Within is a country that may have the prerogatuve over the most pleasant places known; for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation... Here are mountains, hills, plains, valleys, rivers, brooks, all running most pleasantly into a fair bay compassed but for the mouth with fruitful and delightsome land.
John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia.
The post office at Willis Wharf, Va., is a blue metal trailer cemented to the earth. Outside hangs a flag faded by sun and salt. Inside a clock on the wall has stopped at seven minutes of twelve. A second timepiece, meanwhile, ticks away on Postmistress Florence Lawson's wrist, and it reads 10:15.
"You must be looking for Hog Island history," she says in response to a question. "Wait a minute." She walks into the back room and returns with a photograph. Framed in masking tape, it has yellowed. It is of Florence and her husband. Young and bathed in sunshine, they sit on the front steps of a one-room beachhouse. Florence Lawson, like her former self, is now smiling.
"My husband was in the Coast Guard on Hog Island, and I'd go out in summer when he was off duty. It was wonderful; it really was. There was everything: clams, oysters, fish. He bought that house from a friend for $25. We went out there from '49 to '53."
"Why did you stop going?"
"The house washed away."
Willis Wharf sits halfway down on the ocean side of Virginia's Eastern Shore, a few feet higher than Hog Island, eight miles east.
The population of Willis Wharf increased during the 1930s when some big storms hit the coast. Broadwater, a settlement on Hog Island, then was home to 400 people. But the island wouldn't have them. It shook them off its broad, restless back. The hurricanes moved the island, forcing the people of Broadwater to put their houses on barges and sail them to mainland towns such as Willis Wharf.
Broadwater, population zero, is now about a mile east of Hog Island; which is to say under a lot of water.
Hog Island is one of 189 Atlantic and Gulf barrier islands that fringe the American coast from Cape Cod to Texas. Barrier islands take their name from the function they perform. Narrow and elongate, they buffer the mainland from the ocean's force. In the sheltered waters on their landward sides salt marsh takes root; and forms the base of a considerable pyramid.
At one time or another during their life cycles 65 percent of the fish species that swim in the Atlantic depend on the marsh for survival. And on these fish feed many land-based animals, the highest of which is man.
Man has historically cast a covetous eye toward barrier islands, Atlantic City, Ocean City and Miami Beach being among the most glittering examples of that tendency. But if it wasn't for the taxpayer, condominium and casino alike would one day fall into the ocean, and there would be little incentive to rebuild.
The Army Corps of Engineers is reclaiming a section of Miami Beach, which is washing out from under a number of hotels. The cost in public money is $57 million.
Along the Virginia coast the Atlantic Ocean is currently rising at the rate of about a foot a century. In the process of rolling back the shoreline, it takes the barrier islands along. The high tides that a storm produces can wash completely over an island. This breaks down the barrier dunes fronting on the ocean and transports sand into the marsh behind the island. As the ocean recedes a new line of stablilizing dunes will form, west of the old dunes.Twelve thousand years ago Hog Island and Virginia's eastern shoreline lay about 30 miles east of where they are now.
Harvey Bowen, born on Hog Island, spent the first 40 years of his life there. Now he runs an oyster-packing house in Willis Wharf. When he leans back from his small metal desk in his small office his head rests against a National Geographic map on the wall: "The Physical World." Bowen is 78, and, with brilliant blue eyes and a shock of white hair, he hardly looks it. Outside wind and rain hammer at the window. Inside swings the pendulum of the clock on the wall: 3:27 p.m.
"People had to be close to the water; that was where their work was. So they looked for high ground out there. "At the turn of the century Hog Island was the second largest concentration of population on Virginia's Eastern Shore."
Speaking of storms, Bowen begins by mentioning an eel grass blight which hit England in the 1920s and then worked its way across the Atlantic. In autumn the eel grass in the marsh would shed off, be drawn out the inlets between the islands, and pushed up on the beaches by the tides. It would act as additional protection for the islands in winter when storms were more severe. But after the blight wiped out the grasses, the islands were more vulnerable to erosion than usual.
"Then we had a hurricane in '33, one in '35, and two in '36. The first storm raised right over the island; a lot of people had never experienced anything like that before. Then after the other storms people really started getting worked up. If we hadn't had these pine woods in the east, every house would have been swept off the island in the first storm.
"But those storms covered the trees with salt and sand, and they started dying. After that, people figured the next one would be it for them." By the early '40s only the Coast Guard remained on Hog Island.
Frances Kellam, Harvey Bowen's cousin, also grew up on the island. Now in her middle years, she works as a nurse from 3 in the afternoon to 11 at night. The other 16 hours of the day she cares for her mother, Ella Melvin, age 94.
Mrs. Melvin lies on a couch in the kitchen, under a blanket, under the kindly gaze of her daughter. She is an oracle of sorts in the eyes of Postmistress Lawson. "It's amazing what she can tell you about the island, if you get her on the right day."
Frances half yells at her mother: "Now tell this gentleman here about Hog Island."
"What?" The eyes are those of a very old person resisting the arduous effort of memory. "I don't know, I don't know." Ella Melvin pulls the blanket close to her fragile chin. The skin on the backs of her fingers is as smooth as a baby's and lined with blue veins.
Frances Kellam offers me a cup of coffee, and we let her mother rest. Soon she is doing the remembering for her mother. "It was so beautiful there. I wish we could go back. We lived there until the storms."
The storm that she remembers most vividly was the fiercest, the hurricane of Tuesday, Aug. 23, 1933. "In the afternoon the sky got real pink, almost red, then dark. You could see it coming long before it hit. Then it came and blew up the trees."
We had another cup of coffee and soon Frances Kellam, nurse to hospital patients, nurse to her mother, is doing a lot of remembering. The morning light through the window is hard on her, showing the lines of age in her thin, handsome face.
The talk is about what the place gave: a simple life, a sense of community. And the talk is also about what it took away: a boat lost to a storm, a cousin to a hurricane.
The ocean claimed her grandfather's body, too, when it got to gnawing at the Broadwater cemetery. It eventually washed his coffin out of the vault and him out of the coffin.
"When they found him on the beach he was, what do you call it, petrified?"
"Un, huh. There he was in his pinstripe suit, his white shirt, and his necktie. Some people up near Washington heard about it and wanted to study the body. See, he hadn't been embalmed. They said that chemicals from the water had seeped into the coffin, and that's what had done it. I can't remember their name."
"Yes, I believe it was. We didn't give them the body. We reburied him over here on the mainland."
Tom's Diner in Exmore, two miles west of Willis Wharf, is a good place for breakfast. The clock over the front door rests when and where it wants to. Usually it reads 10:12, but I have driven by a few times when it had read 10:40.
Inside, the place is a kaleidoscope of tile, Formica and polished metal. Squeeze into the booth, order a cup of coffee, and look around for a newspaper. There is usually one lying nearby. Today is Wednesday, April 25, 1979, and here is part of a story from Norfolk's The Virginian-Pilot:
". . . Mississippi officials in Washington told a Senate committee that federal loans to disaster victims are so expensive that most citizens of the flood-ravaged state cannot afford the assistance.
"They urged Congress to drop the interest rate on such loans from the current 7 3/8 percent to the 1 percent and 3 percent rates of previous years."
Before 1936 if you lost property in a flood, that was your tough luck. That year the federal government passed the Flood Control Act, which allocated money for flood prevention and compensation to flood victims. Since then, the government has spent more than $10 million on dams, levees and channelization projects. The problem with some flood control efforts is that they can increase the probability of flood up or downsteam from the modified area. In 1953 the government paid out $52 million in disaster relief payments, on 1973 -- after 20 more years of flood control -- $2.5 billion.
Developers do not object to taxpayer-financed flood control products. Such undertakings often rescue their land from the swamp of worthlessness and put it on commercial high ground. Drained wetlands can be built on; their value shoots up. But the site remains in the flood plain, and rivers have been known to rise higher than levees. When the homeowner in the flood plain finds water in his living room, that becomes his -- and the government's -- problem, not the builder's.
A railroad track runs past the window of the diner. Periodically, freight trains pass. They are not exactly rocketing by. The track is so bad here that the trains must slow to 10 miles per hour. This represents an improvement. A few years ago they had to throttle back to four miles per hour.
That rail, which runs down the middle of the Eastern Shore, represents a line of demarcation as sure as the Berlin Wall. The peninsula here is no more than a dozen miles wide, and so it is water, not land, which defines the place. West of the track is the Chesapeake Bay; the people who live there are referred to as "baysiders." To the east lies the ocean, home of the "seasiders." Each speaks in a different brogue. Each tolerates the other, and that's about it.
The bay is deeper and richer than the other. Probably 10 times as many oysters come out of it as do out of the seaside marsh. It is full of crabs. The seaside is shallow and, by comparison, over-fished.
The Bay, being a larger and more lucrative body of water, is therefore home to more commercial fishermen -- with bigger boats. In mid-October the crab-potting season ends and dredging for crabs, hibernating in the muddy bottom, begins. A few baysiders bring their large dredging boats over to the seaside and rake the channels there, which the law permits them to do. Some seasiders, though, claim that some of these boats occasionally tend to wander toward the mud flats flanking the channels -- where it is against the law to dredge. The flats are important to seasiders because being the shallowest, and thus warmest places, they are where the crabs first appear in spring.
Seasiders, largely ill-equipped to work on the bayside, keep an eye on the foreigners when they sail into these waters.
Of Virginia's 18 barrier islands, 10 and parts of three others belong to the Nature Conservancy, a Washington-based conservation group. (They own Hog Island.)
The Conservancy began buying a decade ago after some New York developers unveiled their multi-million-dollar vision for three of the islands. The Conservancy got lucky. They helped tie up the opposition in court long enough for the 1970 recession to hit and the bottom to drop out of the real estate market. They got some islands cheap.
Then they got smart. One of the islands near the center of the chain, a linchpin of sorts, was owned by a group which was adamant about selling to a developer. The owners sold, only to find that the "developer" was a dummy set up by the Nature Conservancy.
In these parts it is not difficult to mention the Nature Conservancy's name and find it subsequently taken in vain:
"The Nature Conservative (sic) took our islands away."
Rod Hennessey, who manages the Conservancy's islands, says that his organization's use policy is more liberal than that of the other owners. Waterfowl hunting is allowed with a permit. (The Conservancy has never denied anyone a permit). Anybody can go to the islands but they can't spend the night. (There is no fresh water.) The Nature Conservancy won't let you take a dune buggy out there.
Hennessey goes on to point out that the islands have always been privately owned, and that many outsiders using them in the past were in effect trespassing. The difference, of course, is that once they were a netherworld. They are no longer. The planet is a closer place, and so questions of land use often evolve into the absolutes of wilderness and Disneyland locking horns.
Breakfast at Tom's Diner today: pancakes, potatoes, bacon, lots of coffee, and a newspaper, The Eastern Shore News, Thursday, April 26, 1979. Front page: "OFFICIALS PLEDGE TANGIER AID." In the photograph, assorted politicians, with suit coats buttoned, stand on the beach at Tangier Island, which is in Chesapeake Bay. Gov. John Dalton motions with his arm. Senators Warner and Mathias and some statesmen of lesser rank observe:
". . . The construction of an 8,200-foot seawall along the western shoreline is the solution the officials are considering to top the erosion that eats an average of 20 to 30 feet of shoreline per year.
". . . [Virginia Congressman] Trible's bill would give the Army Corps of Engineers emergency authority to build the structure without the delay of studies and justifications which normally must be made for a project of this kind."
The Chesapeake Bay is a "drowned river valley" resulting from the melting of the most recent glacier about 12,000 years ago. Tangier Island represents the top of a ridge in that long lost valley, which, with seal level rising, is slowly disappearing. The only way ultimately to save it would be to build a seawall around the whole island and pump out water as it spilled in.
Rod Hennessey considers Tangier Island a "sacred cow." He says that while politicians worry about saving an island that cannot be pragmatically and economically saved, the Chesapeake Bay, a valuable marine resource, grows increasingly more poisoned. He wonders why they cannot look past the more symbolic question to the larger one.
Perhaps they cannot because islands have a way of rousing the partisan in people. "When I first set foot on those islands I thought I had died and gone to heaven." These are Barry Truitt's words. He works for the Nature Conservancy, and now he is setting foot on Hog Island. I am with him, and I can see what he's getting at.
It is early May, the morning is as bright as a diamond. Noises come on the wind: marsh grasses riffle, shorebirds cry against the broad roar of the ocean. Four hundred people once lived here. Now no one does. This place, built of sand, made restless by the ocean, will never sit still long enough for man to anchor it with his buildings. Its desire, forever, is to be wild.
Ahead stand some vestiges of man's presence here. A Coast Guard lookout tower reaches into the sky, and beyond is the old station, now doorless, windowless, prey to the wind.
We climb the steep metal stairs of the tower and stop about halfway up. The island, seven miles long, stretches away to the north. On one side lies the ocean, scalloped with whitecaps like stars in the sky. On the other, tidal creeks wind through the emerald marsh, jigsawing it into pieces.
Back across the marsh small shacks pop up. These are "oyster watch-houses," built by watermen to guard their grounds. Harvey Bowen says: "If you don't check your crab pots somebody else will do it for you. Some of these people around here have the idea that if nature put it there it belongs to them as much as to anyone else."
Truitt points out at the ocean. "That's where Broadwater was." Overhead circles a pair of ospreys. They have been nesting on the roof of the watchtower, and our arrival has agitated them. Ospreys are also known as fish hawks. To watch one swoop down and tear a fish from the water is to sometimes see a bird doing work that will go for naught. The bald eagle, if he gets the chance, will rob the osprey.
We climb down and walk over to the old Coast Guard station. Its porch, on which we sit, faces the high morning sun. Today's clock. Against that sun the ospreys wander. Suddenly another bird darts into the picture, and that brings Truitt to his feet: "Goddam, that's a peregrine!"
The peregrine falcon is a bird struggling back from the brink of extinction. Pesticides crunched the species during the '50s and '60s. "Peregrine" is both an adjective and a noun. Here are some definitions from the dictionary:
"Engaged in or travelling on a pilgrimage."
"Having a tendency to wander: roving."
"A sojourner in a foreign country."
To be more specific, this bird is an Arctic peregrine falcon. It is springtime, and he is migrating back home. Where has he wintered? In South America.
This pilgrim, pausing here on his awesome semiannual journey, makes swift loops around the station, around the more languid osprey circles. This bird knows how to fly. There are few beats of his wings. He cants them, gaining much energy from the wind. The peregrine is known in some regions as the duck hawk, because that is a meal of which he is fond. When he goes into a dive, with the aim of knocking a duck in midair senseless, he reaches speeds up to 200 miles an hour.
Something catches the eye now, low and to the left. "Marsh hawk," says Truitt. They have wings as big as mainsails, which allow them to hover close to the ground. He is working over the dunes, looking for a mouse perhaps. suddenly, the peregrine heads for his airspace. "What's he doing?" He buzzes the other bird before carrying on to land in a small tree. The marsh hawk recovers and takes out after him."Incredible, I've never seen that before." The peregrine waits for his pursuer to get close, then launches himself free of the limb and the other bird's airspace. The easy-flying marsh hawk is no match for him. CAPTION: Picture 1, The Coast Guard station on Hog Island, Va., is now home only to wind and birds. Gone are the Coast Guardsmen, gone are the 400 inhabitants who once lived on the barrier island, and Broadwater, their home town, lies beneath the Atlantic's surface; Picture 2, The flat precincts of the Eastern Shore, restless weather fills the great bowl of the sky, tossing like an overhead sea; Picture 3, Don't try to set your watch from the clock over Tom's Diner in Exmore, Va. Its erratic rhythms bear no relationship to standard time; Picture 4, Harvey Bowen, 78 lived on Hog Island for his first 40 years. Then the sand foundations of his home town washed away, and he settled in Willis Wharf on the Virginia mainland, where he operates an oyster-shucking house; Picture 5, The line of light is the image of the nighttime freight train passing through Exmore. The track bisects the Eastern Shore peninsula, dividing baysiders from seasiders. There is little mingling between the two groups; Picture 6, Florence Lawson, the postmistress of Willis Wharf, once had a house on Hog Island that cost only $25. But it washed away; Picture 7, Rod Hennessey supervises the now-unpopulated island as local representative of the Nature Conservancy, the Washington-based environmental group that bought Hog Island to block its purchase for development as a resort area. Photographs by Breton Littlehales. By Breton Littlehales