Landscapes connect us to our history and to who we have become. I was thinking about this recently on a tour of what will, I hope, become the Harriet Tubman National Monument in Dorchester County, MD.
Tubman was born into slavery on a Dorchester plantation in 1820. She escaped and became a heroic conductor on the Underground Railroad and an early leader for women's rights. In July, Gov. Martin O'Malley, U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Barabara Mikulski, and Congressman Andy Harris made a formal request that President Obama create the Harriet Tubman National Monument on land near her birthplace. If the president agrees, he may act this fall.
A national monument would protect a historic landscape that, while certainly changed, would still look familiar to Tubman. This low, flat land remains dominated by farms, forests and tidewater creeks. Maryland plans to create a park here — The Harriet Tubman Underground Railway State Park and Scenic Byway. The byway, a tour along state roads, would take tourists between places where Tubman and the Underground Railroad worked. Others hope to create a complementing National Park.
Traveling these roads, seeing the places where brave men and women helped others escape to freedom, made the story real to me. The trip got me thinking about how our society and world have changed. What we've gained, what we've lost, what's worth trying to hang onto.
All along the Chesapeake, and on its tidal rivers, are small towns. Some grew up around the Bay's oystering, fishing and crabbing. Old packing houses, landings and aging skipjacks dot the landscape.
These landscapes tell stories of the watermen and their towns. They put us in touch with the incredible bounty the Chesapeake provided in the past, and give us a perspective on just how much the Bay has changed, and not always for the better.
Pollution, disease and a century-and-a-half of fishing pressure have almost eliminated the wild oyster fishery in the Bay and greatly reduced others. The decline has taken a human toll. This spring, Preservation Maryland, a historic preservation society, declared Maryland's watermen "endangered." We should think of them as the canary in the coal mine.
Would losing the watermen, skipjacks, old packing houses and other symbols of their industry make us poorer? Monetarily, marginally. Culturally, profoundly. I find it hard to imagine a Chesapeake without working watermen. I find it hard to accept a Chesapeake ecosystem too poor to support them. To me these places provide more than nostalgia. They provide motivation. Understanding the connection between healthy land and water and a healthy, productive society can motivate us to restore ecosystems and conserve the landscapes that form them.
I recently gained an even older perspective on change from another threatened landscape, a place that helps tell the story of the early encounters between the Chesapeake's Indians and English settlers.
In the summer of 1607, when Capt. John Smith explored the Bay, he met a group of Indians called the Tockwogh who lived on the Sassafras River. During his visit, Smith observed a metal axe head, undoubtedly European and most likely traded down the Susquehanna from the French in Canada. The Susquehannocks were the great traders and warriors on the river and the Tochwogh arranged a meeting with Smith. A large group of Susquehannock came down from their town at what is now Washington Boro, PA, and met him on an island in the river's mouth. Smith thought them beautiful, powerful people and featured a portrait of one on the map of his explorations.
Now the site of their town and its ancient burial grounds and archaeological riches is threatened. At this writing in late summer, Safe Harbor Water Power Corp., which owns the properties, plans to sell them for development, a decision that would destroy the archaeological record they hold.
The Chesapeake Conservancy wants to find a way to conserve these properties. Why? Because if we lose these sites we lose an irreplaceable record of the past as well as a chance to better understand how the Susquehanna River valley bound together ancient cultures from Canada to the Chesapeake. It is also an opportunity to reflect, in that context, on the river's importance today.
The modern adventurer can visit all of the places I've mentioned. We can explore along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail from Washington Boro to Jamestown. We can go to the place Harriet Tubman was born and where she grew to be an U.S. hero. We can visit watermen towns and get a sense of the riches the Bay held and better grasp how important it is to restore them.
These visits will be richer if we hear and see their stories in the landscapes in which they unfolded. Join our effort to explore these places and protect the special places in the Chesapeake.