Shifting sands and ship bones


PARRAMORE ISLAND, Va. -- It was just about a century ago when the wooden sailing vessel Esk and her crew of 14 loaded a cargo of guano somewhere in the Caribbean and shaped a course for Wachapreague.

The guano, intended as fertilizer for the farms of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, never arrived. Neither did the crew. But the Esk was more persistent. Several years later, long after she had been given up for lost, she came wallowing ashore here on a stormy night, driving onto the beach near the Coast Guard's Parramore Island lifesaving station.

It must have been a fearful sight. The hulk, freed by the waves from whatever offshore bar had claimed her, still had stumps of broken masts. Broken lines trailed in the surf. But no one was aboard, and no one ever learned what had befallen her as she had made her way toward Wachapreague Inlet.

She's still here today, a few hundred yards south of where she struck, lying amid the ruins of what a year or two ago was a pine forest on the barrier island's undulating shore. The lifesaving station is gone, although at dead low tide parts of its foundation can be seen offshore. Eventually the bones of the Esk, its massive hull timbers and the steel ribs which secured them, will be gone too.

Ocean City politicians, civil engineers, shorefront real-estate speculators and others with a stake in the status quo like to talk about "beach stabilization." They believe earth-moving equipment and the federal budget represent ultimate power. But you might as well talk about stabilizing fog, or human emotions. Beaches, especially on barrier islands, are hardly more stable than the sea that constantly reshapes them.

The outer beach at Parramore, an uninhabited 12-mile-long island owned for the moment by the Nature Conservancy, is in one sense a monument to the ocean's destructiveness. The waves eat away dunes, kill tall loblolly pines that may be a century old, then topple them into the surf. Soon, one thinks, the entire island will be gone and the sea will be racing across the bays and marshes to attack the mainland.

But no. Parramore and islands like it aren't vanishing, they're only moving. West of the island, sand is accumulating. First it makes a beach, then a marsh, then a high marsh, then something like upland, where cedars and loblollies grow. The islands are much more stable and enduring than the buildings occasionally erected on them by people seeking stability.

Many who walk these beaches, or the trails through the loblollies, or who poke around in the creeks and marsh guts in small boats, find the islands spiritually reassuring. There is a sense of permanence here in the cycle of the seasons. There is change, even chaotic change, but because it is all so predictable it seems orderly, as though planned and ordained by higher authority.

Right now, mid-April, the islands are teeming with nesting birds, while other migrants are moving out or passing through. Loons are still here, but almost ready to leave. The American oystercatchers are back, inspecting nest sites -- just shallow scrapes on beaches or piles of shell. Terns and gulls are doing the same. Flights of dunlin and other shorebirds wheel, all together, and then land at the water's edge.

Flounder and other fish are moving back into the shallow bays. Every day the grasses in the marsh are greener than the day before. On a warm still day mosquitos rise in little clouds and attract the barn swallows, which have just arrived. Everywhere there is life and richness, sex and fighting, frantic consumption and sudden death.

There is a kind of permanence underlying all this action, it's true, but underneath the permanence there is another kind of change. Only 15,000 years ago, just a wink in time, there were no islands here, and no ocean in view. What would come to be called the Atlantic was 30 or 40 miles away to the east, beyond a flat coastal plain.

That was near the end of the last Ice Age, and boreal forests covered the plain. Mammoths, musk oxen and prehistoric horses were found there too. There was no Chesapeake Bay, only a great river running down from the glacier-covered north. But when the climate warmed, the ice melted and the seas rose, covering the coastal plain at the rate of one to five miles a century.

Now Parramore and the other islands are the mainland's fringe. If the world gets warmer, they'll eventually be flooded. If the ice returns, as geology suggests is probably more likely, they'll be islands no longer, just bumps on another great plain -- silent reminders, like the bones of the Esk, that stability is only an illusion.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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