The following is a semi-refined draft of the article I will be submitting for our next Trout Unlimited newsletter. Lately I seem to be making a habit of using other authors work as a Launchpad for my own. This is a truly baffling thing, since I hardly have time for writing, where the hell am I finding the time to read???
James A. Michener was a native of Doylestown PA. A museum in his name stands in his hometown, on display there are works from local, well known artists. Born in 1907 he obtained a Master’s degree, became an educator, ran for public office, and served in the Navy during WWII. He also earned The Presidential Medal of Freedom and served on the NASA Advisory council. Impressed yet? Well, despite all the above, James Michener is actually more known for his more than 40 published novels. Most of his books are recognized as a perfect blend of fiction and history. His stories typically span generations and employ a remarkable amount of historical research that take readers on a palpable journey through time.
Michener, despite his many accomplishments was not, to the best of my knowledge, a fly fisherman…I’m writing about him today because not only is he one of my favorite authors, but because of his book “Chesapeake.” In the chapter titled ‘Voyage Eleven: 1886,’ he describes the effects on the Chesapeake Bay from a massive sea born storm that lands in central Pennsylvania. While actual historical occurrences drive his tales, Michener is careful to not cross the line, he is a story teller not a text book writer or record keeper. Did a massive storm leapfrog from Norfolk to the Susquehanna Valley that year? While Michener’s reputation for research is more notorious than mine, I cannot find much…what I can confirm is that was one hell of a year for hurricanes on the Atlantic coast. But that’s not the point, because storms happen all the time. Obviously they generate in the south and where they make landfall depends, and the bay can take a real beating even if the storm doesn’t drop right on it. The Susquehanna River does flood, and that water goes to the Chesapeake.
Michener starts by breaking down the Bay into its various parts; North, South, East, West, and its bottom and top layers. Each part having its own characteristics and roles within the ecosystem; the northern part being fed by the mighty Susquehanna that pushes in fresh water, to the southern portion which takes on salt water from the ocean, the western side being fed by smaller rivers of fresh water, the east being nutrient rich and dense marshes of brackish water inlets, and then the deeper parts being colder with more salinity than its higher oxygenated top layer that is warmed and replenished by the sun.
In ‘Chesapeake’ a massive storm results in the Susquehanna River flooding the bay with an abnormal amount of both fresh water and silt deposits. Michener brilliantly breaks down the impact of these factors on the delicate balance of the bay’s diverse ecosystem. The usual equilibrium of salinity, temperature, sunlight and sediment are thrown out of kilter. He evokes our sympathies for the oysters suffocating under sediment deposits, and blue crabs who despite their advantage of mobility over the oysters, struggle to breed and survive in lower salinity. But it doesn’t end there, for by 1886 the local economy was dependent on the bay and also suffers with the loss of its cash crop normally bound for consumers in the cities to the north.
The reader sees that this onslaught was brought on by natural forces. As our hearts are torn by the personification of crabs and oysters, we think we clearly have mother nature to blame; after all we are, along with crabs and oysters, just a pawn in a much larger game. It is as the chapter closes and we feel like we’ve slipped the jab, Michener delivers a blow that puts us on the ropes. He reminds us that our hands too, are bloody. He describes in the last few paragraphs how the Susquehanna did not only carry silt to the bay, but human and industrial waste also. Sewage, oil, poisons…some of the oysters might have survived the silt, but the bay could not dilute the toxicity of human contamination that would ultimately kill the rest of them. Consuming any product of the bay that could be salvaged resulted in death or pestilence such as typhoid. This is a lesson in accountability, realizing our own activity can have exponential impacts on our environment. Since humans have not and probably will not master a “leave only footprints” way of doing things, we need to at least be responsible.
If you have read this far I will reward you by wrapping up shortly. On a very grand scale Michener teaches us that our river systems are more than just the stretch of water we can see at any given place. We can, and do, have an immediate positive or negative impact on our own local streams, but we need to remember they also go to other places. The Chesapeake Watershed is one of the biggest you will find anywhere in the world, which means it can be effected by so many different things, in so many ways. Today we have many threats to maintaining healthy potable and life supporting water. We can always rely on industrial pollution to spoil the party, and though we seem to control that better nowadays, along comes “fracking” to keep us on our toes.
Michener is no doubt a good read, and I’m sure as you read my synopsis you couldn’t help but be reminded of the BP oil spill some years back. Groups like TU, and of course with respect to the very topic of this article, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, strive to have a positive impact on our water ways. As we are coming up on our annual banquet we are pleased to think how part of our fundraising efforts is to ensure the education of conservation to future generations. We can only hope the message gets out to others as well.