Stalking #1 the Duality and Dynamics of the Development of History in the Chesapeake

During Journey one, I became very focused on the idea of the duality and dynamics of ethics and social science in relation to our study of the history and sense of place in the Chesapeake region. On the ethical side of things, there seems to be an ever-infinite loop between obligations, values, and ideals and the inevitable exploitation derived from human nature. Similarly, from the social science angle, there is a palpable tension between getting an authentic perspective of the essence of the past and not being able or- more accurately- not wanting to be able to capture everything. As I stalk these ideas I come to something else, almost a counterargument, that this program has showed me even in this early stage, namely: the confrontation of troublesome things. The more one allows for the opportunity to get stuck or confined by the mind the more intense that experience becomes. Sometimes all one can do is to try to narrow things down, chip away, and gather what they can through time and adaptation. Focusing in on something singular and proceeding from there, as we saw on this journey, is one way that the transcendence of dynamics and duality can happen. Therefore, to advance from this initial philosophical struggle to encroachment toward an ultimate sense of a final project by the end of the semester, a starting point could be an idea related to our social science discussion prior to the journey. That idea would be Cultural Materialism, which has to do with how practices and interpretations of things are created in human society and culture. Influences from the natural world drive the things we value, the way we behave, and the impacts we exact upon the world.

This journey began in Jamestown, which was settled initially as an imperialistic and political response to the success of the Spanish, and over time as a means to develop England’s economic sphere of influence to a similar level to other European countries at the time. As a result, the focus became the production goods and services to bolster the British Empire.   Many different groups of people attempted many types of goods and services. These ranged from glass blowing to blacksmithing and everything in-between. However, none of these managed to stick in any way similar to how tobacco took hold. This one plant, once it had established itself, shaped and enriched the entire colonial landscape. It allowed people to accumulate wealth, simplify their quality of life, make it more comfortable and predictable, and experience upward mobility. Later on in the journey, at the Milliner’s shop in Colonial Williamsburg, I learned about these strange porcelain jugs that were sitting on the counter. They would have been for several different types of tobacco that would have been sold as snuff for medicinal purposes. Tobacco had aphrodisiac-like properties, allowing people to feel better when they were ill or in pain. Also, which really surprised me, it could be fed to livestock to prevent them from getting parasites. However, while the influence of tobacco had many positive impacts, it also exhausted the soil, created a voracious consumption of available land, and led to the rise of slavery due to its labor-intensive demands.

This last negative impact we got to experience when we traveled from Williamsburg up to Germantown, Maryland. The place where we arrived was called Button farm, which is a 40-acre farm leased from the state and surrounded by 6,000 acres of Seneca Creek State Park Land. They are a living history museum that tries to replicate the experience of slavery in the 1850’s. While we were there, we couldn’t really get an authentic experience of slave work, but we did get a good look at some tools that would have been used for a variety of necessary practices. One of these was an ominous looking metal ring with four rods radiating off of it. We learned that this was a slave collar, and after learning how this was used, we got a good idea of how people were treated as a result of the progression of tobacco through cultural materialism. We also got a sense of all the ethics that were thrown aside. This stalking will end where it began. Not everything about the positive and negative aspects of the development of history can be captured easily. However, using the ideas of cultural materialism from social science, ethics from the humanities, and chipping away at dynamic subject matter, a more complex understanding of Chesapeake Regional history can be achieved.

The Dynamics and Duality of History, Place, and Perception or Interpretation

One thing that is already clear after this first venture, is that I am not exactly a very good ethicist, if that is the proper term. However, what does have something going for it is the idea of dynamics and duality I was getting into while trying to explore environmental ethics in relation to the Chesapeake Bay. It seems to be the case that this realm of ideology leads to a constant, unsolvable intersection of problem and solution. Individually, it seems as though something could be done to change the way that we treat the bay. Simultaneously, however, one can not help but think that widespread change would not happen due to human nature that will always lead back to exploitation. It seems, the more context we try to pursue the more complicated things get and the more they lack a solution.       I am now ensconced in the first actual venture of our Chesapeake Semester. While it is meant to foster an understanding of the history of the region, and as a result a new sense of place, it has done something else for me. It has induced me to feel more connected to my sense of duality and dynamics than to my sense of place. Looking back over our journey thus far, whether the subject is food related ethics and practices in the past and today, or interpreting historical events, figures, and ideas, the dynamics and duality is all the same. There are so many ways to conceptualize these things that one can get an idea about them but can never quite get the full picture because of the infinite and fluid scope of their essence and implications.  A series of pertinent examples may be prudent here. Firstly, during our time spent connecting to native history of the Chesapeake, we discussed the state of our food practices now, how we need to evaluate them, and how that could be inevitably a dead end because of human nature and entrenched systems. Secondly, a reading we were given by Dr. Seidel for our exploration of cultural clashes in the colonization of the Chesapeake, outlined the perception of Captain John Smith as a historical figure. In many ways the man could be viewed as an absolute villain, which he most definitely was. However, the more traditional focus on all of the positive things he did despite the obvious negative characteristics, which when exposed are quite impressive, cannot be discounted either. Thus, the aim of this article was to highlight the fact that it is very difficult to figure out which way to go with this dualistic and dynamic case study. Both sides have merit, Smith could be a hero or he could be a villain but either way we would be nowhere without him. Rounding things off, whether it be the experience of individuals or groups, or cultural practices and historical experiences- all of which we have explored here in Jamestown and Williamsburg- how do we grapple with the fact that we want to eradicate what is unfamiliar and unpleasant despite the fact that it is important but uncomfortable to confront such things. Whatever the case may be, I think this could be the beginning of something that is either prudent to stalk or a profoundly infinite quagmire. 

A Personal Ethic for the Chesapeake Bay: Uncertainty Outside of the Pursuit of Balance

Our exploration of the Chesapeake region, and all of its history, ecology, and political essence has officially begun and is already getting into full swing. We have done team-building exercises, immersed ourselves in landscapes and mindsets through physical activity, and have discussed or experienced all manner of issues and perspectives. That was only the orientation; it was only the beginning. As such, it is now time to use the experience of this first week of class, to start some contemplation of all this input we have been absorbing. What better way to do that, than to begin with an effort to determine what all of this input means to us despite the fact that in most cases, we are not grounded in it as much as the people or places we have been experiencing along the way.

I have lived in the Chesapeake watershed my whole life, yet I am not sure that I ever developed a specific ethic in relation to the bay before now. Of course, one is always conditioned to think that whatever byproducts of existence end up being produced by mankind can end up in the watershed, followed by the bay, and culminating in the ocean. For that reason, as we know in the back of our minds, it is important to make sure that we behave ourselves as much as possible, and make sure that we are doing as little damage as we can. That, however, is usually where things stop in my experience, given that we all are generally aware in some form of the importance of the bay, and its wellbeing now and into the future. Rarely, however, does anyone practice a consistent and focused ethic in relation to the Chesapeake Bay.

Therefore, even though it may be a bit of a cop-out, my experience with the Chesapeake thus far, which has been expanded by the short but fast-paced experience I have had in this program so far, has drawn me to the following conclusion. Not only do I not have a complete ethic as to the Chesapeake in this early part of the course, I also feel that it seems as if there can’t really be a fixed, tangible Chesapeake Ethic other than the pursuit of balance. My reasoning for this could start by citing our lecture just the other day, in which we were talking about the notion of context that Tom Horton presents to us by way of the Rockfish. For him, the essence of the Rockfish was tied not only to the ecological state of the area, but to the metaphorical web as well: his own memories, experiences, and cultural relationship with this region. As such, it is dangerous to confine such things too highly given that the Chesapeake Bay is a complicated and dynamic ecosystem that doesn’t make it easy to get the full context all the time. To go further than that though, in my thinking of how dynamic an ethical perspective on the Chesapeake has to be, I think right away of our time on the Deadrise in Tilghman Island with Captain Russell Dize. During that experience we discussed all kinds of situations where there was too much focus on bureaucratic regulation or economic value, and not enough on how much it effected the actual status of life in the bay for humans or for the resources that were sought to be preserved. For example, a redistricting of the zonation of the bay bottom under the O’Malley administration caused considerable strife for watermen like him because it not only limited the amount of the resources watermen could harvest, but it also meant that the resources, especially oysters, would suffer because their health would not be challenged by fishing. That, as a result, would cause greater problems with such issues as the diseases MSX and Dermo.

Also, we talked about a situation in which there was a fish, the Spiny Dog Fish, which exploded in population because of overfishing of commercial fish resources such as cod. The dogfish were eating the juvenile spawn of these prized fish, which are slower to reproduce. This is made even worse because of the fact that the dogfish are unmarketable themselves, so the ecosystem has been thrown drastically out of balance because of too much prioritization of economic resources, and not enough attention to the larger ecological picture.

To get to a bottom line here, the Chesapeake Bay is a complex, dynamic, ever-changing system. It is generally unlikely that we will ever have a full grasp on it at any given time, which suggests to me that the only way to head in the direction of an ethical perspective, is to leave no stone unturned. We must be cognizant of the ecological as well as societal and fiscal ramifications and possibilities of this unique region. Just like we talked about with Professor McCabe, I believe we must look at things both instrumentally and intrinsically. In order to shape our moral perception in the context of the Chesapeake Bay, we must begin with this broad perspective. To synthesize both Ruggiero and Moncrieff, in this way we can develop our obligations, ideals, and notions of how all of these could lead to causes and consequences. In closing, Horton ends Bay Country with such points as the following concerning bay ethics.

“ Changing course in the way we use the land and water across an immense watershed can take a generation or more. And during that time the causes of the problem continue to grow. It is one reason we end up “progressing” at William Hargis’s three knots against that unrelenting, five knot current” (Horton, 215).

Human nature, Horton seemed to find, is ever inclined to circle back and forth between progress and a relapse into exploitation, because we seek the best of both worlds: the ability to have our cake and eat it too. Therefore, in order to arrive at a much less rough ethic in regard to the Chesapeake Bay, I would need to know whether the pressures the bay faces are inevitable, and whether they could be addressed with ethics instead of panoramic cultural change. There are so many cultural interests that play into the region, and they all have their progressive and exploitative aspects. Although, it all just seems to be an infinitely swirling subject of contemplation, that just as Horton has told us has no cut and dry solution, I think one place to start with my personal ethic would be striving for balance in the face of the seemingly ubiquitous inevitability of irresolution characteristic of the Chesapeake Bay region. Human Society appears to be just as estuarine as the bay itself, which makes balance seem possible but impossible at the same time.