Falling in Love on the Chesapeake Bay

The first time that I fell in love was on a class trip in September of 1995. I was twelve years old. The private school I attended in Washington DC had a tradition of taking the entire class on a three day camping trip at the beginning of each year. The trips were both to complement the curriculum and to create bonds among the students and the teachers at the start of the school year. In sixth grade we went to a camp in the woods where we did rope courses, ziplines, and other outdoor challenge activities. In eighth grade the class always went to Colonial Williamsburg to kickstart their study of US history. In seventh grade, our class went to the Chesapeake Bay, specifically, to Bishops Head.

chesapeake_amo_2004119In class we had learned that the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, with 64,000 square miles of water and 11,686 miles of shoreline. The ratio of its watershed to water surface area is 14:1, the largest of any coastal water body in the world. The bay is one of the most abundant ecosystems in the world, with numerous tiny coves, shallow bays, boggy marches, and a mild climate that makes it the perfect habitat and breeding ground for thousands of species of fish, shellfish, and birds. When John Smith first came to Virginia to create the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, the oyster reefs were so thick that ships could be wrecked on them, and the oyster population could filter the water of the entire bay in four days. John Smith’s paradisiacal descriptions of the Chesapeake Bay region drew many colonists to the New World. Since colonial times, people have made a living fishing and crabbing the bay, creating a culture and a way of life that have remain unchanged for centuries. We also learned that the bay is an incredibly threatened ecosystem. Its watershed contains 17 million people in the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States. Intensive agriculture dumps tons of fertilizers and pesticides into the bay each year, creating dead zones like those in the Gulf of Mexico. Only the problem is worse in the Chesapeake Bay because there is less water to dilute the pollution. Pollution has led to massive declines of aquatic vegetation (other than algae blooms) and precipitous declines in the commercial oysters and crabs. In 2008, the bay’s blue crab fishery had declined so much that it was declared a federal disaster and emergency moratoriums were put on fishing to help the crab recover. In 2012, The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which puts out a biannual report on the health of the bay, gave the bay’s health a score of D+, or 32 points out of 100, with 100 being the bay in the condition that John Smith found it four hundred years ago. The score of 32 points is a 10 percent improvement from five years ago.

At twelve, I had never been outside the urban environment. I grew up in Shanghai, China, an incomprehensibly large city that as a child I believed encompassed the whole world. When I moved to Washington DC at age nine, for the first time I saw a blue sky, a green field, and a forest in a neighborhood park. However, these were still within the confines of a major city with rapidly expanding suburbs. Having been in the United States only three years, my experience of nature, American children, and speaking English were all rather limited. I really had no idea what to expect. My main concern was finding a friend to share a bunkbed with overnight.

After jostling along for hours on the highway, the school bus took us straight to Bishops Head, an educational center in the middle of a nature preserve in the heart of the Eastern Shore. The final three miles consisted of a dirt road through marshland. No houses, no electric wires, no trees. Only waving grass, a huge sky, and glimpses of water here and there. The building itself was beautiful. Built entirely of wood right on the edge of the water, it had over 20 dormitories, a huge dining room and living room, windows that looked out on spectacular views, and an enormous porch facing the sparking water on both levels of the house. The living room contained an aquarium with seahorses, snails, oysters and crabs, a mini replica of the ecosystem in which it was in. To me it seemed like a castle in a fairytale, a beacon on a lonely and romantic shore, full of drama waiting to happen.

Even in an extremely degraded condition, the bay was crawling with life. We waded into the shallow waters by the shore, and it was surprising how shallow the waters were; we could wade five hundred feet out from the shore and the water would still only be up to our waist. The water’s visibility was low. When we cupped our hands under water and brought them up, baby crabs, seahorses, and shrimp slipped between our fingers. The bottom was so full of oysters that we couldn’t take a step without landing on one. We had to be very careful to wear shoes at all times in the water because the oysters cut our feet.

That afternoon we went marsh mucking, a hike in the pristine marshes of the nature preserve. With boots firmly fastened to our feet and bandanas on our heads, we set out upon nature itself. The firm ground quickly gave way to mud and decayed vegetation. But our intrepid leader kept going, leading us deep into the marsh. Our feet sank deeper and deeper with each step, so that we were in mud up to our knees and black water to our waists. It took a great effort to take each step, and we all fell several times into the water, until we were covered with mud, our faces smeared with it. To hell with it, we said, and smeared mud all over our arms and faces and onto each other. The taste of salt invaded our tongues as the mud got into our mouths. We grabbed sticks to help us maintain our balance. One of the boys in my group was Josh, a short, dark haired boy with remarkably delicate features and dark eyes rimmed with long curly black eyelashes. Even when the group got tired and the girls were cranky, he soldiered on at the head of the pack, stick in hand and a round brimmed hat on his head as if he were David Livingstone, as fresh and cool as if he’d just set out. “Look at this, Changxin (I was still using my impossible-to-pronounce Chinese name),” he said, pointing to a snail crawling up a stalk of marsh grass. The snail had a greenish brown shell specked with blue, and its soft body withdrew into its shell when I touched it. Josh looked at me with big brown eyes. I smiled at him.

Back at the great house, we washed off near the dock and changed into fresh clothes. Art supplies were waiting for us on the porch while a pink and orange sunset smoldered around us. We painted pictures of the sunset, the marsh, the bay, and talked of the day’s activities. Is there anything more magical than a sunset to one who had never seen it? I did not want to speak or move so that I could drink every drop of that potent elixir. The gradual blending of pink, white and blue on the horizon faded into purple night. On the water, the far off call of a swan.

stars-universe-reaching-nature-us-com-671504After dinner, we took a walk out on the marsh. Even though there were no lights, the marsh was enveloped in the hoary light of the moon and stars like an invisible lantern. Glints reflected off the grass and the path was as clear as if paved with silver.  I had never seen so many stars. They spangled the sky as if they were sprayed on, more numerous than a field of wildflowers or pebbles on the beach. Their varying luminosity created an illusion of depth, as if I was looking down into a transparent ocean and glimpsing the glowing, shimmering life forms below. We could clearly discern the big dipper descending its ladle in the west, and the Milky Way like a shimmering ribbon across the sky. I found Josh walking beside me. I don’t remember what we talked about, only that a shower of shooting stars fell during that walk. As a new immigrant,  I did not have much experience of conversing at length with my peers. For years I was extremely shy, bewildered by unfamiliar ways, and my English was not up to par. For the first three years I had no friends in school at all. Every recess, every bus ride, was an excruciating experience in being an outcast, the untouchable at the bottom of the elementary school caste system. I was given a new beginning in sixth grade when I switched schools. My English improved. I made friends. Nevertheless, when Josh talked and walked with me the entire way of that night hike, I was filled with delight from the social connection and the surreal beauty in which it took place. We looked ahead and kept up with the group, but it felt like we were alone in space, our peers disappeared and it was only the two of us, walking and talking in the night, suspended among stars and the soft sounds of the marsh. I did not really know it then, but something had changed in me. When I fell asleep that night, shooting stars fell around me like rain.

The next morning, we all got up early in order to watch the sun rise over the bay. Once again, the amazement of the sky and water fused together like a grey sheet of glass, the top of the sun peaking over the horizon, glowing brighter like a blossoming rose, its radiance mirrored off of the water, the clouds, and the mist like a million rainbows enveloping everything in light. The air calm as the birth of the world, and the landscape, with its waves, marsh, birds, and boats emerging gradually like a strain of music building up to its climax. I was aware of Josh’s presence and searched him out with my eyes, but did not approach him.

In the afternoon, our leaders took us crabbing. He showed us how to prepare the crab cages with bait. We hooked the traps onto the edge of the boat and dropped them into the bay while we took a turn on the water. The bay was dazzling, gleaming with a million drops of sun in every direction. The steady purr of the motor, the rocking motion of the boat, and the dazzle of sunlight made us feel sleepy, and soon people were napping all over the place. Josh and I were seated facing each other, and we were not sleepy. I took out my sketchbook and began to draw his face. He noticed what I was doing and also pulled out his sketchbook. Then we were drawing each other, holding our pencils up to each other’s faces as they taught us in art class, squinting and grinning. I waited for him to look at me so that I could draw his eyes. When he had looked down for some time, I said, “Josh, look up.” He lifted his eyes and looked steadily into mine. The beauty of his eyes, of him, shone full into my gaze. I gasped. I felt the force of his personality, its quiet confidence, curiosity, trust, and maturity, and something beyond him altogether, the radiance of the universe gazing back at me in all its naked splendor. Something shifted inside like a tremor, dislodging everything. A sense of falling and things happening in slow motion. Unbearable intimacy. Recognition. Desire. Like the sunrise as it emerged from the silvery void and set everything on fire, a momentous transformation that quietly subsides into an ordinary morning. I focused on my drawing and finished the sketch of his face, all eyes and eyelashes. We exchanged pictures, a solemnity between us. Our friends woke up and crowded around us to look at the pictures, admiring their likenesses, commenting on the differences, unaware of all that had transpired. The crabs were hauled up. A clicking mass of blue brown carapaces. The boat pulled up to the dock. My hand briefly in his as he helped me onto shore.

The mystical experience is said to be one of the most profound internal experiences available to human beings. Sometimes it happens after long and arduous searching; sometimes when one is not at all looking for it. But it always arises spontaneously; it cannot be willed or created. William James described it thus: “The mystical state is one of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.” Even though it cannot be willed, it can be prepared for, cultivated, invited. Being in nature, as well as in prayer and meditation, is the most likely precursor of a mystical experience.

Like the mystical experience, the experience of falling in love cannot be forced, though there are situations which make it more likely to happen. And when it happens, it is always a startling state of knowledge which one can never refute afterwards. While it can happen in the urban hussle and bustle, the coldness and formality of modern structures, or the barren repetition of the suburbs, for me it has always been more likely in nature. Among the elements of air, water, sunlight, and green growing things, we shake off our stupor and emerge from our shells. The sense of wonder, a delight at being alive, shines in our eyes, and we perceive each other, not with our usual petty associations, but in our most innocent guise. Both the lover and the beloved are changed: the lover is transformed into an exquisite receptiveness, and the beloved into a more vital version of himself. Out on the Chesapeake Bay, among the sparkling water, open sky, fresh air and salt spray, it was as easy to fall in love as it was for a swan to swim when it comes to the water.

Nature heightens our awareness. It is necessary for love, that most vital of emotions. It is by definition authentic, meaning it makes no attempt to appear in any way that it is not. Yet we seem bent on destroying the places and the environments where love could blossom. We live most of our lives confined to dark, poorly ventilated interiors and surround ourselves with electronic gadgets. We are full of cautious reserve towards each other. Instead of exchanging glances, we exchange text messages.

Could we really fall in love without nature to open our perception and kindle our senses? Could we be who we really are in the artificiality of cities and its reminders of our cultural restrictions and responsibilities? We cannot fall in love with the constructed, polished, public versions of one another; love requires that we reveal who we really are, in the authenticity of our feelings, both light and dark. We long to see each other unassociated, vulnerable, as fresh as the day we were born, and as uninhibited as a swan driven to migration by instinct. If we destroy nature, do we not also destroy our ability to love? Would we become as drab and lovable as the inanimate objects we interact with?

Because I was an awkward, neurotic teenager, nothing came of that moment with Josh except obsession and much blundering on my part. Yet that moment, and others like it, stand out above all the other moments of my life.  These were the moments when the beauty of nature coincided with the beauty of a person to kindle love and illumination: wandering the shore of Brittany with Junko, her dainty feet scampering over the rocks and bending over to examine the seaweeds; Edgar amidst the colors of a New England fall, his eyes rapt with wonder; walking with Hisashi in a sea of daffodils in Oxford, their scent as golden as his spirit; moments brushed with radiance where I felt the most tender and expansive love. With the dearth of time and nature on our hands in modern society, they come far and few between, but are treasured forever.

Last fall I had a chance to revisit the Chesapeake Bay. It had been more than ten years since I’d been there. It seemed as if nothing had changed on the bay. The waters were still murky grey, the landscape was still dominated by farms and marshes, very flat and brown. There was more development on the Eastern Shore. But the bay was no longer a thriving fishery like it had been in its hay day. Places like Smith Island were dying from unemployment as well as erosion caused by climate change. Yet it was still the place of open skies and unruffled waters. I was reminded of a random study that concluded that the vast majority of human beings prefer savanna landscapes over other types of scenery, a psychological remnant of our African ancestry. The landscape of the Chesapeake Bay, with its alternating vistas of prospect and refuge and balmy atmosphere, feels like a primordial home.

I traced my life back to this place. Here was where I first fell in love in nature, with nature. Here was the origin of my passion for conservation–the paper I chose to write on nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay for my undergraduate environmental chemistry class, my degree in environmental management, my career in sustainability. I had never identified much with the business case for sustainability, of managing a resource to ensure future output, cost savings and ecosystem services. To me it was simple: have you been out in the fields, alone or with someone you love? Have you wanted to feel more than your ordinary self? If we want more love, then let us also have more nature. Let us have more authenticity and simplicity in our lives. Let us remember that the fight to preserve nature is the fight to preserve our humanity, wherever you may be.

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