While many are aware of the environmental challenges that the Coastal Bays watershed currently faces, the remarkable history of the area is not as often examined. Shifting Sands - Environmental and Coastal Change in Maryland's Coastal Bays not only covers in depth the obstacles that stand in the way of the health of the bays, but also provides intriguing insight into the area’s past and also its future direction. This look over time provides a unique socio-cultural perspective and rare local history which complements the scientific analysis to create a comprehensive view of the state of the watershed.
Shifting Sands begins its chronological examination in the depths of prehistory, at the close of the last ice age when the Delmarva peninsula finished its formation after being carved by glaciers. The Coastal Bays followed around 4,500 years ago when the rising sea inundated the area, and the barrier islands were formed when a subsequent fall in sea level occurred. Just as these islands and bays owe their geological origin to the sea, they owe their continued existence to it as well. Tides, sediment texture, and shoreline sediment transportation are responsible for much of both the islands’ change and constancy, though this natural process is often interrupted by modern human involvement. The early natural history of the bays is just one instance where the book combines historical and scientific information to provide a look at the relationship between the past and the promise of a healthy future.
The book moves on to cover the initial human interaction with the landscape which is now the Coastal Bays watershed. The area was first utilized as an intermittent hunting ground by Native Americans around 10,000 years ago, with permanent settlement beginning around AD 900 when maize agriculture gained prevalence. Native American tribes built small villages along the bays’ tributaries where they caught fish and gathered shellfish along the shore. Their presence is still seen in names like Assateague Island and Assawoman bay, and many artifacts have been found or remain to be found by archeological excavation. Europeans first came in contact with the area through the explorations of seafarers like Giovanni da Verrazzano and Henry Norwood, while later infamous pirates would find it a haven and asset to their exploits. The text describes how early colonists found themselves in a wilderness teeming with a great abundance of animals, from black bear and bison to wolves and cougars. This early human settlement left very little impact on the surrounding land, a trend which would be gradually reversed throughout the next centuries.
Also covered in Shifting Sands are aspects of Assateague and Ocean City that reveal the developing character and culture of the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including information on the many new inlets that formed frequently and on the once thriving Oyster industry. With increasing development due to rapid population growth the health of the area saw much decline which would not be addressed until the early environmental initiative in the wake of the Clean Water Act. Due to efforts local and national, the Coastal Bays were able to recover from harmful algal blooms and support a rebound in seagrass growth, making great headway with the ban on DDT and the bays’ membership in the National Estuary Program. The book chronicles this struggle to improve the bays which began more than thirty years ago and is still an ongoing and crucial endeavor.
Through its utilization of detailed yet clear scientific analysis and historical insight the text provides a comprehensive perspective in which to view the past and future of our relationship with the Coastal Bays watershed. Going beyond just objective and highly edifying science, the book also explores the character of the area and its noteworthy past. Shifting Sands is the quintessential guide to these once-forgotten bays and a fascinating look at their natural and cultural identity.
The above was written by Peter Andes, an intern at the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and a 2009 graduate of Stephen Decatur High School, class of 2009. He will be attending the University of Maryland Baltimore County in the fall.