10 posts tagged environment
Over the weekend, the heavens opened up and poured into the dry summer soil of the Delmarva Peninsula. The entirety of Sunday was a cacophony of thunder rumbles and lightning blasts, all underscored by the rushing patter of inches and inches of water falling. A fragment of a hurricane was stalled over us, and for hours, the furies of the weather continued unabated by an eye or a twinkle of sunshine.
From our little hill, in the slightly elevated part of the upper Eastern Shore, all was safe, if saturated. But an hour south, in Talbot County, some incredibly dramatic events unfolding, precipitated of course by the day’s seemingly endless precipitation.
Photo courtesy of the Talbot Spy.
In Easton, Maryland, just about the mid-point of the Eastern Shore, it was raining too- but in wet, wild torrents, that submerged the town in 8 inches of water and rising. Cars were stranded, with waves from the flooding runoff lapping at their windows. Drivers were rescued, as the town’s arteries surged and overflowed with rainwater that bypassed the usual storm drains and instead created temporary rivers where the traffic usually flowed.
Photo courtesy of the Talbot Spy.
Farther south, in St. Michaels (home of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum), the rain had also swamped the low-lying town. People gamely plowed through the rushing water, attempting (bravely or foolhardily, depending on how you look at it) to go about business as usual as if a foot of water wasn’t obscuring their passage.
This storm was certainly an unusual occurrence for the Eastern Shore- and particularly this summer, when much of the state suffered drought conditions and record-breaking temperatures for much of the sultry summer months. For weeks, it seemed as if the only sign of rain was the constant presence of a veil of humidity, softening the edges of the horizon with a suffocating wetness.
Smoky the Bear warned visitors at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland of the heightened possibility of summer blazes in July. source
Thought the drought this summer has touched almost every corn field with its withering finger, there is a silver lining. For the Chesapeake Bay, a summer with hardly any rain also translates to a summer with almost no pollution. And when there is no pollution (read: fertilizer both animal and chemical, sewage, or exhaust), the dead zones in the Chesapeake shrink to a size not observed since 1983.
A 2005 chart of the Chesapeake’s record high dead zones.
To translate, dead zones are simply expanses of water where the oxygen levels are not high enough to support life. They are caused when pollution, including nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers on lawns and farm fields, is washed by rains into the Bay, where it spurs algae blooms during longer, warmer summer days. When the blooms die off, bacteria that break down the dead algae consume oxygen in the water. Dead zones tend to be found in the Chesapeake’s main stem, where the runoff from rivers with high populations collect and merge (see chart above).The algae blooms that precede them can be green, brown, or even red, and often, though a harbinger of foul conditions, are quite beautiful from above.
An algae bloom in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the Leehaven River. (Ryan C. Henriksen | The Virginian-Pilot)
This year, only 11.8% of the Maryland portion of the Bay had official dead zones, but normally the number is at least twice as high. It’s especially interesting since all predictions for this summer were dire. With 2011 Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee sending torrents of water and sediment coursing down the Susquehanna, through Conowingo Dam, and into the Bay, the assumption was the Bay this summer would be its least life-sustaining yet. But the extreme Chesapeake crisis was averted, though it was through an unpredicted but just-as-extreme summer drought that left many Bay farmers examining fractured soil and dried corn stalks for signs of life.
A Maryland farm field in July 2012.
In today’s modern Chesapeake, it takes a killing drought on land to restore balance below the water. Simply put, that’s the definition of unsustainable- and on a scale that seems to huge as to be insurmountable. But this very question of restoring balance to the Chesapeake, especially when the effects are so visibly obvious, hasn’t deterred or dispirited advocacy at all. Rather, the Chesapeake’s distress has become a lightning rod for innovation- and most of it is humbly human-sized. From oyster restoration to cover crops, organizations and individuals throughout the watershed are cooking up potential solutions to the problem that can be addressed by one person at a time. A great illustration of this outpouring of ideas is summarized, for a youthful audience (though we can all benefit), in Sunday’s Washington Post: http://wapo.st/Nm0oWH
The flood we endured this weekend was one of torrential rains, but the flood we need is one of ideas, to help create a Chesapeake we can all live in, whether we farm, mow, garden, swim or filter. Sometimes it takes a deluge, a profound drenching that swamps our cars, our yards, and our complacency to remind us that we still have a lot of work to do, if we want to take care of this place we call home.
The sassafras is not a showy tree. Tucked in along the scrubby areas where forest meets meadow, Sassafras albidum grow in congenial thickets of their ilk, tolerating poor soils but yearning for light and the opportunity to propagate their seeds via the flocking birds that consume their fall berries. The most visible trait of the sassafras tree is its distinctively tri-lobed leaf that looks like a dinosaur’s footprint. At one point, they were related to evergreens, but the sassafras was open to change, and survived as a deciduous remnant of a tenacious primordial forebear.
But the sassafras tree has a secret. Where the trunk plunges tendrils of spidery roots into the sandy loam, something is brewing. Simultaneously earthy and light, spicy and sweet, complex yet distinctive, deep in the veins of the sassafras a nectar harvested by Indians and colonists alike is slowly emerging: safrole. A pungent oil produced by the sassafras tree, safrole is the sassafras’ self-supplied insecticide. It permeates the wood of the tree, especially in the roots, which exude high concentrations of the strongly aromatic oil. Humans have dug up these fragrant roots of sassafras saplings for thousands of years to expose their gripping follicles to the green light of the understory and harvest the bounty for medicinal purposes. The trademark scent of the sassafras root is immediately identifiable upon first encounter- in fact, you’re probably pretty familiar with it already. It’s root beer.
Homemade sassafras root beer fermenting in the bottle. source
Today, the flavoring for root beer is a chemical substitute for the original sassafras-derived ingredient, due to fears of its carcinogenic properties. It’s ironic that we would avoid consuming sassfras for health reasons, when for centuries, that was the whole reason people boiled it in tea, pounded it into powder for capsules, smoked it like a woody cigarillo, and yes, mixed it into frothy soda water with a few mounded spoonfuls of sugar. Since the era of the Indian, Chesapeake residents have been infusing sassfras into every conceivable medium, searching for natural remedies to cure their complaints. In an era before formalized medicine, sassafras was a panacea for a world riddled with disease.
As described in Rafinesque’s 1830 Medical Flora, there wasn’t an ailment that the miracle plant couldn’t soothe:
“[Sassafras is used] in opthalmia, dysentery, gravel, catarrh…as stimulant, antispasmodic, sudorific, and depurative…in rheumatism, cutaneous diseases,
secondary syphilis, typhus fevers… to purge..the body in the spring …for purification of the blood… leaves to make glutinous gombos…buds to flavor beers and spirits…useful in scurvy, cachexy, flatulence. bark … smoked like tobacco. Bowls made of the wood, drives bugs and moths.”
Valued as a cure-all, sassafras root even enjoyed a brief golden era as one of the top exports from the new Chesapeake colonies, as Europeans sought (and ultimately failed) to find exotic treatments to cure the sexually transmitted disease du jour, the “French Pox”. Spreading voraciously throughout the continent in the 16th century, syphilis was typically treated with mercury, a remedy that could often be more horrible than the disease itself. Sassafras, a much gentler option, was therefore understandably popular in spite of the fact that it was probably completely ineffective.
One of the earliest explorers to document his discoveries along the Chesapeake’s terminal connection with the ocean was Thomas Herriott. He observed the native people ingesting the sassafras’ pungent roots, and remarked in his 1588 book, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia:
“Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kinde of wood of most pleasant and sweete smel; and of most rare vertues in phisick for the cure of many diseases.”
Some of the early maps even included depictions of the redolent resource, like John Ferrar’s 1667 map entitled A mapp of Virginia Discovered to ye hills:
Sassafras remained popular in Europe as a remedy for various ailments throughout the colonial period, and the majority of it was exported from the lush, humid forests of the Chesapeake tidewater. 76.5 tons of sassafras were imported to London in 1770 alone, to the tune of 28 pounds per ton. More sassafras stands were discovered as the colonial footprint expanded, and the price of Europe’s favorite snake oil plummeted. But the taste for sassafras had been whetted, and sassafras was favored as a distinctive flavoring even as its popularity as a literal root medicine waned.
Many 19th century concoctions featured sassafras root as a key ingredient. Salop was a popular late-night warming beverage for all classes in London, and the piping restorative was sold by street vendors from steaming samovars. The licorice scent of the sassafras was savored over large white bowls which warmed the hands as the liquid was sipped. An memoir titled Unctuous Memories from 1863 remarks of the experience:
“Suddenly we came upon a still, whence arose the steam of Early Purl, or Salop, flattering our senses. Ye Gods ! what a breakfast ! …I feel its diffusive warmth stealing through me. I taste its unaccustomed and exquisite flavour. Tea is great, coffee greater ; chocolate, properly made, is for epicures; but these are thin and characterless compared with the salop swallowed in 1826. That was nectar.”
According to this ad, even 19th century babies (and their dogs) drank root beer! source
On the other side of the pond, Americans continued to craft sassafras into all sorts of dishes and drinks, and was even utilized to make a kind of rich, red small beer, the alcoholic predecessor to its later sweetened counterpart. Teas, tisanes, jellies and ice cream were mediums for the earthy taste of the safrole. But the most long-lasting of sassafras’ legacy is, of course, root beer. Marketed to the masses for the first time as a soft drink at the 1876 Centennial Exposition by Philadelphia druggist Charles E. Hires, Hires Root Beer retained its whiff of the medicinal and was promoted as a “temperance” drink and a cough cure.
Today, root beer has been stripped of the ingredient that makes it so distinctive: safrole. Feared to be a carcinogen, safrole is now substituted in food and drink with a chemical additive that recreates the flavor of the Chesapeake forest. And the sassafras stands throughout the Bay sigh greenly in relief, knowing their secretly sweet roots will remain deep in their sandy swales, undisturbed by those wishing to savor the taste of a tree’s essence.
(ant to read more about the role of the sassafras tree in early colonial Chesapeake exports? Check out this article.
When stocks of animals decline in the Chesapeake, alerts and articles go out, persuading residents throughout the watershed to take action, engage, write your congressman! Normally, these efforts drum up at least a modicum of support, especially if the animal is appealing. Appeal can be based on the animal’s beauty, like a tundra swan, or its deliciousness, like crabs. But some species are easier to sell as worthy of protection than others, and one recent example taking up headline space in print and online is the imperiled, yet distinctly unmemorable menhaden. Getting the public to care about fish in general can be hard, unless they have that direct line to our stomach or hearts. And take away those two qualities to be left with a fish that merely engages your intellect? Well, in that case, who cares?
Let me show you.
Clownfish! So cute! Just like Finding Nemo. Awwwww. (See that? Heartstrings. You’re ready to donate to the “Clownfish- Kittens of the Sea” foundation already.)
Mmmm. Rockfish. So delicious. Their numbers are down, you say? Well, we need to fix that! I love rockfish! (Connection to a fish species via a direct line to your gullet.)
But what about this little guy? Why care about him?
Ouch. Only a mother could love that face. And eat him? Well, since he’s a menhaden, he’s typically full of tiny, splintery bones, and his intensely oily flesh is also not particularly palatable for humans. Menhaden, in short, are a bit of a P.R. nightmare. To understand their importance, you have to go beyond their non-descript appearance and lackluster flavor to the role they play in the environment as a whole. They are, as it turns out, a ‘foundational species’.
When John Smith idly used a frying pan to fish from the exploratory shallop during his voyages throughout the Bay in 1608, he actually managed to catch something. So abundant were fin fish in Chesapeake waters that their sheer mass seemed innumerable, and certainly beyond the scale of human impact. One fish in that seething biomass was surely the menhaden. Silver scales gleaming like sheets of chain mail as they schooled throughout the Bay, the menhaden sought algae and other plankton, feeding other, larger fish even as they preyed with gaping mouths on microscopic plants and animals. Animals above the water sought menhaden, too, like osprey, eagle, heron, and bittern. Menhaden formed the base of the food chain in a thriving Bay ecosystem that would feed and support the colonists and their progeny for generations.
While other species within this thriving biological soup, like shad, would be hauled out of the Bay by the millions to feed the population throughout the watershed and beyond from first settlement onwards, menhaden, too, became a vital resource for Chesapeake residents. But as I mentioned before, menhaden are distinctly distasteful. Their value was not in their journey to the plate but rather their journey to the field- menhaden were used as fertilizer.
Today we use them in poultry feed and in fish oil supplements, in cosmetics and ground into chum for bait and aquaculture. A huge economy is based on the ready supply of this forgettable fish, especially in the Chesapeake and other estuarine bodies on the East Coast, and enormous numbers of menhaden are needed to satisfy the demand. Large-scale tactics are used to harvest menhaden, with schools identified from the air and rounded up by fleets of boats trailing purse seines.
As more and more industries rely on menhaden to create makeup, fish food, and fertilizer, the stakes are raised on this unassuming fish that, through filter feeding and its role in the food chain, is one of the things the Bay needs to stay balanced. This investigation by Washington, D.C.’s Channel 5 News sums up the environmental and economic impacts of an uncertain menhaden fishery stating, “Menhaden are the most important fish you’ve never heard of.” It turns out that if you want to make an animal appeal for advocacy, perhaps the most persuasive approach of all is to pull on their purse strings.
An arrowhead, aimed at a wild turkey, takes a rogue dive into the underbrush. Over the years, ferns uncurl and wave above it, only to return back to the loam. Tree roots embrace it. A storm fells the tree, and seasons of rainwater disgorge the arrowhead, washing it into a gulley, a stream, a river, where it bumps along the bottom, carried by the current. Waves wash it closer to shore along with other gravelly bits. Finally, it emerges again, just another pebble. Waiting to be found by a girl with a keen eye and the patience to search each bit of beach until she discovers her prize.
It’s a familiar story to legions of kids who have grown up along the Chesapeake- the constant seeking and the desperately, thrillingly rare finding of arrowheads. The prolonged and intense presence of Indians throughout the Chesapeake for thousands of years has peppered them in layers of soil, and they’re discovered on islands, falling out of sandy cliffs, washed up along marshes, and clinging to spring mud in farm fields. But the discovery of arrowheads can lead to so much more- an understanding of how Indians, over centuries, developed and honed their hunting techniques, and how they related to the verdant world around them.
In the new Bay Journal issue, Kent Mountford explores the history and culture behind arrowheads and what they mean about the people who made them and the Chesapeake they knew in this month’s “Past is Prologue” installment, which you can check out here: http://bit.ly/zUuyHc