Photo Credit: Rebecca Potochney

Photo Credit: Rebecca Potochney

Yesterday began our first in depth look at the ecology and geology of the Chesapeake’s watershed as we paddled down the Susquehanna River. Our tour guide, Steve, had requested from us one simple thing: be observant. While on the river, on what I would describe as the most perfect day for such an activity, it was almost impossible for one to not be observant. Throughout the paddle I found myself, watching the wildlife, listening to the flowing of the water down the ledges and comparing these waters to the bay. The only thing I failed to do at first was let this scenery tell me a story, something our professor, Doug Levin, had taught us.

The landscape of an area can give so much information about what is and has happened in that ecosystem. We had lunch along the river on a rocky shoal just down river of the Rockville bridge, the longest stone arch railway viaduct in the world. As we walked towards the shore, you could notice sediment dried up all along the bushes and trees, just at the bottom. There were large dead tree limbs stuck about six feet up on the branches of the trees here. Larger pieces of debris and trash was wedge under bushes or lying in the sediment among which was a bowling ball and a large trash can. We were asked to tell the story. Why was this all here and how did it happen? Just by being observant, we were able to tell that story.

The rainfall in the area was high enough that the river was flooding. The waterline was at least six feet higher than what it was when we were observing because debris was stuck that high up in trees. We know that the water was fast moving, but was slowed by this vegetation enough to deposit sediment on the bushes and grasses. We could tell that this was fairly recent because the sediment was still dried on the vegetation and had not been washed off by a rainstorm yet. After our conclusions had been made, we asked Steve if there was a large amount of rainfall that could have caused this. He confirmed our observations. A large accumulation of rain in July had caused this flooding of the River.

Photo Credit:Rebecca Potochney

Photo Credit:Rebecca Potochney

There is so much that we can learn by looking around us. Everything around us had to have been put there by someone or some event and these things or events will leave behind clues. All we have to do is observe these clues and we can put together that storyline. This is something that I will be conscious of from this day forth.


Just Jump In

As my experience at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Forum comes to an end, it is becoming clear just how beneficial these few days have been. Just yesterday, I was being encouraged to introduce myself to strangers, ask questions and try to network within a group of people I felt I was not exactly a part of. Walking into the Forum and the professional world it seemed akin to a culture shock and I was just supposed to jump in and become a part of it. Little did I know at the time, but this experience is the most invaluable experience (thus far) to me as a student, as a member of the environmental community, and even just as a member of society.

There is a large sense of intimidation as I walked into a room of two hundred experienced professionals, forgetting the fact that these people may be the very ones hiring me, two years from now. As this thought finally made it into my mind, the intimidation factor rose, but it shouldn’t have. The fact that there were two hundred possible bosses in the same room as me should have been exciting. I have this chance to make an impression, show everyone why in the world they would ever want to hire me. Thankfully, this intimidation factor only lingered with me for about an hour. After I came to my senses, I just jumped in and hoped for the best.

I listened to presentations from the directors of the Chesapeake Bay Program, The Nature Conservency and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. I spoke with Riverkeepers from three different rivers, young and old professionals of environmental agencies with confusing acronyms, and countless volunteers. I have a notebook of endless information, but more importantly I have started relationships with some of these professionals and have obtained their ever invaluable contacts. What comes to an advantage is that many of these programs are located in my hometown. The number of job and internship possibilities in my area are far larger than I initially expected.

This experience has taught me to be more curious about my community and more actively involved in the opportunities that my community has to offer. I have been inspired to write letters to my local government, volunteer for the riverkeepers in my area and be mindful of local policies. Two years from now I can only hope to have some confusing seven letter acronym below my name.

Stalking #1

Throughout our travels around the Chesapeake, the relationship between environment and society has been well depicted. It is apparent that our society is very fragile in a sense because a society is dependent on factors that are constantly changing. A seemingly small change in the environment can affect our society immensely. Because of this fragile relationship, our environment often dictates what we can and cannot do as a society and can force us to comply with its constraints. Simply stated, we are shaped by our environment. But there is another side to the relationship. As a society, we are able to shape the environment we live in. Does one have a stronger effect on the other? An interesting contrast of the relationship between environment and society was unmistakable with our visits to Jamestown, Annapolis, and Baltimore.  Using these three experiences from our first journey, one can compare the progression of this relationship in different locations as we move forward through history.

Visiting Jamestown, it became easy to understand just how large of an effect the environment had on the settlers in the early seventeenth century.  The colonists of Jamestown had to comply with their environment the minute they entered the James River in 1607. A drought restricted their agriculture, the river water was too saline to drink and this new environment was laden with disease unfamiliar to the Englishmen. All of these constraints lead to a steep decline in the population of the colony. Most of the major causes of this decline were environmental. What is interesting is that these colonists were fairly intelligent Englishmen who were very capable of surviving within their environment in Europe. One problem was that they were so well adapted to one specific environment and when that environment was changed they suddenly became unfit to live under these new constraints. The environmental limitations in this new colony were too great and the colonists were forced to change aspects of their society.  As we learned at the archeological site in Jamestown, a fairly civil group of people turn to cannibalism and their society alters into a society of survival. The remains of a young woman were excavated at the site of Jamestown and confirm the beliefs that these settlers did resort to cannibalism. The history of Jamestown solidifies the idea that the environment can have a large impact on the workings of a society.

As we travel one hundred miles up the bay and one hundred years later in history, we arrive in Annapolis in the eighteenth century. This environment was very well suited for tobacco and so it drove a society operated essentially through the use of slave power. The men of Annapolis, with a need for labor, acquired slaves to work their tobacco fields and throughout the eighteenth century they accrued wealth, built large Georgian houses and imported more slaves. While visiting the Maryland State Archives, it was brought to our attention, just how many slaves there were in this time period but also how valuable they were to their masters. The masters of the runaway slaves would take ads out in the Maryland Gazette and offer rewards to those who found or returned their slave. In 1695 three thousand African Americans were imported to the Chesapeake region and all because of this environmental asset. It seems odd to think that the introduction of slaves into the Chesapeake region was all because of good soil for tobacco, but if the Chesapeake had depleted soil, would Englishmen had settled in this area in the first place? Whatever the answer may be, one cannot deny this link between the supreme environmental conditions and the building of a society with the use of slave labor.

Our visit to the Baltimore Museum of Industry brought us into the industrialized nineteenth century. In this place and time it is evident that the society is affecting the environment more so than the converse. The society was demanding oysters and with the introduction of refrigeration, the oyster market is larger than ever.  The environment is clearly affected.  Aside from the canneries, there were many other factories often coal burning ones. Air quality was noticeably worsened throughout this time period and there was so much particulate matter in the air that the fabric factories would have to keep their windows closed as to not ruin the clothing that was being produced. Many wealthier families refused to live inside the city because of the smell and the waste from the factories. A few hundred years earlier men were dying because of the effects of the environment. In the nineteenth century it is the opposite. The environment is dying, in a sense, because of the effects of man.

Over time, it seems as if we have a stronger effect on our environment than our environment has on us. We have the ability to manipulate the environment in ways we could not three hundred years ago. Today, we have become comfortable with our way of living and this way of living is not beneficial in the long run.  As a society, we have been dealing with the repercussions of our previous generations when we could have been monitoring how we interact with our environment. One may think that we have these issues because we view our environment with only instrumental value. We see our environment for what it can produce and how it can help us make money. It might be beneficial to start looking at our environment with intrinsic value. Then maybe the relationship between environment and society could be balanced.

Remaining Curious

Photo credit: Rebecca Potochney

As we travel north, up the bay I am becoming more familiar with my surroundings. I know the rivers and hills like the back of my hand. Others seem impressed by the scenery, while I experience comfort in the picturesque waterways and historic buildings. I understand the area as I have lived here my entire life, but this trip to Annapolis has been one entirely different than anything I have experienced here in the past twenty years.

I have always been aware that I live in a town rich with history and crawling with opportunity. Until today, I thought I had taken full advantage of all the city had to offer me. I have attended an anti protest on church circle, drove my boat into the harbor for a riverside dinner, said the pledge of allegiance at breakfast in Chick and Ruth’s and wandered every back street of the town. I expected the lectures about Annapolis to be repetitive for me, but they were the opposite. Most of what we were learning was entirely new information to me. We walked to city dock, an area I was very familiar with and I was asked if I knew what the statues  represented. My mind was blank. I have walked passed that statue more times than I can remember. I have sat upon the man’s lap and played around him as if he were a jungle gym, but I had no clue as to who he was or what he represented. I was embarrassed. His name is Alex Haley and he is the descendant of Kunta Kinte, a slave brought to Annapolis who fought to keep his sense of heritage. The statue is there to remind us to be aware of and preserve our cultural heritage.

Photo credit: Ben Smith

There is a great amount of history in Annapolis that I have seemed to miss and it has brought me to think that my sense of place is not as solidified as I had previously thought. Signing up for the Chesapeake Semester, I had a similar thought; I know a decent amount of information about the Chesapeake, so I should be ready for a lot of review in our lectures. Certainly, I was incorrect. There is always something new to learn when you look at it from a different perspective and there can always be something more to take away, even if it is the smallest piece of information. I do not want to be so comfortable that I lose my sense of curiosity and I guess it goes to show that you should always keep an open mind and continually look for different experiences even if it is in your hometown.


Photo credit: Rebecca Potochney

Perspective is a powerful thing. For me, history had always seemed black and white. The facts are clear that we have evolved from a primitive primate into a well adapted human and have created a culture that seems superior to anything in the past. Seemingly, we are the most evolved and most adapted to our environment, but looking from another perspective can bring new color to our history. A different perspective on this ancient thought may be so powerful as to help us solve our present issues.

Aboard the Godspeed in Jamestown, I was enlightened by the thought that we have not inhabited this area as a modern society for very long at all. It has only been four hundred years since the first settlement in Jamestown. This equates to only four people who live to be one hundred years old. I was asked if we are any different today as compare to those who stepped off the ship into Virginia in 1607. At first I was inclined to answer yes, of course we are very different. We have technology and a better understanding of our world. Looking back on my initial thought it seems very arrogant and closed minded. Many of our so called advancements are just the opposite. Take for example the ships that came to Jamestown in 1607. These ships were well designed to take on the seas because of the distribution of weight at the bottom of the ship. Cruise ships today are top heavy which could more easily tip over in a storm. We have regressed to a dangerously designed ship.

It is common to think that we need to learn from our past mistakes, but it is becoming even more evident that we need to learn from our past accomplishments. It seems that our ancestors lived more closely with the land and the environment than we do today. Though we have developed a society that evolved away from ancient techniques and ways of live, it would be beneficial to regress back to some of these older techniques. We need to look at our modern problems from a different perspective, the past. History is the source of our solutions.