Washington Post Chesapeake
The Chesapeake: Beauty on the Brink
Beauty of the Chesapeake
Aerial photographs reveal a breathtaking view of the Chesapeake Bay watershed -- and its fragile future.
» LAUNCH PHOTO GALLERY
By David Fahrenthold
Sunday, June 7, 2009
From a distance, the Chesapeake Bay is still beautiful enough to seize breath.
Look at it from around 3,500 feet above Tangier Island, in the
cleaned-out sunlight that follows a snowstorm. The estuary is silver and
overwhelming; the only man-made things are just flecks in the
foreground. Or follow the water upstream into Virginia, and hover a mile
and a half above the Seven Bends of the Shenandoah River's North Fork.
The scene below appears primeval: Nature is still working on an errand
as old as the Blue Ridge, making a loopy stream run straight.
These images, from Alexandria photographer Cameron Davidson, were captured during more than a decade of flying over the Chesapeake and its
watershed. They're coffee-table gorgeous, revealing a kinetic energy
and a vastness in the water that are difficult to appreciate from a
sailboat or a waterside crab house.
But the images also bear witness to the bay's vulnerability and the
fragility of its future. That's because nearly all of the shots show
signs of human intrusion: our cows fouling a country stream, our nets
trapping fish, our homes and bright-blue swimming pools colonizing a
neck of bayside land. As the bay watershed spreads, we have spread with
it and tried to make it work for us -- as a seafood pantry, as a
real-estate amenity, as a playground, as a gutter.
The bay has been around for more than 10,000 years, formed when melting
glaciers drowned a long stretch of the Susquehanna River Valley. The
Chesapeake watershed stretches over 64,000 square miles -- its arms are
big rivers such as the Susquehanna, the Potomac and the James, and its
spider web fingers extend into sweaty tidal swamps, out to the hard-rock
folds of Appalachia and up to the cold woods near Cooperstown, N.Y.
For centuries, these waters mixed with Atlantic Ocean backwash to make a
brackish estuary and an ecological superconductor. The Chesapeake was
alive with crabs, sturgeon and rockfish. Oysters grew on oysters, in
reefs so big they broke the surface of the water. The bay's bounty,
which helped sustain Native Americans for centuries, seemed endless.
Then: the rest of us.
After Europeans arrived, their axes took out the trees that served as a
natural water filter. Their ships scraped away the bay's oysters. Their
plows disturbed the earth, and then rain-water carried that earth
downstream. Bladensburg was originally a deepwater port, but by 1830 the
Anacostia River was heavy with silt for big ships.
Today's Chesapeake serves as a kind of living memory of those sins, and a
few that we're still cooking up. More than 16.5 million people now
inhabit the Chesapeake watershed. Fertilizer from our lawns, manure from
our farms and treated sewage from our cities help create oxygen-starved
"dead zones" downstream in the bay. Toxic compounds from urban areas
have been blamed for tumors on fish in the Anacostia and South rivers.
And mysterious (but assuredly man-made) pollutants are creating other
problems: Male bass in the Potomac are producing eggs, and fish in the
Shenandoah die in droves every spring.
"Our tools are better than our wisdom, and that's a tough thing to
swallow," says John Page Williams, a senior naturalist at the Chesapeake
Cameron Davidson has been shooting the Chesapeake since 1980, when he
went up in a Bell JetRanger on assignment for National Geographic to
snap photos of great blue herons living in the marshes near the Patuxent
River in Southern Maryland. He was hooked, both on aerial shooting and
on the Chesapeake as a subject. "I absolutely fell in love," Davidson
The attraction is partly artistic: At a high-enough level, the earth is
abstract expressionism. In these shots, Davidson found lazy bends and
fractal branching, plus the straight lines and corners we build
But he is also delivering a message. Hovering in the air, Davidson could
capture both the bay and its antagonists in the same long-range shot:
the polluted Patapsco River and Baltimore County's Sparrows Point steel
mill; the Elk River and a packed-in trailer park at its edge. "I can
send this to governors," he says, and make the complicated question of
what's killing the bay seem simpler.
Some fear that eventually the bay may be pushed beyond an invisible
point of no return -- that even if we finally muster the will to mend
our ways, we'll find that the crabs, oysters and underwater grasses are
so depleted that they can't return.
For now, though, there is still life in the Chesapeake and hope here on
land. The hope: a promise of greater urgency from the federal government
in overseeing the 25-year-old effort to clean up the bay, a program
with middling results. Already, state and local initiatives have managed
to bring the decimated rockfish population nearly all the way back from
the brink. The blue crab may be on the verge of a revival, too.
And the life shows in Davidson's photos of the bay in spring. Flying low
over the north shore of the James River near James-town -- near the
very spot where our long, dirty history with the Chesapeake began -- he
caught a marsh rebounding, re-creating itself, after winter. The water
is olive. The plants are emerald. Green, the color of new life, is the
From 300 feet, at least, the place looks like it's never been touched.
David Fahrenthold covers the environment for The Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.