I was a foolish young man in 1996. That’s when Tom Horton, published An Island Out of Time. A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake, a fascinating book that documents the time he and his family lived on a tiny island full of locals.
I was already in love with the sea in that year; I worked in marine science and I lived to surf. Although I could walk to the tidal shores of the bay and had been canoeing on it several times, I hadn’t yet discovered boating and the amazing coves, beaches, and islands of the Chesapeake. Instead, I mostly bypassed it, driving over bridges and around it to reach the frequently calm Atlantic Coast in hopes of catching waves.
Had I read Horton’s book then, I may have been more tempted find what he describes; “[as] a place where the ocean pushing inland perennially tussles for dominance with the freshwater flowing seaward from forty-odd rivers…”
And little could I have known that one of my favorite pastimes of beach combing and foraging, not only had a name (progging), but that the people of Smith Island regularly did what I could only yearn to.
“Far up the island’s bayshore, by an eroding marsh tump, the progger’s lone figure stops and squats, to examine… what?
Perhaps the progger has discovered a silken, just-shed soft crab, a baby terrapin, the bleached plastron of a giant sea turtle; or a feather, a shell, a piece of bone; a wave-polished root of ancient walnut; a naval telemetry buoy torn from its moorings by the last storm.
A true progger loves, above all, to roam the edges where land and water merge.”
And had I been a boater then, I too would have lived on that edge, that I now consider to be the most special place of all. While I doubt the people of Smith Island would have accepted me, an outsider, I could have felt that love, that connection to the land and water where I could, “gaze and dream, in guileless propitiation of some inarticulable bond here between islander and island.”
Horton spent three years on the island, enough for him to write a lot. At times too much, but buried within the longer passages are sentiments worth searching for, like the description of his adopted island, “A marsh-clad island is a place alive. It ripples sleekly beneath the wind’s stroking, altering mood and texture with every caress and pummel… A thousand channels and cricks and guts rive the marsh, and through them the bay perfuses Smith Island like some great, amorphous jellyfish.”
These days I savor the quieter shores of the Salish Sea and relish the forgotten spots, the shallow backwaters, and the wide open places less frequented by the masses. I’m still not wise, but with age, I become more aware of the beauty of the small things, as yet unspoiled.
I regret not spending more time on the Chesapeake Bay when I lived back east and am glad people like Horton had the foresight to document a life that, like mine has probably changed quite a bit with the rise of technology, sea levels, and the passage of time.