There are few places that remain as unaltered and traditional as they were 200, even 100 years ago. Today worldwide everything is changing, old earth crust is coming up through the mantle forming new rock. Technology is changing making things faster and more efficient. Our global society has changed drastically over the past 50 years. In general our society is reliant on technology, to help us work, learn and communicate. The changes in society are not just seen on a local level but can be seen worldwide. Individuals who want to evade technology often try to resort back to how people used to work, live, and communicate. On an individual basis though it is nearly impossible. One is quickly deemed irresponsible, inefficient and as a poor communicator by today’s high standards. It is challenging today to go back to the way things were even if some people wanted to. You have to change with society otherwise you won’t ‘survive’. On an individual level resorting back to life with less of a technological aspect is difficult. However in this semester we have visited two places, both of which I was able to get an understanding of the desire to go back to the way things used to be.
Smith Island, surrounded by the Virginia waters Chesapeake Bay is composed of three island communities. The communities Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton have not changed much over the last 100 years. The islands were originally purposed as grazing land for livestock in the late 1600’s (1). The people of Smith Island have an accent that is unique, the traditional dialect is a direct reflection of the influence the English Settlers continue to have. Just as the language has not changed neither have other traditions on the Island. The community is just as isolated as it was during its founding as Smith Island in 1679 (1). The relationships despite the dwindling population remain true and genuine as you can imagine in a population of approximately 270 long-term residents. Coming in as an outsider of this close-knit community seems like an invasion of an untouched traditional society.
On the island physical barriers do not only isolate the people but there is no bridge from the mainland of technological advancements. Many residents use traditional means of work and communication. In the water surrounding the island oystering and crabbing was and continues to be generational work. Just as the population continues to decline so is the desire to carry on the tradition. The number of children and teenagers left living on the island is low, and for them the thought of living out their lives on the island has begun to slip away. The island culture is beginning to die; there is something enchanting about the island. Maybe it is the transportation back in time, the slow pace of life, the heavy accents, the watermen culture or the famous cakes but something about this place feels like home. Not a home its visitors nor I have ever known but a home that we can experience briefly until we return to our busy lives in modern society.
On Smith Island the Methodist Church has an incredible influence on the cultures and beliefs. Sea level rise is a prevalent issue that threatens the future of the island. Boats serve as the major bridge between the island communities and the mainland. Resources and people are carried by boat to school, for food, and serve as a means of income for the traditional watermen that still work the water today. Sea level rise threatens all of this though, without the island people would be displaced and the culture that makes it so distinctive would surely drown. The belief system mostly influenced by the church gives hope to the residents of the island communities. Some residents have more of an understanding than others but they are all aware that it is happening. There is no denying the things that they are seeing. The coastline is eroding and every year water seems to be moving in faster. Sea level rise, a real phenomenon is threatening the sustainability and livelihood of Smith Island. The intersection of science and belief is especially relevant on the island as they are experiencing on a much smaller scale what the modern coastal communities are bound to face in the coming years.
I doubted that I would ever visit and be welcomed into a community as traditional as Smith Island. Only 3,400 miles away unbeknownst to me at the time there was a community very different yet very much the same as Smith Island. Not separated by a natural barrier like Smith Island, Parque de las Papas, otherwise known, as Potato Park is located in the Andes Mountains of Cusco, Peru. Potato Park is similarly a subdivided yet unified group; it is comprised of 5 qeswa communities. The communities Sacaca, Chawaytire, Pampallaqta, Paru Paru and Amaru are home to approximately 6,000 native people (2). The people speak a native Andean language known as Quechua, and like the unique dialect of Smith Island it cannot be found anywhere else. The communities of Potato Park are isolated; building homes and lives on a mountain 14,000 feet above sea level presents a number of challenges. They are considered an isolated community but in a different sense. Being located high in the Andes makes obtaining resources challenging and rock face separates them from the thriving modernized community below. The communities are here for a reason though, just as soft-shelled crabbing is a major potential source of income so is the resource grown in the mountainous environment. The potato as the name Parque de las Papas implies is the major harvested crop of the qeswa communities.
The mountain people like those of Smith Island are resourceful and use what limited things they have available to them. Animals are used for power and the term manual labor has one of the truest meanings in the villages. There are over 3,600 varieties of potatoes grown here, hand grown and harvested by the indigenous people. Over hundreds of years a culture has formed around the potato and it not exclusively seen as a monetary value. The intrinsic value of the potato in Parque de las Papas is something that can only be understood by the people that visit the park. In our modern society the harvesting of potatoes is practice of efficiency for profit. The traditionally clothed Andean people can be seen scattered among the landscape, there is little to no time for leisure as something can always be done. Just like the welcoming nature of Smith Island, a woman who sprinkles flower petals over your head sometimes greets the guests of Potato Park. In our society today if someone were to carry on this tradition its importance would be lost. The flower petals that sat on my head, as we were welcomed were a reminder to me that I am an outsider. I come from a modern fast paced society and these people somehow made me feel at home.
Both communities are sustained off of their past and they have managed to build up their lives using traditional practices of crabbing and harvesting. Their isolation has forced them to survive without the heavy influences of technology. If given the chance to utilize more efficient technology it is hard to believe, but they probably would not use it. Why fix something that is not broken? Their traditional practices work and allow them to have a closer relationship to the water and land that they extract from. The people of Potato Park have no doubt in their mind that global warming is happening. Despite being faced with the reality of the threat it will have they remain on the mountain continuing to develop and promote their environmentally sustainable agriculture (2).
The seemingly natural occurrences like climate change and sea level rise are greatly influenced by human’s unhealthy and unsustainable relationship with the environment. Our influence on the environment is likely to lead to the loss of Smith Island and Parque de las Papas as functional communities. The livelihoods and traditions but also the dialect of Smith Island and the Quechua language of the Mountains will generationally disappear. It is clear that these successful communities though miles apart are much more similar than they are different. Their isolation forces them to be resourceful and conscious of their waste management, preserves native dialect, and traditional practices like crabbing and hand weaving clothes. In a few hundred years there may not be a Smith Island and Potato Park to visit; and generations will be denied an opportunity to experience first hand and understand the importance of these preserved cultures. A culture lost and two unspoiled examples of how our modern society never fails to eliminate anyone or place who cannot or chooses not to keep up with the times.