THE 20-mile trip across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel from Norfolk to the Eastern Shore of Virginia signals me to decompress, shed the pressures and challenges of daily life and focus ahead, to the place where sun and sand, sky and sea promise respite.
Beneath the bridge, the gray–green waters of the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay embrace, fall apart, and embrace again. Above, sea gulls perch on light posts, keeping an eye on the bobbing boats of fishermen below.
I look ahead, to where the flat expanse of Fisherman Island, edged in bright sand, acts as my welcome mat.
Fisherman Island is the southernmost of the barrier islands that stretch up the Atlantic side of the ESVA. Decades ago, developers had big plans for this area—resorts, marinas, homes. Then wetlands legislation put the kibosh on their ideas. Today, 75 miles of coastal wilderness, over 100,000 acres, remain protected by a combination of federal and state agencies and the Nature Conservancy.
To some, the uninhabited barrier islands may look like wastelands, but they are not— not to the millions of migratory birds that fly through every year, not to the rebounding clams, crabs, oysters, and fish that populate the waters and not to the scientists who are constantly studying them. In fact, they are a global treasure: The United Nations designated 14 of them as an International Biosphere Preserve.
U.S. 13 bisects the ESVA’s two counties, Northampton to the south and Accomack to the north. At one point, from the end of the Civil War to the first part of the 20th century, they were among the wealthiest counties in the nation. The railroad carried the region’s plentiful produce and seafood to northern cities. An entrepreneur thought of loading rail cars onto a barge and ferrying them from Cape Charles to Norfolk. Voila: another market.
Halfway up my journey, in Machipongo, lies the Barrier Islands Center, which tells the story of another group who would not call the barrier islands “barren”: the hardy people who lived out on them, harvesting seafood, hunting and building a community. In James Spione’s film, “Our Island Home,” a former Hog Island resident describes “a life so rich and free, a paradise of land and sea.”
A small seafood village of about 250 people thrived on Hog Island for decades. It was a simple life, one resident recalls: If you wanted a house, you built it. If a neighbor needed help, you lent a hand. If your children needed clothes, you made them. You worked hard (even the children), harvesting and shucking clams, oysters, and scallops to sell, but you always had enough to eat.
Building your house on sand, though, has its drawbacks. Barrier islands are constantly moving as the wind and tide and storms shift them around. Residents of Hog Island saw first the graveyard, then the lighthouse overtaken by the ocean. People began leaving in the 1920s. A cluster of hurricanes in the 1930s prompted the rest to go.
But they didn’t just walk away from what they had built: Many jacked up their houses, moved them to the waterfront, loaded them on barges, and shipped them to the mainland. Resilient people, these barrier island folk.
Turning off U.S. 13 on State Route 175 means our destination, Chincoteague, is near. After we pass NASA, we enter the causeway and its series of bridges stretching over guts and glades, marshes and tidal flats toward the island in the distance. The wide expanse and the smell of decaying matter may seem useless, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Author Curtis Badger, in his book “A Naturalist’s Guide to Coastal Virginia,” calls the salt marsh a “great protein factory.” He explains that marsh grasses are broken down by bacteria that, combined with algae, larvae, eggs, and partially digested grass, forms what’s called detritus.
Microscopic crustaceans, worms, “oysters, clams, mussels, nematodes, snails, insect larvae, fiddler crabs, and small fish like mullet and menhaden” dine on this detritus. “Larger fish, blue crabs, waterfowl, wading birds, raccoons,” and so on in turn feed on them. And so it goes, until you sit down to a large plate of flounder or a delicious crab cake and take your position at the top of the food chain.
Badger’s descriptions of the exacting requirements for marsh grasses to survive, from the balance between salt and water to the internal structure needed to keep grass upright to their importance at the base of the food chain is enough to make a believer out of anyone. Again, a marsh may look simple; it is not.
Marsh grasses select the type of salt they allow into their cells. Red knots, a medium-sized bird in the sanderling family, migrate more than 9,300 miles twice a year from South America to the Arctic, stopping off in Virginia for food and rest. Mature female clams may produce 50 million eggs a season. On a single day, July 29, birdwatchers spotted over 60 different species of birds on Assateague Island. The wonders of nature at the beach never stop.
And therein lies the secret to my peace: These wonders, along with the endless expanse of ocean, the rhythmic crashing of the waves, the fury of the storms—all remind me that I am small, and there is a Creator God who is very, very big.
I breathe in the salt air and rest in that reality.