'A step back in time' on Smith Island


A ride on the ferry across the Chesapeake Bay from Crisfield to Smith Island takes about 40 minutes, but the time elapsed can seem like 40 years.

Tourists take the ferry over from the Eastern Shore, eat lunch, hop on a bus for the tour of the 8-mile-long island, stop at the gift shop and then catch the ferry back in the evening.

But if you want to get to know the people, many of whom are descendants of the settlers who arrived in 1657, don't expect to do it in a day, a week or even a year. A fine way to learn about the place without imposing is to read "The Private World of Smith Island," by Baltimore author and photographer Sally Foster (Cobblehill, $14.99, ages 8-12).

"I like to go back in time, and Smith Island is one of those places where life hasn't changed very much," Ms. Foster said. "It reminded me of the Amish." Her 1987 book on the Amish, "Where Time Stands Still," is now out of print.

For her new book, Ms. Foster made five trips to the island over the course of two summers, staying two or three days at a time. She went out crabbing with watermen five times, getting to the docks by 3:30 a.m. so she could chronicle their day on the bay.

The result is a photo essay that captures the cadences and quirks of a culture that may not exist in another generation or two. Ms. Foster lets readers see it for themselves and doesn't let interpretation interfere with her keen powers of observation.

For example, instead of writing that the island's community of 450 people tends to be insular, she gives us this interview with Edward Jones, a decoy carver, about the language of Smith Island:

"If we see a boat and say, 'Well, she ain't pretty none,' that means she's pretty. A stranger gets mixed up on people talking around here. We do it a lot on these islands. Everyone around here knows what you mean. A fellow hits some crabs and another knows about it and says, 'I ain't a-going there tomorrow.' "

Instead of simply saying that the Smith Islanders are a proud, self-reliant bunch, Ms. Foster introduces us to Jon David Bradshaw, the great-great grandson of a waterman. He is learning from his father the carpentry and plumbing skills needed to build a new crab float -- a wooden holding tank filled with salt water for soft crabs.

One quibble with the book: There are no women portrayed. We learn only that wives get up before 3 a.m. to make breakfast and pack lunch for the watermen.

But we do get to meet kids, such as the three youngsters who go "minnering." They stuff bread into empty mayonnaise jars, tie strings around the necks of the jars and then toss them out into shallow water. "Minner, minner, come catch your dinner," they chant, reeling in the jars in hopes of finding minnows inside.

Troy Brimer, 9, is one of those youngsters. He serves as the book's unofficial tour guide; we later go with him and his dad on their boat "scraping" for peeler crabs. The scrapes -- huge cylindrical nets -- are dragged along the shallow bottom to scoop up soft crabs in the sea grasses.

Foster uses quotes, descriptions and wonderful color photographs to provide a primer on soft crabs (the differences between rank peelers, busters, buckrams and green ones) and crabbing.

But she never strays far from the personalities that bring the book to life.

"I had done the book on the Amish, and they were skittish as all get-out," Ms. Foster said. "The people on the island are friendly and nice, but they're a little guarded, especially when you're trying to do a book.

"Any time you're nosing around, asking questions and taking photographs, people are a little skittish. . . . It is a tight-knit community. Word travels very quickly."

Still, she earned the confidence of several islanders. Willard Laird admits that he hopes his son will not follow him out on the water.

"Way oysters have been for the last four or five years, you can't make any money anymore," Mr. Laird says. "I have no choice. This is all I know. I like it. I'm my own boss. . . . I can't save anything, though."

Ms. Foster, a Baltimore native, lives in Roland Park. Her journalistic skills were honed at the late, great Baltimore News American, where she worked for 2 1/2 years as a feature writer after graduating from Bennington College.

She served two years in the Peace Corps in Rio de Janeiro and later worked in the Peace Corps office in Washington. Her resume also includes a stint in the Frontier Nursing program in Kentucky and several years as a free-lance writer and photographer for everything from Maryland Magazine to National Geographic.

In addition to "Smith Island," and "Where Time Stands Still," her books include "A Pup Grows Up," a fun introduction to 14 different breeds of dogs (15 if you count the mutt), and "Simon Says . . . Let's Play," a collection of traditional children's games that was inspired by her time with the Amish.

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