The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Thursday, September 19, 2002
ISLAND AUTONOMOUS ZONE: I've been reading a lovely book, off and on, for the last few weeks, picking it up and putting it down between other literary foods. It's
An Island Out of Time, by Tom Horton: part history, part anthropology, part journalism, part lyric poem. Its subject is Smith Island, an isolated trio of waterman villages in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, which I visited last month.

I bring it up here because, in over 300 years of continuous settlement, the island's residents have never seen fit to set up a government. There are no cops, no jails, and no compulsory city taxes; public goods are provided informally or through the local Methodist Church, which is the closest the island has to a governing body. (I suppose this makes it paleolibertarian.) The only exception I know of is a small school operated by the county. There used to be a second school, but a few years ago they shut it down.

Not that the state has no presence. The local crabbers and oystermen and terrapin-hunters -- virtually all self-employed -- are full of disdain for outside regulators, whose efforts to preserve Chesapeake species and otherwise exert their authority have fallen far more heavily on the independent watermen than on recreational crabbers or on the larger corporate fishing/crabbing/etc. operations elsewhere in the Bay. There's a lot of disdain for environmentalists, too, despite the locals' considerable appreciation for their environment: Thanks to the aforementioned regulatory battles, enviros tend to be regarded as well-salaried yuppies with no appreciation for the ways their rules affect the watermen.

Most of Smith Island consists of marshes, and is thus uninhabitable. Rona and I spent two nights in Tylerton, population circa 70, which can only be accessed from the other villages via the water. The other two towns are Ewell (the largest of the three, with a couple hundred residents and a small tourist trade) and Rhodes Point (which is run-down and arguably dying); to get to them from Tylerton, we had to paddle over on a canoe. There are no cars in Tylerton, though many of the locals drive golf carts. There are a few cars in the other two villages, which are connected by a one-mile road. They tend to be old junkers and are outnumbered by the aforementioned golf carts.

I don't mean to make the place sound like it's cut off from modern consumerist ways. Satellite dishes are plentiful, and I'm told that packaged food is popular, too, perhaps because even the tastiest local seafood (and it's quite tasty indeed) gets tiresome if you've been working with it all day. The work is tough, and if it's not as backbreaking as it used to be, there is now the added pain of watching the island's way of life slowly die.

It's hard to get to Smith Island -- it's a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland, and not the most easily accessible part of the mainland at that. But if you can't visit, you can still read Horton's book, which I recommend highly. Radio populists will especially enjoy the chapter called "VHF," on the strange and lovely world of marine radio. "Think of it, compared to normal communication, as a military bugle is to popular music. But in the crab boats, kitchens, and shanties of islanders, the VHF is a non-stop jam session, a giant party line, open to anyone with a radio, which out here is absolutely everyone. Across the ether of mid-Chesapeake flows a quixotic, rambunctious stream of consciousness, blends of earthy humor, religion, everybody's and nobody's business, to a background of sea gulls mewing and diesel engines rumbling."

posted by Jesse 10:55 PM
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