They built against sound advice, or so the story goes. The vulnerable stretch of shore was too changeable for development. But prospectors said yes, and island lots were divided and sold, inheritances and retirement funds cashed in. Sometime in the 1980’s, the last beams were hung, the final nails hammered, the last stretches of siding sealed and stained. Today, not a single house stands on Cedar Island. One remains, but its walls have given way. It has toppled onto its side, a testament to the persistence of something; I am uncertain what.
Cedar Island is one in a chain of barrier islands that unravel, link by link, down the Atlantic side of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Some years, at high tide, it is completely underwater. Over on the Chesapeake side, not many miles away, the small harbor town of Cape Charles boasts a different history. Its turn-of-the-century houses, for better or worse, mostly still stand. Established in the 1880’sunder the booming industry of railroad barges, Cape Charles was built on the bay. It is protected by milder tides. Still, there is a sense of depression here. No lunar floods rushing in and pulling livelihood back out with them, but instead the slow neglect of an abandoned economy.
I love this portion of the world. I hate the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. To get to this remote spot, which I want to be in precisely because it is remote, I must endure the mile-long stretches of underwater tunnel that run between mainland and peninsula. I try unsuccessfully to forget the tons of water that roil above me as we pass underground. The tunnel bridge structure has held solid since it was built in 1964, my husband reminds me; I wonder when it was last inspected. He assures me it will not cave in, but I breathe deeply only when I can see each resting gull atop his own high lamppost, as we finally drive up the out-ramp, back into open air. The aft shoreline grows shadowy, then invisible. In one swift stretch of road, we curve over the final waves and back onto land.
The book is bigger than a family Bible, and I only made it through the first chapter, the plight of the oysters.
In Cape Charles, we stay in a restored Victorian home. On one side of the house sits a similar two-story structure, weathered white and boarded up: unsound. I wouldn’t dare set feet on the rotted steps. On the other side, the same – except when we return this year, it has been bought up and is undergoing a slow face-lift. Future rental property. Two houses down, on a cluttered front porch, a grimy, damp-looking pile of blankets shifts as we walk by, and I realize a young boy has slept the night outside. Does his family know? It is a school day, midmorning.
On another street, a tall and narrow turn-of-the-century house (currently unoccupied) has settled so far into itself that it has begun to lean until it is a mere inch away from resting on its straighter-backed neighbor (currently occupied). Cape Charles’s industrial heyday has passed; we no longer need barge boats to transport railroad cars full of tomatoes and tobacco in order to get our produce and smokes from the Eastern Shore. We no longer get much of our produce or anything from the Eastern Shore. The town is now poised, waiting to see if the newer economy of art and tourism will support its people. That, and whatever the work that is done by the family of the boy on the porch.
Several years ago, I set out to read James Michener’s historical fiction tome Chesapeake. The book is bigger than a family Bible, and I only made it through the first chapter, the plight of the oysters. Everything is a potential menace for them, I learned: the ecosystem, the human neighbors, the water itself. From overharvesting to pollution runoff to changeable weather, what an uncertain life these mollusks lead in their efforts to secure a bayside homestead. How tenuous the balance that must be kept in check by every contributor to and user of these waters, in order that the oysters not be suffocated and starved out of house and home together at once. And sometimes even that is not enough.
Today, I sit on a remote, roaring stretch of Cedar Island beach. We have arrived by fishing boat. Our guide, Captain Jim, urges me to explore. Who knows what I might find? Narrow half disks of abandoned oyster lodgings, grandly spiraled whelk shells. Captain Jim tells us the flooding of Cedar Island doesn’t happen very often. But when it does, the same phenomenon that makes for faulty house foundations leaves behind long-empty sea snail homes. “Find a good one!” he says.
Instead, I claim a dune-lined strip of sand, solitary between the stormy crash of rushing ocean to my left and grassy wetland to my right. In the distance lie the beaten boards of the fallen house. At my toes, I trace a line of ridge-backed whelk shells in the sand, a black and perfect row half-buried by the ocean’s periodic stretch across this entire reach of land. Captain Jim approaches and reminds me I can bring home up to three whelk shells; in fact, he insists. I hold out my one knobbled discovery, small and mottled, undistinctive. I can tell he finds me an inferior shell seeker. I would leave even this one behind, except that I need a reminder.
“Find a good one!” he says.
As we motor through the island channel back to the mainland, I hold my shell. Our boat cuts through the waves, and I ask Captain Jim about the decline of oysters in this particular spot. “Oh, yes!” Overharvesting certainly played its part. But mostly, the waterscape hasn’t been the same since the Chesapeake-Potomac hurricane of 1933 came through. People’s livelihoods–not to mention the oysters’–were changed irrevocably. The water’s altered salinity couldn’t support sea life any longer, and eighty years later, levels still aren’t back to normal. Nothing anyone could’ve done to prevent it.
I think of the boy on the porch. We build our lives, it seems, on the narrowest speculation of possibility; we make our homes on the edge of an island on the verge of erosion. A little shift of gravity, a turn of the tide, and where will we end up? More important: who will find us sleeping outside and cover us in fresh, dry blankets?
Tomorrow, we leave the shore. Chances are the tunnel bridge will hold. Eventually, we will arrive at home.