The only time I had every heard of Smith Island was when referring to the famous 9 layer cake, unbeknownst to me, the Maryland state dessert. We drove to Chrisfield and quickly boarded the ferry which would take us 45 minutes into the town of Ewell, one of the three towns left in Smith Island. I was excited to see what the island was going to be like. We had learned a lot about the island from Kate Livie, an educator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and I was looking forward to seeing it myself.
This morning we watched a short documentary titled “Earth Under Water” about the imminent sea level rise and in the movie they discussed the impacts that sea level rise would have not over the next millennia but over the next centuries. At the end of the 45 minute documentary our Chesapeake semester group all had a similar feeling, hopelessness. How could humans fight a force like this?
Sea level rise is happening it’s not a myth, we know that it is occurring and there isn’t much that we can do to prevent it at this point. It’s a natural occurrence. Roughly 60 million years ago all of the polar ice was melted, today scientists say that if all of the worlds polar ice melts sea level will rise 230 ft enough to wipe out most of the land we have built our civilizations on. So what do we do about it?
One of the most influenced communities as results of sea level rise would be inhabited islands like Smith. Smith Island contrary to popular belief was not named after John Smith but rather Henry Smith, a wealthy landowner of the time. Smith island today has dwindled from a habitable 8,000 acre island to 900 acres of livable land. The population of smith island today is roughly 200 and is slowly dwindling as kids grow and adults begin to move to the mainland. There was once dozens of communities within the islands and as sea levels have risen and erosion has eaten away at the islands shores.
Things on Smith island are very much the same I presume as they were fifty or even a hundred years ago. We arrived and began to see a mixture of well maintained and abandoned buildings. In the center of Ewell is the Methodist church, an essential element of the community. Due to the small population size everyone knows every and anything you could want to know about them. We were told if someone was getting married they never sent out wedding invitations because they just assumed everyone would know, and of course all 200 were invited. This small town was immediately welcoming, they are used to the tourist groups in the summer months but had a way to make you feel especially at home.
The location on the water is clearly a driving factor in the economic stability of the island. Operations like the smith island crab co-op help provide jobs and supply outsiders with products from the island. If you need something like sugar you won’t be going down the street to get it and if you do you hope the grocer just got a shipment in. You cannot go out to walmart whenever you need something and you have to learn to lean on your neighbors and community to an extent to help each other day by day.
Smith Island is a close knit community of 200 of the most down to earth people you may ever meet. Their accents are unique and seem almost to be southern with a hint of an English influence. It’s unique to the area and they are proud of who they are. Smith Islanders as they call themselves are people who have lived their for all of or the majority of their lives. This morning a elderly man “Al” Sr. suffered a stroke, the EMT on the island o also runs the museum quickly sprung into action leaving the responsibilities of the museum and visitor center into the hands of Pastor Rick. People wear many hats on the island. Pastor Rick not only leads the Methodist church, but also serves on the board of directors and is a certified EMT. People will do anything for each other in Smith Island. The crime rate is nearly zero; no one ever locks their house and golf carts and cars are often outside left with the keys in the ignition.
Smith Islanders know that if something were to happen they have a community to fall back to for support. When on smith island as an observer you wonder how more people don’t live here? The space and land permits are limited and unless you inherit a property you cannot move and develop on the island. I want to live on Smith Island. It is a town focused on relationships, relations within the community, relations with the land as it erodes, relations with the water the source of their sustenance, and the relationship with God.
My glimpse of Smith Island today showed me how I think life should be, if communities around world were like Smith Island, we would be so much better off. One of the moral values we discussed were ideals. “Ideals are things that we aspire to be, or have, “notions of excellence”, goals or aspirations that bring greater individual and community happiness and harmony”. I had an overwhelming sense of this community happiness and harmony when in Smith Island.
If we handled environmental issues the way that smith islanders handle
problems we would be in a much different situation. They understand that their island is shrinking and that in a few years it might not be safe to live on the island. For now they believe that there is no reason they should abandon their heaven on the bay until they are in pursuit of the Heaven they all believe awaits them.