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Notes from Smith Island

Our introduction to Smith Island, Maryland was the eponymous cake. The story that came with it — accessible only by boat, sparsely populated, bird sanctuary — put it on the (long) list of places we’ll see and things we’ll do once we stop dealing with diapers, where it languished until the news of the island’s impending demise reminded us that the collective we have been out of diapers for years now, and it was the summer break, and we didn’t have anything planned for the coming weekend, and unlike 10 years ago there were now AirBnB listings, and before the day was done we had a one-night stay booked in Tylerton, One thing I realized — and I really didn’t need to go to the island for that, looking at a map would have been enough — was that a more appropriate name would have been Smith Islands. You not only need a boat to get there from the mainland, but also to jump from village to village, since the island is criss-crossed with canals. the smaller and more isolated of the three island communities.

This plaque will great you in Ewell, the largest of the three communities.

Plaque about the Smith Island Cake: "Procclamied Maryland state desert in 2008, the 8–10 layer cake has been a tradition on this island since ca. 1900."

And… yes, the demise is near, but not (only) because of climate change. There has been an exodus of people my age and younger from the island, which now has a population one tenth of what it was in the 1990s, comprised for the most part of people 60 and above.

House on Smith Island, left side is older and crumbling with a political and religious slogan sprayed on, right side seems newer but unfinished. The yard is swampy, even just beneath the house. The house seems abandoned, though the political slogan on the left would suggest otherwise. Note that it would be submerged if it weren't on brick stilts.

Most of what is left is beautiful — political slogans for the 2020 elections of the kind you would expect on the Eastern Shore notwithstanding — but the crumbling, abandoned houses whose backyards have turned into swamps are impossible to miss. In a place so overwhelmed by nature humans have to work extra hard just to keep things as they were, and while Smith Islanders have been working hard, there is just fewer and fewer of them around.

Which is a shame, because the island has been continuously populated since the 17th century and if anything humanity has more technology and more resources now to continue this unique culture. Hasn’t the Netherlands successfully fought the Atlantic ocean, never mind the quiet waters of the Chesapeake? But the Dutch have nowhere else to go, whereas there is plenty of space left in North America. Smith Island wouldn’t be the first one in Maryland to be abandoned.

But while it’s there, do go and see it. Bring bug spray. Bring cash. Bring more of both than you would have thought reasonable for a short stay. Don’t plan on walking outside much, unless that bug spray you bring is really good. If you own a boat, bring that too and don’t be reliant on the once-per-day ferry. If you don’t own a boat make sure to call captain Eddie Corbin to help you around and show you the nesting brown pelicans. And get a story ready for your kids when they see a seagull kill and eat a few of the young from the nest in front of their eyes. Like, isn’t nature grand? or some such. With or without a boat, get a Smith Island cake from Ms. Mary Ada Marshall, either directly or from the only store in town, which will also have the best soft shell crab sandwich you’ve ever had, and the best crab cake outside of Baltimore’s Faidley’s.

There is more violence on this beach than the photo would suggest.

Seagull flying in front of a group of brown pelicans with their young.

But seriously, have that bug spray with you.

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