The Pristine Environment

Nature is pristine. This message is constantly repeated in nature magazines, outdoor gear advertisements, and environmental writings. The image of an untouched wilderness is extremely powerful. It evokes ancient feelings of a hunter gatherer existence, when we were deeply entrenched in the natural order. However, I find this concept of virgin landscapes to be eluding. Nothing is fully untouched by man. Humans have always impacted the environment. Our mark is sometimes hard to see, yet indelible. This marked impact on the environment raises the issue of defining nature. Is it as Wendell Berry writes “the element within which we live encased in civilization, as a mollusk lives in his shell in the sea? Or has humankind grown to encase nature, placing our mark on all of the natural world.

The question first began nagging me when my classmates and I found an ancient trash midden along a secluded beach at Chino Farms. My classmates found an assortment of items, from rose quartz arrowheads to antique liquor bottles. I found a single sherd of pottery, possibly colonial in origin. Finding these objects made me think that this seemingly untouched riverbed had certainly been walked on before. Humans have been walking on this beach for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. I had been laboring under the delusion that our beach at Chino Farms was an example of an almost pure landscape. Animals seemed abundant and plants grew with vigor along a fertile mud flat. People boated out and around the river, but this isolated stretch of sand felt different. If this healthy looking landscape had been molded over by human hands, what is nature?

Wendell Berry discusses his feelings on the matter in his essay Entrance. “…for it has seemed to me for years now that the doings of men no longer occur within nature, but that the natural places which the human economy has so far spared now survive almost accidentally within the doings of men. This wilderness of the Red River now carries on its ancient processes within the human climate of war and confusion.” Berry highlights the fact that this landscape is no longer formed by the natural ebb and flow of life. Instead the extent of nature is limited by the behavior of man. Even the land where Berry stands in the article bears evidence of human habitation. “Near where I’m standing is an inscription cut into the rock: A.J. SARGENT, feb.24.1903. As I look around me I realize that I can see no evidence of the lapse of so much time.”

Despite the fact that Berry cannot notice the human impact on the landscape, the evidence is easily visible. Similarly, nature, for all of our idealistic beliefs is not this force which acts outside the sphere of our influence. Humankind has taken nature by storm and forced the environment to take on new shapes. These shapes are not always characterized by sick and dying landscapes, but also healthy and vibrant ecosystems. However, these ecosystems were at least in part created by man. Despite the concept of a pristine environment, no such place exists and all the world has been impacted by human hands.

My Chesapeake Ethic

Prior to 2016, I had never directly interacted with the Chesapeake Bay. Living in Maine, the Chesapeake Bay rarely was at the forefront of my studies and certainly not a part of the societal makeup. In New England, the Bay is discussed as a location, but never in regards to its complex reality as the nation’s largest estuary. As a result, my knowledge, ethical beliefs, and perspectives about the bay are almost all recently formed and subsequently underdeveloped.

While I am new to the region, I certainly have my own opinions regarding the issues facing the Bay. However, these opinions come from my own experiences outside the region, and as a result are not build upon observation or discussion with those who live here. I lack the necessary context to correctly understand the complicated region. In order for me to truly understand the Chesapeake Bay, I need to take time to consider its context. For example, I gained new insights on the Chesapeake issue of oyster population control when speaking to Captain Andy of the skipjack Ellsworth. He seemed to be of the mindset that a visible lack of small oysters in the Chester river was due to mismanagement by environmental officials. While my outside beliefs led to me trust the environmental officials involved, Captain Andy made a convincing argument that this was not necessarily the case in regards to the Bay. In hearing his personal stories, I gained a new understanding of the waterman’s view of the Chesapeake. However, Captain Andy’s argument was then countered by Kate Livie, a preeminent scholar of oysters and their stewardship. Kate believed that the oysters were not being mismanaged, but simply needed more time to repopulate and that efforts to more closely manage the population could be detrimental to the health of the oysters.

Kate’s argument echoed the arguments of farmer, environmental activist, and author Wendell Berry. In his writings, Berry argued against technological or “bad” solutions to natural problems. He discussed how these solutions often prove to be ineffective, or to cause more destruction than the prior issue. This idea of avoiding easy technological fixes seemed relevant to me in the course of Kate and Capt. Andy’s argument. Capt. Andy believed that environmental officials should be actively dropping spat so as to ensure the growth of young oysters. Kate however argued that dropping spat has been linked to the spread of disease among Bay oysters, which has caused dire problems in the past. The dropping of spat seems to be what Berry described as, “the solution that causes a ramifying series of new problems” (Berry 1). This “bad solution” can be mitigated if the oysters are simply left alone, since the skeletons of dead oysters will serve as new spat, allowing young oysters to grow. In order to avoid causing new, unnecessary problems, Kate believed that the environment needs its space to allow it to regrow.

The intermingling and conflicting nature of Kate and Captain Andy’s argument helped me to further develop my Chesapeake ethic. Each showcased their unique opinions, and offered up evidence for why they have developed these opinions. Their honest and experienced discussion gave me a more intimate understanding of the issue facing the region. I hope that through more interactions with Chesapeake Bay natives I can further develop my own Chesapeake ethic.