Sunday, April 09, 2006

Thoughts on Virginia

I apologize for not posting sooner, but I was preparing for my trip to the Eastern Shore of Virginia (I am writing this overlooking the water, watching a scallop boat come in).

If you’ve never traveled to the Eastern Shore, it is a beautiful place, especially Assateague Island National Seashore, a barrier island that runs between Maryland and Virginia where wild ponies still roam and you can photograph 10,000 snow geese taking off together. Assateague is probably best known for Marguarite Henry’s wonderful story for children, Misty of Chincoteague, a descendent from one of the ponies who, according to local legend, swam ashore following the wreck of a Spanish galleon in the 1600s. (The ocean and bays of the Eastern Shore are littered with wrecks of every type, from old wooden sailing ships to sunken German U-boats, and more recently, a fishing vessel that sunk over the winter in a gale.)

Each year, during the last week of July, the Chincoteague Fire Department, who is legally responsible for maintaining the pony herd, swims them across the channel from Assateague. Thousands of people come from all over the world to watch this event, and the week culminates in an auction of the yearlings.
These yearlings sell for tens of thousands of dollars sometimes, as buyers are willing to pay a premium for the privilege of owning a descendent of Misty.
Also notable is Assateague Light, one of the last remaining double-walled lighthouses in the world. No lighthouse or light station has been manned for years, and the ones that still are lit are automated (with GPS being so readily available, the lighthouses that are operational are there more for their romance and history than their use as a navigation aid).

Assateague Light was transferred in June 2004 from the U.S. Coast Guard to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The Chincoteague Natural History Association (CNHA) is now trying to raise a quarter-of-a-million dollars to paint her. I had the privilege of being the last visitor in the lighthouse before it closed last season, and I can attest to the fact that she needs the attention. If you wish to contribute to this worthy effort, please do so by contacting them at (757) 336-3696, and please mention that I sent you (there is nothing in it for me other than to let them know I care). It would be a shame to see this magnificent lighthouse go the way of many others, as they are an important part of our country’s seafaring heritage.

While you are on the Eastern Shore, do take the time to visit Chincoteague, a charming little island between Assateague and the mainland whose quiet existence is threatened by the erection of three-story condominiums and townhouses on the waterfront. Some of the current residents are disconcerted that their waterfront view, which remained unfettered for decades, is being jeopardized, causing their property values to fall (if the truth be told, since folks from New York and D.C. have started buying up properties to use as vacation and weekend homes, prices have risen astronomically over the past couple of decades). The island would greatly benefit from local regulations that would slow development by defining what can be built and where. In the end, big money talks, and property owners who want to make a fast profit are erecting pressboard boxes or selling their waterfronts to those who would.

The channel between Chincoteague and the mainland is spanned by one of the few remaining swing bridges. This bridge, complete with a bridge tender who opens and closes the bridge to allow commercial fishing vessels to leave and enter the channel, is wonderfully photogenic, but it takes time to open and close a swing bridge, and when traffic backs-up a few blocks on Main Street, something must be done. It appears that this piece of history will be gone in 2007 and a 4,035' two-lane bridge
will take its place. This bridge will completely circumvent the downtown shops and restaurants along Main Street, and the old bridges that have served the island since 1939/40.

Yes, progress is a good thing, but not in every case. This island that was once a sleepy little fishing community may well turn into another Rockport (an artists community on the Maine coast). I had the privilege of teaching for two weeks each year at The Maine Workshops, now just called The Workshops. The residents would tell me how much they resented the “big city people” buying up property because they liked the quaintness and charm of the old textile mill town, but just as quickly objecting to the lack of big city convenience. When this sort of behavior was tolerated, things begin to change, and her charm and quaintness began to fade. It is not that skyscrapers were built, mind you, but the community has a whole different tenor than it did 15 years ago (and before anyone takes me to task, I spent the greater part of my life around New York City, so I know of which I speak).

It is my hope that Chincoteaguers realize that, if they fail to pay attention, these very same things will eventually all but erase the culture they have known and loved in Virginia.

In my next blog, I will write specifically about where I am shooting on the islands (and where you can too).

1 comment:

  1. I live on chincoteague and until I moved here had spent my vacations there for many years. I would rather live without Starbucks and conveniences than have any more changes here. It does appear that there are few discussion regarding the impact of development here.