This week started with the announcement of our group projects and presentations. Like any good spring term class, we were to present at the Spring Term Festival to share our findings to those in other classes, and those curious about our subject matter. My group decided to focus on sedimentation rates throughout history and their effects on the Chesapeake Bay and the oyster population. Our class has been focusing on the changes that humans have caused in the Chesapeake, and by studying sedimentation rates in 4 different time periods, we were able to pinpoint the unique challenges humans have brought to the water. What we found could be best summed up by the Pocahontas quote, “These white men are dangerous.” Native Americans had created a perfect balance with the land by only fishing what they needed and sticking to small scale agriculture, keeping the biodiversity and clarity of the water. When the settlers came in, they started deforesting the land and introducing non-native species in order to further agriculture. This led to the elimination of buffers, allowing sediment to freely enter the water. As time progressed, so did technology, and new methods of fishing and farming created even more pollution in the Bay and the partial obliteration of the oyster population. Now the Chesapeake Bay waters are cloudy, full of dead zones, and impaired to the point where full recovery seems unlikely, even impossible.
Luckily, classes and projects like this exist with the goal of educating people about these problems in order to make sure that we can take steps to solve them. Maryland and Virginia have already started passing legislation restricting fertilizer use and creating buffer zones to limit sediment going into the Bay. People help raise oysters to be put into the Bay in order to clean it through their filter feeding, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has started a Clean the Bay Day, where people help filter excess sediment in order to speed up recovery efforts.
There was really no better way to spend my Spring Term. I was able to learn more about the Chesapeake Bay and travel around Virginia in a way I wouldn’t have been able to during any other part of the school year. Geology rocks.
I consider myself an indoor person most of the time. I do enjoy nature, but I like the benefits of air conditioning even more. Last week we took a two-day field trip to go digging for fossils and camp in Westmoreland State Park. While the fossil-hunting wasn’t as successful as I wanted it to be (the Karenosaurus will not be in existence), I did find a mako shark tooth, and there were plenty of ancient shells and bones found by walking on the beaches. The views were beautiful as well, with the sandy beaches of the Chesapeake connecting to gorgeous cliffs.
Once we arrived at the campsite, the real fun began. After three tries, I was successfully able to set up the tent with my group, and we prepared and cooked the kebobs for the dinner leading into scary stories by the fire and s’mores. The next morning was a blur of bacon, eggs and breaking down camp, but we were rewarded with lunch on the beach, where warm sand helped alleviate the pain of sleeping on gravel.
This week we stayed in D.C. the whole week. Washington, D.C. is my favorite city and I love going back every time. We started our week off in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, focusing on an exhibit of America’s use of waterways. The exhibit explained how Americans have been using the Bay for centuries, and how they depended on the Bay and its “protein factor” for their livelihood. The exhibit then explained some of the negative impacts that humans have had not only on the Bay, but on other famous waterways as well. It called for more environmental protection and awareness, exactly what we had been talking about in class.
Wednesday was our trip to an actual archaeological site on the Bay. The site is owned and operated by the Smithsonian, and our class got to see three different areas. The first site focused on prehistoric peoples and their relationship with the oyster population at that time. These peoples lived off of the Chesapeake Bay and put their trash all together in a structure called a midden. Through these middens, researchers can see what they were eating, how much, and when. Our guide took us along a trail explaining the different middens, and how through their research, they’ve discovered how much the oyster population has declined and how the water has suffered. The second site was more of what you’d expect in archaeology. Some scientists had found the remnants of a plantation and were excavating to find our its historical and ecological significance. The owners of the plantation had actually introduced many non-native species into the environment, and the pollen remains could still be found over a hundred years later. This family also highlighted the differences in living styles at the time, as their trash and anthropological leftovers were extremely different from that of the slave house, as is normally expected. There was also a flurry of activity in another nearby house/excavation site that was felt throughout the area with their agricultural changes and general adjustments to the land itself.
On Thursday, our class was lucky enough to go to the off-site storage facility owned by the Smithsonian. Anything that doesn’t fit in the actual Smithsonian Museums is sent to this facility to be put in one of five pods. Among their collection is Sitting Bull’s Winchester, used at Custer’s Last Stand in the Battle of Little Bighorn, an elephant killed by Teddy Roosevelt, a Tokugawa era bridal carrier, and an Olmec head. After being escorted around, we finished with a presentation on rising sea levels around the planet and the plight of the Chesapeake Bay oysters. The presenter was incredibly informative, as her research spans globally, studying just how much glaciers have been melting and changing the oceans. We then made a trip downtown to visit a lobbyist who works for CCL, a grassroots movement focused on getting citizens to talk to their congressmen about addressing climate change.
Friday was our final day in Washington. The last day consisted of a trip to the Museum of Natural History, one of my personal favorites. Their ocean exhibit always makes me feel grateful that enormous ancient marine predators did not share the Earth at the same time I did. We were told to focus on exhibits that explain how humans have affected the natural environment through pollution, erosion, and the introduction of non-native species; there were more than enough examples. The best part of this trip was seeing how much I had been able to learn over these past 2 weeks. In a true testament to liberal arts education, a group of non-majors were able to descend upon important geological and archaeological sites, understand the significance of everything, and look at D.C through new eyes.
As an Economics and Global Politics double major, I can safely say that I am not a “science person.” I’ve always been fascinated by scientists and admired their work, but knew that as soon as I was put in a lab, I would find someway to mess up the results. One of the best parts of W&L is our four-week Spring Term, where we can study intensively in a subject we might have not known about. I took this Spring Term opportunity to learn more about the Chesapeake Bay.
Being from Michigan, I’m constantly surrounded by water, but the Chesapeake Bay offers a different take on ecological history and the different problems facing the Bay. Last week we took a (rainy) trip to the Dismal Swamp, and our Professors Jill Leonard-Pingel and Euan Mitchell told us that no matter how lush the swamp looks now, it is nothing compared to its pre-logging days. Almost all of the current vegetation represented second growth as a result of restoration efforts. We also spent some time at the Brock Environmental Center, one of the homes of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and part of the Save The Bay movement. They helped educate the class on being greener and how to help clean up the Bay.
In this class we’ve mainly been focusing on the plight of the oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, and how their populations have declined due to both anthropological and environmental reasons. John Smith writes in his Chesapeake Bay expedition notes that the oyster reefs represented a boating hazard because they were so large and numerous. Oysters were commonly sent back to England as a sign of the colony’s success and potential wealth. During the Industrial Revolution, dumping waste became more and more common along the Bay, and technological advancements made dredging a more common way to fish oysters. This led to an exponential decay both in the oyster population and the cleanliness of the water. Oysters are important to the Bay because they are able to filter the water and preserve the environment. The majority of the water in the Bay has little to no oxygen (anoxia and hypoxia), making it hard for anything to survive and creating algal blooms that allow little to no light to enter the water. By being in this class and learning about the different dangers affecting the Bay has made me realize that everyone can use their different knowledge to solve the problem from different angles, like new technological innovations or governmental regulation. There’s still hope for the Bay and for future generations of oysters, and education is the first step.