the glass, clouding its clarity as the dissolution progresses at a constant rate deeper into the glass. Time spent in the marsh or rolling gently in the swells of the shallow creek add an organic quality to an inert object.

The sea glass that washes up at the McCracken’s pier north of Russell and Ball Point is well worn but in fragments. Isabella McCracken collects them because they are beautiful and she is an artist. She collects an occasional pottery sherd as well. Most intriguing, though, is an iron ladle, some ten inches long, with left and right lips for pouring off molten lead. The ladle was found five years ago buried upright with the handle protruding amid the roots of an apple tree behind their house. It is rusted from its time in the damp, salty earth. The McCracken’s house was formerly home to Wendell Chesser, one of the original St. George Island families, who was a waterman, pilot, and boat captain by trade. Would Wendell or his father, Howard, have used this ladle for pouring lead sinkers and jigs or weights for nets? Or for making shot for hunting?

As we spoke in a comfortable kitchen with walls of windows on both sides, Isabella reminisced about melting lead during childhood New Year’s celebrations in the Tyrol. Molten lead was dropped into water, and whatever shape the lead assumed became your fortune for the next year. The worst shape to get was a coffin. The McCrackens came to St. George Island fifteen years ago as part timers from Alexandria before they settled in full time. They rode out Hurricane Isabel at home, too, with no doubts about their house. Wendell had told them it was a good one, and he’d passed many a storm in it. But the noise of the wind was horrible, and all night they watched the water swirling in across their lawn from all directions. It reached the first step, higher than it had ever come before, but never entered the house.

Two houses to the north, Josephine Ricks and Jeffrey Clark uncovered a 12-pound iron cannon ball buried two feet deep in their yard while digging the trench for plumbing lines to their pool house. The ball is so badly corroded it’s nearly impossible to determine its origin, but its future is certain: without conservation it will crumble to pieces. Surface concretions flake off as I gingerly measure 36 cm. in diameter and photograph it on the deck of the pool. Twelve pounds condensed into the size of a grapefruit is surprisingly heavy. I would not have wanted to be on the receiving end of either this British or American gun be it from the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812.

The battle on St. George Island during July of 1776 is well documented. It was the first military action of the Revolution in Maryland. For weeks the Island lay in the crossfire between a flotilla of British vessels under Virginia’s ousted governor, Lord Dunmore, and Maryland’s militia and regular forces with cannon at Cherryfield Point and on the 20-gun ship Defence in the Potomac. For over two centuries these 12 pounds of iron and carbon alloy have been quietly interacting with the earth. What soared through the air for one instant centuries ago, what once helped determine the fate of nations, will erode to nothing by the inexorable attraction of soluble salts to iron.

Depending upon the circumstance, St. George Island is above sea level or below. Under certain circumstance sharks have prevailed; under others, mastodons. Only relatively recently have humans set foot on these sands. Twenty-five thousand years ago sea level was 100 meters lower than today, and the shoreline was 250 kilometers to the east. Eighteen thousand years ago sea level began consistently rising, reaching today’s level about 8,000 years ago. Experts calculate that the Chesapeake Bay is currently rising a foot a century – nearly twice the global average. Under these circumstances, this island will certainly disappear despite our best efforts to keep the rivers at bay with revetment and bulk heading, and to accommodate fluctuating water levels by building things higher.

SlackWater St. George Island

Copies of Slackwater Volume IV are available here.

The one constant here is water. It’s what draws people, what alters the landscape, what determines housing development, what lulls and lures and terrifies. It’s what delivers the past once again to be collected along the tide line. It’s what decomposes the artifacts of the past and present.

Wasting time and meandering on my bike, with Maryland’s history so keenly in mind, with the wind full in my face, I adjust my helmet on the bridge and check my watch. I realize it’s the transience of the place that lends it its mystical qualities. An SUV zooms past with a cheery wave, heading to a home on stilts where a reincarnated skipjack is moored out back, as if this was all perfectly normal – as indeed it is in a land shared by sharks, mastodons, Jesuits, slaves, Indians, soldiers and watermen.

To read SlackWater’s Circumstantial Evidence Part I, click here.

Also from SlackWater: Explore the Chesapeake Bay oyster’s history and the maritime village of Wynne in southern St. Mary’s County.

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