Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Tidal Marshes & Oil

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Tonging oysters in the Chesapeake Bay near Norfolk, Virginia

I’m angered and saddened as I watch the oil staining the Gulf coast, blackening the beaches and wetlands, suffocating the marine life and shore birds.  Though I’m not from the Gulf, I feel connected to life around the water.   I grew up in Virginia’s Tidewater region—an area very similar to the Louisiana coast.  As a kid, I spent summers crabbing at Lynnhaven Inlet, or fishing in the ocean from Harrison’s Pier.  The bounty of the sea seemed unlimited.

My love of coastal regions was strengthened by an early National Geographic assignment on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina.  The Sea Islands are surrounded by coastal marshes, and isolated from the mainland by wide creeks.  Each summer, thick grey clouds of mosquitoes rise from the marshes to feed.  Working on that story, I used insect repellant for the first time in my life, though I was still covered with itchy red welts much of the time.

On these isolated islands, the unique Gullah culture survived.  Descendants of African slaves, the Gullah preserved some of the crafts, traditions and language of their ancestors.  Yet all that was quickly changing.  The islands were becoming popular resort destinations.  New roads and bridges allowed easy travel to the various islands, effectively blending them with the mainland. My assignment was to explore what remained of the Gullah culture.

As I worked there, I began living like a Sea Islander, my days shaped by the rhythm of the sea and the seasons.  The summer was for crabbing and shrimping.  Oystering was for the fall and winter.  To capture the pictures I needed, I learned to follow the tides.  On their rise and fall, the fishing and shrimping boats went out and came back.

At low tide, a boy hunts the muddy marsh flats for crabs and shrimp stranded in pools of water

When the tide was in, people on shore netted fish.  When the tide was out, sure-footed children ran onto the mud flats, picking up stranded shrimp and scurrying crabs and putting them in plastic buckets.  I noticed that they only took a few creatures—not more than their family would eat that day.  Camera in hand, I followed them, but quickly learned that on the tidal flats, you need to be small, skinny and quick.  Within minutes I started sinking deeper and deeper into the dense mud.   When I was up to my knees, I told myself that sometimes, it was best to wait for the scene to come to me.   I was too big and slow to keep up with the children, who clearly enjoyed watching the photographer trying to keep her gear from getting muddy while attempting to pry herself out of the mud.  Thank God my shoelaces were tied in double knots.

I ate often with the families that I photographed.  On Wadmalaw Island, I had shrimp and grits for breakfast, shrimp sandwiches for lunch and fried shrimp for dinner.  There was shrimp gumbo, seafood casserole, creamed shrimp and something called Frogmore stew—shrimp cooked with sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob.  Like that character in Forest Gump, I didn’t know shrimp could be served so many different ways, each one fresh, tender and sweet.

Shrimpers working off Hilton Head South Carolina unload their catch onto the deck of their boat

Shrimp caught off Hilton Head South Carolina

Daufuskie Island was special for me. Here, crab was king.   I was practically raised on crabs and have been known to eat a dozen crabs and still want more. My favorite was deviled crab, which resembled a crab cake without any breading, served on the cooked shell.  Every day, boatloads of tourists landed on Daufuskie looking for that delectable dish.

The summers were far from lazy on the islands.  People were always busy, gardening, fishing, trapping and canning for the winter.  The year I was there set a record for the longest continuous number days over 100 degrees with nearly 100 percent humidity. My skin was covered in a layer of moisture that never evaporated, even in my air-conditioned motel room.  Still, I knew I had to be a southerner because I felt comforted by that hot, damp weather.  I didn’t mind that my damp sticky shirt stuck to my damp sticky skin.  Extreme weather makes me aware that I’m living and surviving in my environment.

There is a rhythm in this region that I became part of.  Each humid day ended with a brilliant red sunset.  Magnified in the thick air, the sun seemed to take up the entire sky.  Hanging there the sun was a visual lullaby, telling me to slow down, to appreciate the moment before the evening arrived.  I loved every minute of my time in the Sea Islands.

A resident of Johns Island South Carolina casts his net for fish and shrimp in one of the islands rivers

As I traveled with watermen through the tidal marshes, I could see how rich these islands were with life.  They provided refuge for the small creatures living among the sea grasses, allowing them to reproduce and mature.   Mussels, oysters, marsh periwinkles, shrimp, fiddler crabs, snails, and worms were all nurtured here, many becoming food for the schools of fish swimming up the waterways, animals forging the marsh, shore birds hunting in the shallow waters and humans living on the shores.

In this low-lying region, sea and land were closely connected, boundaries washed away by the daily tides.  I’m drawn to areas like the Sea Islands, where life has adapted to a special kind of geography.  Trees have learned to live in brackish water.  In the branches of those same trees, plants live symbiotically, grabbing moisture and nutrients from the air.  Wetland areas like the Sea Islands or the Louisiana coast are the foundation of life.

Today, seeing how millions of gallons of oil leaking into the Gulf are damaging the rich productive marshlands of Louisiana, I have to wonder just what were we thinking.  I think of the Gullah oystermen and shrimpers I photographed, knowing how dependent they were on the sea.   I can only imagine the sadness and fear the watermen living along the Gulf Coast must feel as they see their livelihood vanish but also see their partners in the marsh, the seabirds, the dolphins, turtles and other creatures living there struggle to survive.  I cannot help but think that people who depend on the sea as much as the creatures with which they share it, must watch a pelican covered with oil, and see themselves in that bird.

Our lust for oil is so insatiable that we risked one of our richest food sources by drilling in the waters of that region—not with just one or two rigs but with hundreds.  The odds of an accident may be low, but it did happen and the damage is catastrophic.  The seas grasses that incubate the life found in and around the marshes cannot stop the oil from snuffing out all life in it’s path.  No amount of money will bring back the life taken away by that brown, thick, sticky goo.  It may take decades for the earth to recover from the damage caused by just one accident.

Sea Island men harvest oysters on Lemon Island

The marshes are like a breadbasket, protecting and nourishing an astonishing amount of life in their sheltering grasses.  This protein, easily reached, is an often under-appreciated bounty.  Since my blog also deals with food, I’m including a couple of simple recipes.


Steamed Shrimp

I usually like to eat my seafood as plain as possible. Nothing can beat shrimp steamed in a mix of half vinegar (or beer) and water with a healthy dose of Old Bay Seasonings. The key is not to overcook.  As soon the shell turns pink and it starts to curl, I take it off the stove.  Then peel and eat.

Crab Norfolk

There crabmeat dish is so simple it’s like eating it plain.  Chesapeake or east coast Blue crab is the best one to use for this dish.  Imported crabmeat does not have the sweetness or texture of crabs from the east coast of the United States.  I used to make this all the time when I lived in Norfolk, but with lump crabmeat now sitting at 30 dollars a pound, this is now a rare treat.

-1 stick of butter (you can use less, but the crab should be coated and not swimming in the butter)

-1 lb of lump crabmeat

-4 Tablespoons of vinegar (You can adjust for taste. I like the flavor of vinegar)

-Sprinkle of Paprika  (I usually skip this, as I don’t like red color on my crabmeat)

Take half the butter, and melt in a medium size pan over medium heat.  Add the crabmeat and top with the remaining butter.  Sprinkle vinegar over it.  Sauté quickly.  Try not to break up the lumps.  Cook until the vinegar evaporates.  Sprinkle the paprika and serve from the pan.

One Response

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  1. Wow, great pictures!


    July 5, 2010 at 9:47 pm

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