Bay Migrations

Ditch banks and road ends, straight guts and Delmarva bays. Rural forms show how people live with climate change in the Chesapeake marshlands.

Guard Shore, Virginia
Guard Shore, Virginia. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Start at the Guard Shore, where a small scrap of beach juts out into the Pocomoke Sound of the Chesapeake Bay. On one side of the parking lot, chunks of concrete debris protect a sandy point just large enough for a truck to turn around, as evidenced by the tire tracks half erased by the high tide. A thousand feet away, the beach ends at a stone groin, a construction that seems to belong to another time. Just offshore are the oyster leases and eelgrass beds. Inland, a salt marsh extends for more than a mile, featuring all gradients of cordgrass, saltgrass, needlerush, and phragmites, moving with the tides and winds. The shore is a thin spit of sand between vast expanses: grass on one side, water on the other, sky above. A narrow road cuts through the marsh, following the sandy, curved rim of a Delmarva bay, a relic landform from the last ice age, high ground that will be last to slip beneath the water as sea levels rise.

Climate change, infrastructure, adaptation, resilience. Abstractions. These are analytical frames, sanctioned by science, used by planners and engineers and academics to describe coastal futures. As professors of landscape architecture, we come from that world and appreciate the power of these concepts. Yet we are also aware of their limits, how frustratingly little they say about the making of homes and livelihoods amidst environmental change. Studies of climate adaptation often focus on coastal cities, where hundreds of millions of lives are at risk, but it’s also important to understand the rural landscapes where climate realities are negotiated — and have been for a very long time.

So we’ve come to Accomack County, Virginia, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Population 31,500 (and shrinking); average elevation 16 feet (same). This is a young landscape changing fast. Only three thousand years ago, rising seas finished flooding the valley of the lower Susquehanna River, shaping the present outline of the Bay. 1 Humans before and since have modified the edges, and in recent centuries they have done so while contending with another powerful abstraction — real estate. An 1851 map from the U.S. Coast Survey says there used to be a home at the Guard Shore, but there’s no trace of it now. 2 The nearest building is a mile away, along the road to the mainland. That house site was on the 1851 map, too, but not the road. Back then, the two properties were connected directly to the commons — the Bay itself.

U.S. Coast Survey Map from 1851, Guard Shore, Virginia
Guard Shore, Virginia. Detail from the U.S. Coast Survey, “Pocomoke Sound, from Guilford Creek to Messongo Creek, Virginia” (1851).

Satellite view of the Guard Shore, Virginia
Satellite view of the Guard Shore, two miles west of Winterville, Virginia. [Google Earth]

Stories about how people have arranged and maintained this commons are recorded in the landforms they created. In the ditches that drained the marshes of Accomack County, we see an effort to bind time for a while, to make home in a place where everything must move. Building docks, making roads, clearing fields, moving soil: what early U.S. settlers called improvement came to be called development, as land was reconceived first as property, then as real estate. For the past century, development has been the organizing principle for land, institutions, and societies around the world. But now it is being overtaken by another force — migration — that characterizes the fates of plants and animals, human settlements, and the assemblies they are part of, as whole landscapes move in response to sea level rise, atmospheric warming, shifts in hydrological regimes, and the changing needs and norms of people. Migration can be understood broadly as “patterned movement across space and time.” 3 But wherever lives and livelihoods are deeply inscribed in the landscape, any definition of migration must also include a concept of home. When people migrate, home moves with them. 4

Stories about how people have arranged and maintained this commons are recorded in the landforms they created.

This is what makes the Chesapeake marshlands so interesting. Here, lives and landscapes have been powerfully shaped by climate-induced migration for a long time. As Ina Richter observes, early modern practices like mapping, occupation, subsistence farming, indentured and enslaved labor, community-building, colonization, cultural production, and exploitation are but recent notes in a history of human habitation stretching back at least 12,000 years. 5 Seas have risen about 100 feet in that time, 6 and geological change has been accompanied by seismic shifts in human culture, technology, and population, including the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s. Maps show that some 500 islands have disappeared; only a handful are still habitable today. The migratory imperative challenges the fictions of improvement and development that have dominated certain strains of United States environmental mythology. 7

What does this history offer to a contemporary discourse around climate change, displacement, and adaptation? What lessons does the Chesapeake hold about our collective responsibility for a more just future? One way to think about these questions is to explore the marks people have made. In this essay, we look at four vernacular landforms commonly found on the Bay side of the Eastern Shore, attending to the cultural, ecological, aesthetic, and agricultural webs they are part of. Ditch banks, straight guts, duck ponds, road ends. These forms bring us closer to the matters at hand.

Satellite view of Pocomoke Sound
A rainbow of browns on Pocomoke Sound, with a Delmarva bay at the center of the frame. [Google Earth]

Ditch Banks

A satellite view of the Pocomoke Sound betrays a rainbow of browns, a vast and subtle landscape that begins bayside of the forest. It has a moody allure, at least as much atmosphere as ground. The marshland is inscrutable. Whether the surface is technically land or water depends on the time of day — is the tide up or down? That is a leading indicator. Look closer. Now you can discern the little tree lines and water channels that criss-cross the marsh. Once you see them, they are everywhere — the long, low bits of marshland tracery known colloquially as ditch banks. They inhere in a simple symmetry between cut and fill: a ditch to drain away the water, bordered by an embankment to keep storm waves at bay; about a yard deep and a yard high, respectively. There are hundreds of miles of ditch banks throughout the Chesapeake. They were not designed by engineers or landscape architects; no permits were filed in their construction; they do not appear in coastal resilience plans. 8 They are not part of the official spatial story.

Farms could be successful at a small scale, if they were tied into a ditching system that both reinforced and transgressed property boundaries.

At first glance, the form seems obvious and uninspiring. But as in a good marsh painting by Martin Johnson Heade, or an ocean drawing by Vija Celmins, there is a lot going on. In the decades before the Civil War, farmers and laborers, often indentured or enslaved, drained the spongy and variable soils rimming the Chesapeake Bay so they could be turned to agricultural production. The soft loamy soil was worked easily by a one-horse plow, and, mixed with a small amount of fertilizer, it supported a wide range of subsistence and commodity crops. 9 This meant that farms could be successful at a small scale, with minimal capital costs, if they were tied into an interconnected ditching system that both reinforced and transgressed property boundaries. Ditching was an early act of settlement, and a necessary commoning.

What you can’t see from the aerial view is that saturation is a horizontal phenomenon. After a hard rain, the ground takes on a different character. Furrows of fields, ditches along roads, low areas in anyone’s yard: they are transformed by a shimmer of standing water. Tidal surges reach far inland, connecting the commons of the Bay to the commonly-held concern of those on dry land. Under the colonial system, taking ownership of that land meant giving the water a way out. To grow sweet potatoes and strawberries, or white potatoes and corn, farmers needed salinity and saturation to drop below a certain level. Labor brought the soils into something commensurate. This work was grueling, and its completion put the landscape into a relationship with marketable agricultural practices and products. 10

Ditches north of Messongo Creek, Virginia. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Digital elevation model of the Messongo Creek area
Digital elevation model of the Messongo Creek area, with ditches shown as red lines. [Marantha Dawkins]

Ditch banks along Messongo Creek. [Google Earth]

The act of ditching was thus closely tied to logics of settlement and landownership. In 1794 and 1807, the two counties on Virginia’s Eastern Shore (Accomack and Northampton) passed laws that allowed property owners to dig drainage ditches through adjacent lands, if advised by an independent inspector. 11 Where negotiations failed to create a neighborly commons, a begrudging one was installed through force of law. An 1839 entry in the Farmers’ Register records one Maryland owner making an impassioned case for the virtues of embanking marshlands so they could be used to pasture animals. He called for a massive state project, on the belief that improving the land, or converting it to productive use, was a “service to mankind,” required on moral grounds. 12 (This settler ideology would be inscribed at the federal level in the Swamp and Overflowed Land acts passed between 1848 and 1860.) Embanking, and the investment it required, were held up as evidence that the land rights of White settlers superseded those of “savage nations who mix no labor with the soil, but depend upon the spontaneous fruits of the earth.” 13 The farmer argued that Indigenous people were “justly expelled” by those who would transform the land using “the axe, the mattock, and the rifle.” 14 In the ditches those mattocks carved, this violent assertion takes landscape form. Although a state project never materialized, the practice of ditch-banking was widely adopted, and the property claims it underwrote are legible as subtle vertical shifts that mark the horizontal expanse.

Marsh migration threatened the assumption at the heart of the settler project, that land could be converted through work into stable property.

Yet in the first two decades of the 20th century, the extent of improved lands (meaning forest, field, or swamp put into agricultural production) declined by fifteen percent, or about 14,000 acres, according to An Economic and Social Survey of Accomac County. 15 For the survey’s boosterish authors, this was a sign that “less productive lands are being left idle, while great attention is paid to the more fertile acres.” But we read this anodyne interpretation as cover for an incredible admission — that real estate development had already begun to falter. Marsh migration threatened the assumption at the heart of the settler project, that land could be converted through work into stable property. Saltwater intrusion caused many farms “improved” from marshland to be converted again in the other direction. The enterprise seems foolish now, but it was not for nothing. Sixty years of sweet potatoes and strawberries were enough to raise a few generations of families, after all. The farms were provisional, in both senses of the word.

Ditched marsh and backyards in Saxis, Virginia
Ditched marsh and residential yards in Saxis, Virginia. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Lines between marsh and homestead blur even today. Driving around the Eastern Shore, you can still find old ditch banks wherever tidal creeks come close to houses. We learned to spot them from undergraduate student Emily Hall and wetland ecologist Matt Kirwan at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. 16 In one residential yard, we spied a plant that looked like fescue, or some other warm-season lawn grass. But it was Distichlis spicata, a type of saltgrass. Down by the ditch was Spartina patens. Hard to tell when it’s cut so short. The yard was a marsh, which the homeowner had mowed to create a nice domestic space. Elsewhere, we found small furrows along an entrance walkway, connecting to more furrows along the driveway, leading to ditches along the road that conveyed water (eventually) to the Bay. The drainage-commons necessitated by marsh living can be seen in the micro-topography of the individual yard. The shared concerns that are buried in other places (as in a city’s sewer system) are here surfaced and made visible.

The Bay has no shortage of landscapes recognized as culturally significant — shell middens, plantations, military forts — but marshes are typically excluded from the accounting. They are considered the background from which culture is made, if they are considered at all. They appear in coastal resilience plans as blue-green infrastructure, as nature preserve, as future sea. 17 But they are rarely understood as places that hold aspirations, violence, persistence, beauty, love, loss — the history of many peoples. 18 This is an egregious misreading. In fact, the marshlands of Accomack, Gloucester, and other rural counties along the Bay are an immense, unrecognized cultural landscape with recognizable features predating the Civil War. As forms, the ditch banks coalesce histories of harm and hope, binding the values and labor and aesthetics of past time to the uses of today. They represent sustained dedication to a place that continually challenges permanent occupation, and the violent erasure of earlier commitments.

Marsh, ditch, guts, road. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Marsh near Messongo Creek, Virginia
A straight gut cuts through a marsh featuring the iridescent cordgrass spartina alterniflora. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Straight Guts

While the Chesapeake marshlands may be overlooked as cultural landscapes, 19 they have earnest fans in the natural sciences. Tidal salt marshes are among the most productive landscapes in the world, creating biomass at a rate comparable to the most productive tropical rainforests. 20 They are also incredible carbon sinks. Interminable swaths of grasses capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and turn it into cellulose and other sugars. When this vegetation dies the carbon is not returned to the atmosphere, as it is in most terrestrial ecosystems. Rather, much of it is trapped in a low-oxygen environment, in the sediments beneath the water, where its decomposition is slowed. And so tidal marshes are an object of great interest for scientists and conservationists, especially on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States, where these landscapes were once dominant and are still prevalent. 21

Tidal salt marshes are among the most productive landscapes in the world, creating biomass at a rate comparable to tropical rainforests.

Many people who study marshes are alarmed about land loss and threatened habitat due to global warming, 22 but it’s possible that the bleakest forecasts are overstated. This is because marshes can move up in elevation, or farther inland, in response to rising sea levels. Kirwan’s research team reported in 2018 that the Chesapeake Bay had actually gained more coastal wetland than it had lost since 1850, thanks to the conversion of upland forest and farmland by migrating marshes. 23 And a 2016 study of theirs, published in Nature, found that tidal marshes globally were keeping up with sea level rise. 24 As a marsh floods, sedimentation rates tend to increase accordingly. More frequent floodwaters bring nutrients, which encourage the production of biomass, and mineral sediments, which precipitate out. As richer soil accumulates, it supports a denser vegetation canopy, which attenuates water velocities, causing even more sediment to precipitate. Over time, the elevation of the marsh rises. 25 Kirwan argues that these dynamics are not well documented in most studies. It is a technical difficulty. But it is also an inconvenient one, since it counters the dominant paradigm of loss that motivates much conservation science and practice.

High tide along a winding gut on Tangier Island, Virginia. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Ironically, these beloved landscapes are near-monocultures, with just a handful of grass species adapted to the intertidal zone, sorted by the precise amounts of salt and inundation each can tolerate. It is hard to be a terrestrial plant when your roots are covered with salt water. Nourished by the daily ebb and flow of nutrient-rich tides, marsh grasses provide structure and habitat for a tremendous variety of animal life, transforming carbon into stalks and roots that support a riot of insects, tiny bivalves, crustaceans, snakes, frogs, birds, and small mammals like muskrats. Essential to these functions are the shallow channels known as guts that wind through the marsh, providing pathways for the tidal exchange of nutrients and sediments.

Here’s Tom Horton, writing about Smith Island, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay:

A thousand channels and cricks and guts rive the marsh, and through them the bay perfuses Smith Island like some great, amorphous jellyfish. And these watery thoroughfares, the main means of travel within the island, do something quite profound. … They curve. I doubt George Santayana, the philosopher, ever went “gut-running,” an island sport that consists of racing one’s skiff through the fantastic maze of loops and whorls and meanders the marshways make. But he would have understood the thrill. In his classic treatise on form in The Sense of Beauty (1896), Santayana wrote of the pleasure we take from the curved line: “at every turn reawakening, with a variation, the sense of the previous position … such rhythms and harmonies are delightful.” 26

All bayside places around the Pocomoke Sound have these guts, whether on the islands or at the mouths and inlets of little creeks. But not all guts cut such a graceful figure. Some, in fact, are pretty straight. What would cause this? It can’t be the gentle, oscillating force of tides pushing and pulling saltwater wedges along the bay bottoms. A 1968 topographic map of the Pocomoke Sound offers a clue: two long, straight guts labeled plainly, “The Ditches.” 27

Early settlers may have widened and straightened natural guts so they could be navigated by long canoes that carried agricultural products from plantations to the wharves in Onancock. But most straight guts likely started as humble drainage ditches. Driving along the Bay, we find ditches that have grown to such tremendous size that they add the equivalent of an extra lane on either side of the road. They don’t convey water so much as hold it until the tide recedes. These guts lack Santayana’s curving grace, but they are interesting all the same. They register the day’s rains and tides, and they dramatize the difference between dry and wet. They are a form of negotiation between land and water, expressed through human artifice.

Straight gut at high tide along a road in the Chesapeake marshlands
A straight gut at high tide, inches below the road level. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

“The Ditches” on Little Back Creek. Detail from the U.S. Geological Survey, “Parksley Quadrangle, Virginia” (1968).

A straight gut running off through the woods, probably to join a creek. Six feet deep, twelve feet wide. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

To mark the land, to make a line, to cut and fill, is a basic act of landscape-making. But often the reason behind our interventions is not so clear. The plain truth is that, like many purported solutions, 28 straight guts do not work that well. They are not clever. This goes for all the ditching in Accomack County, especially near sea level, where the guts let saltwater into the fields more easily than they drain it. Did the people who ditched the Pocomoke Sound imagine they were engaged in a great creative project, making new landscape by reclaiming marsh and converting it to farm? Or was it a revanchist effort, meant to protect existing farms from king tides and nor’easters? Probably some of both.

Making a home here is not always a reasonable proposition, or even a religious one. It is aesthetic first.

Making a home here is not always a reasonable proposition, or even a religious one. It is aesthetic first, motivated by the desire to make a mark that may have no extrinsic value, no reasonable justification in others’ eyes. 29 A farmer tends the fields, neatens the edges, drains the standing water, because that is what a farmer does to care for the place. Of course, farmers want to increase yields, to get products to market at the right moment, but there are many ways to do that. The marks made in the Chesapeake marshlands don’t always rest on a solid epistemological foundation.

One of four cells at the Doe Creek Wildlife Management Area, Virginia. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Duck Ponds

Have you ever heard of a Delmarva bay? It is a big, subtle landform, found up and down the coastal plain of the Eastern United States. Defined by an oval or circle, platonic in its geometry, large in scale — a few hundred acres, maybe. The oval has a sandy rim with a gentle slope, quick to drain, likely aeolian in nature, while the interior is peaty, boggy, usually a wetland with acidic soil. This combination of conditions is home to a cavalcade of plant species, including the bay trees referenced in the name. These coastal depressions are especially prominent in the Carolinas, where they are known as Carolina bays. On the Delmarva Peninsula (where Delaware meets the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia), they tend to be smaller in size. They have been important to local agricultural and hunting cultures for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The interior provides rich cropland, pasture, or waterfowl habitat, depending on its relationship to the tides. The rim allows access. In the past few centuries, farmers commonly pierced the rim on the low side, draining the bay to create more space for crops, but this practice is changing as sea levels rise.

The Doe Creek Wildlife Management Area is a striking contemporary example. WMAs are a relatively new invention in Virginia, merging the basics of wetland science with land management to provide habitat and waterfowl hunting on land where farming is no longer viable. The approach to Doe Creek is typical: a flat, gravel road that passes through soy and corn, a stand of pine. The ditches on either side grow wider as you head toward the water. Eventually, you encounter a huge, simple construction. Perimeter berms ten feet in height surround interior ditches twenty feet wide, which give way to grassland basins often covered in a thin sheet of water, former farmland. The biting flies form an intense cloud. A sandy, curved road separates three rectangular basins from a fourth that has a different orientation and rounder shape. This suggests that the road is the remnant rim of a built-up Delmarva bay, and the fourth basin its interior. Perfect habitat for ducks, terns, and heron. Open for hunting on Saturdays.

Doe Creek WMA. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

The emphasis on wildlife “management” signals the WMA’s origins in the 20th century bureaucratic state. But doing work to create habitat and obtain protein: that is a return to old ways. Long before European colonization, tribes used and arranged the landscape in ways that enhanced the supply of fish and shellfish. Farming was common, too, especially on the southern end of the Eastern Shore. 30 Historian J. Douglas Deal reports that the bountiful corn harvests of the Accomack and Occahannock (and allied tribes) produced annual surpluses that were admired in the colonial record as early as 1621. Agricultural systems were carefully managed, with fields rotated regularly to maintain soil fertility. Deal explains how this “migratory” mode of farming was integrated with subsistence strategies of fishing, gathering, and hunting:

Agriculture [of the Eastern Shore tribes] entailed the same sorts of adjustments through migration, though at longer intervals, as did the yearly round of hunting and fishing. To the untutored eyes of the English, some Indian settlements may have appeared to be only temporary. This appearance of transience reflected not a shiftless nomadic life on the part of the Indians, but the well-calibrated exploitation of available flora and fauna to support a modest, non-accumulative and — even by some English accounts — pleasant experience. 31

When settlers colonized the land, they found that the fields previously cleared and cultivated by the Accomack — left fallow, abandoned, or stolen — made appealing farm sites. In this way, precolonial land use that skillfully balanced the seemingly oppositional practices of migration and cultivation enabled the earliest claims to permanent “ownership.” Today, in places across the Tidewater region where terrestrial farming is marginal and getting harder, NGOs like Ducks Unlimited collaborate with state agencies and private landowners to revive an old tradition of landscape-making in the marshlands. Such projects respond to seasonal changes and other changes in land suitability, embracing temporalities that challenge the land-use patterns currently dominant in this part of the world. Making a duck pond from a Delmarva bay is an interesting model that could inform what folks do higher up on the ridge, in the future.

Phragmites taking over from dying loblollies, Doe Creek WMA. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

In White mythologies, the American farmer is coded as pragmatic, economical, rational. So we might expect that settlers would build roads for their ox carts and wagons on the high, strong rims of the Delmarva bays, and farm the peaty lowlands. And that did happen some. In the marshes of the Pocomoke, the U.S. Coast Survey maps show that the rims sometimes supported a road and a few homes. But elsewhere, the bays have been ignored by land developers. Roads run straight over them, following the logic of boundary surveys, plats, patents, and railroads. Outside of the marsh, the highest, most elegant rims barely induce a curve.

Settler aesthetics were just not attuned to the qualities of a Delmarva bay. This is a landscape tragedy, but it is also understandable.

Settler aesthetics were just not attuned to the qualities of a Delmarva bay. This is a landscape tragedy, but it is also understandable. Three hundred years later, we have technology that vividly images the bays, science that elucidates their ecological benefits, and an entire discipline devoted to landscape-making, yet we still lack a theory of horizontality that values wetlands as an aesthetic proposition. There are some gestures toward that theory in Frederick Law Olmsted’s report on the swamp that became Chicago’s South Park, and in Adriaan Geuze’s “Flatness,” an ambitious reflection on how Dutch landscapes revalue farming and flood control. 32 But in a North American context, the wetland revival has been driven by scientists and conservationists, with almost no regard for the aesthetic values that become possible in such places.

Hammock Road. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Road Ends

The main roads heading down Virginia’s Eastern Shore follow the axis of the peninsula along the central ridge, and generally they were the last to be constructed. This is because for generations, most transportation was waterborne; accessing the high, wooded ridge was an unnecessary hassle. 33 Not until the railroads were built did commerce and population begin to concentrate on high ground. Anyway, it’s the older, local roads that interest us. They run a lot of different directions, influenced by current and former property boundaries, connecting things that might have been important at one time. Often, they end in marshes. An incomplete survey of road ends on the Bay side counts 76 occurrences.

As you drive these local roads from the ridge to the Bay, homes get more sparse. You might pass an abandoned house, falling in, with a bus or boat hull in the yard. Often the final stretch is a straight drive that enacts an ecological transect, from healthy pine forest to phragmites understory to ghost forest to full-blown coastal marsh. The roadside ditch grows from something recognizable — a neat little trapezoidal cross-section, one foot wide and deep — into one of those leviathan straight guts. By the end, the gut is as wide as the road, and the road mere inches above high tide. You look to either side and catch your breath. 34 It is pure horizontality and atmosphere: subtly differentiated saltgrass and cordgrass, small animals, wind and wave sounds.

Access to this gradient is critical in marsh migration, just as it is for the people living here. You can tell that access is important because, for all the drama of the drive, the most remarkable thing is the dignified treatment of the road-end itself. Often there is a little cul-de-sac where cars turn around. Other times the road widens and goes straight into the water, becoming a boat ramp, perhaps with a dock.

Hammock Boat Ramp on Messongo Creek. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Anns Cove Road, west of Guilford, is an example of the form. The last mile heads straight into the marsh, widening out and stopping a few inches above high tide. At some point in the recent past, storms and currents pushed a sand spit across the road, just before it reached the open water. Maybe the county tried to keep the road clear but eventually could not bear the maintenance dredging costs. Whatever the case, somebody decided that the road could not stop here, randomly. That would not be right. So now, a couple hundred feet before the end of Anns Cove Road, you can turn right onto New Road, which ends properly at the water. At least for a while. Here the new road widens and rounds into a teardrop shape, allowing for easy turning and parking. A new dock accompanies the new boat ramp, and several small fishing boats sit moored in the cove. Another boat is stranded in the low marsh. On both days that we drive to the end of New Road, there are trucks around but no people. Everyone is somewhere on the water.

Ending a road is a hopeful act, a profession of belief. It signals access to the commons, integration into a larger environment, opportunities for communion.

There are road ends like this all over Accomack County, marking a formal recognition, however modest, of the transition between water and land. Ending a road is a hopeful act, a profession of belief. It signals access to the commons, integration into a larger environment, opportunities for communion — with other people and with something larger. Urban residents may look for such things in neighborhood parks, transit centers, churches, and grocery stores, but on the Eastern Shore, road ends are at the top of the list. They are maintained and reconstructed even as the marshes swallow them, storms erode them, and sand spits close them off. In a poor county with many needs, it would be easier to give the road ends over to the tides, letting them simply become the ends of roads, but by making and using these public spaces, people commit to a continuous habitation of water and land. It is a redemptive act that echoes through landscape.

Anns Cove Road, cut off by a sand spit. New Road runs toward the open water off the left edge of the frame. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

The ends of Anns Cove Road (left) and New Road (right). [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Common Grounds

By now, it should be clear that our survey of these forms is not complete. In a place as subtle, reticent, and bewildering as the Chesapeake Bay, it is barely a start. Yet in our travels we have experienced certain things that are not published in the proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers, or taught in design schools, or noted in climate advocacy efforts and planning reports. Ditch banks, straight guts, duck ponds made from Delmarva bays, road ends that consecrate public space. Forms like this are found everywhere along rural coasts, complementing the engineered structures that are more familiar in urban areas: revetments, groins, raised roads, jetties, docks, breakwaters, waterfront parks.

The Chesapeake Bay is a commons, one of the biggest in the country. The excesses of terrestrial life all end up here, the agricultural fertilizer and chemicals in urban runoff mixed up with memories of summer vacations and weekend hobbies. The Bay’s 11,700 miles of shoreline — more than the entire U.S. West Coast — are uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise, including metro areas like Baltimore and Norfolk. 35 But while there are mountains of research, proposals, and funded efforts to help cities adapt to climate change, the rural communities that inhabit most of this shoreline, and thus bear the brunt of impacts, are usually ignored. 36 There has been some recent work on how saltwater intrusion affects coastal farming and livelihoods, but the countryside as a locus of culture, form-making, and art remains an enigma. There is little awareness of the cultural practices that rural people have developed to modulate changes and acclimate to shifting baselines.

Low spots being filled with gravel in a parking area near Onancock. This is a common sight everywhere in Accomack County, as little bits of the Virginia mountains are brought by barge and then trucked around to fill sinking areas. The Onancock wharf stays open basically to receive gravel shipments. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Much is distorted as a result. A kind of mania has gripped U.S. policymakers, who realize that seas are rising fast and respond by pouring funding and concrete into urban sea walls and breakwaters. 37 The countryside has escaped this mistreatment through serendipitous neglect. But while the remaking of coastlines in the 21st century includes cities, it will be mostly a rural phenomenon. Understanding the forms, artifacts, practices, values, and habits of people who have made their homes in places like Accomack County gives us a richer sense of the possible, and could help tune the next generation of U.S. civil works. Rural forms and practices are ways of solving problems, yes. But more, they relay the loss and dignity and beauty and violence of inhabiting a place that is loved, lived in, for a time.

These mundane and sublime artifacts register the forceful taking of this land and the steady occupation of making a home within it.

In a recent Places essay, Azzurra Cox explores the “ungoverned landscapes” of grassy mounds in Detroit, which “might be scrap heaps; or illegal dumping grounds; or piles of bricks and wood and ash: all vestiges of a demolition-and-digestion process seemingly naturalized into tender groves.” Riding her bike through the city, she observes that “there is power in these markers of non-instrumental processes, which metabolize what was, and give it new life and new form,” 38 and she invokes Denis Cosgrove’s idea of landscape “duplicity” to show that there are “historically specific social relations behind the smooth and often aesthetic appearance of ‘nature.’” 39 The same could be said of the straight guts and ditch banks of Accomack County. These mundane and sublime artifacts register the forceful taking of this land and the steady occupation of making a home within it. They speak to a deep history of human entanglement in landscape processes.

Road ends, ditch banks, and guts on Muddy Creek, just north of the Guard Shore. [Google Earth]

Boat stranded in the marsh between Anns Cove Road and New Road. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

One insight from our travels along the Eastern Shore is that migration is not incompatible with home. Canals, causeways, roads, weirs, mounds, berms, forest plantations, and ponds are the basics of an unencumbered landscape architecture in horizontal places, where an inch of sea level rise implicates acres of land. These forms enable a sense of permanence, connection, access, and belonging, even as they acknowledge that everything must move. They point to a pluralist ethos and aesthetics that reflects landscape traditions of the Chesapeake before European colonization, as well as the best practices of today.

These forms enable a sense of permanence, connection, access, and belonging, even as they acknowledge that everything must move.

In the marshlands of the Chesapeake Bay, a cultural landscape project has been underway for a long time — one that involves us all, wherever we make our homes. It is a project of time-binding. 40 As landscape architects we often talk about time as inherent to the practice of landscape itself. Time is positioned as a stratagem within which spatial cause and effect play out; uses or meanings accrue, plants and complexity grow. That is not wrong, but it is only a partial conception. One could easily substitute capital, knowledge, or other cultural instruments as a mechanism for causality — and to set time on a level with these does not seem right. A sense of landscape time is too easily reduced to a matter of infrastructure, management, development, or resources. The project of time-binding, which is really about living in place, should be understood aesthetically, through presence and experience. 41 Time doesn’t imply a linear relationship or continuity. Homes can be made, lives sustained, and a sense of place cultivated, even under conditions that are radically discontinuous, such as the rapid migration of people and climatic regimes. Time is an agency that affords the possibility of redemption and reconciliation because it offers the possibility of experience. If that seems too grand a reading for a strip of sand at the end of Guard Shore Road, just sit here a while longer, at the edge of the commons, where the land meets the water, for the time being.

Marsh at the Guard Shore. [Erin Putalik and Brian Davis]

Authors’ Note

The research leading to this essay was funded by the Environmental Resilience Institute at the University of Virginia. We are grateful to UVA doctoral student Marantha Dawkins for her ongoing collaboration on this and related projects.

  1. R. J. Dent, Chesapeake Prehistory: Old Traditions, New Directions (Plenum Press, 1995).
  2. U.S. Coast Survey, “Pocomoke Sound, from Guilford Creek to Messongo Creek, Virginia,” No. 529 (1851); see also U.S. Coast Survey, “Pocomoke Sound and Bay, Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake,” No. 45 (1851).
  3. Brett Milligan, “Landscape Migration,” Places Journal, June 2015,
  4. For a review of recent literature on the paired concepts of home and migration, see Mastoureh Fathi, “Home-in-migration: Some Critical Reflections on Temporal, Spatial and Sensorial perspectives,” Ethnicities 5 (2021), 979-93,
  5. Ina Richter, “Gone with(in) the Chesapeake Bay’s Waters: Reflections on Society’s Thresholds to Migration Given Island Sinking,” Global Environment 1 (2015), 152-76, See also Dent, Chesapeake Prehistory. For an overview of literature that examines climate relative to human inhabitation of the Mid-Atlantic see Dennis B. Blanton, “The Climate Factor in Late Prehistoric and Post-Contact Human Affairs,” in Dennis Blanton and Julia A. King, Eds., Indian and European Contact in Context: The Mid-Atlantic Region (University Press of Florida, 2004), 6-21. For a recent critique of assumptions often found in contact period archaeology and scholarship (and for an excellent bibliography on the subject), see Jay F. Custer, “A Postcolonial Perspective on Contact Period Archaeology,” in Heather A. Wholey and Carole L. Nash, Eds., Middle Atlantic Prehistory: Foundations and Practice (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 325-70.
  6. Kelvin Ramsey, “A Radiocarbon Chronology of Holocene Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise at the Delmarva Peninsula, US Mid-Atlantic Coast,” Holocene 1-2 (2022), 3-16,
  7. William Cronon outlines colonial ideas between improvement and ownership, citing Puritan lawyer and Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop’s twin notions of natural vs civil rights to the land: Natural right to the soil existed “when men held the earth in common every man sowing and feeding where he pleased.” This natural ownership was superseded when individuals began to raise crops, keep cattle, and improve the land by enclosing it; from such actions, Winthrop said, came a superior, civil right of ownership. That these notions of land tenure were ideological and inherently Eurocentric was obvious from the way Winthrop used them: “As for the Natives in New England,” he wrote, “they inclose noe Land, neither have any setled habytation, nor any tame Cattle to improve the Land by, and soe have noe other but a Naturall Right to those Countries.” Quoted in William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang, 2003), 56. See also pages 56-77 for colonial views on a civil right to the land as property via “improvement.”
  8. See Green Infrastructure Center, Accomack County Blue / Green Infrastructure Study (May 2010). [PDF]
  9. “The Sweet Potato on the Eastern Shore of Virginia,” Farm Credit Administration, Washington, D. C. 1901, pp. 117 – 122. Accessed via “The Countryside Transformed: The Railroad and the Eastern Shore of Virginia, 1870-1935,” a digital archive developed by Brooks Miles Barnes, William G. Thomas, III, and Elizabeth Ladner, at the Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia.
  10. Cronon describes the importance of the salt marshes for settlers in the northeast — including the abundance of animals they hosted, as well as the provision of what was often “the only grass available” for livestock. See Cronon, Changes in the Land, 31.
  11. Thank you to Eastern Shore historian Brooks Miles Barnes, for directing us to this early legislation. See December 23, 1794, An Act authorizing the cutting of drains in the county of Accomack, The Statutes at Large of Virginia from October Session 1792, to December Session 1806, Exclusive, in Three Volumes (Richmond: Samuel Shepherd, 1835), I, 323-25; and December 31, 1807, An Act to authorize the cutting of drains in the county of Northampton, III, 390-91.
  12. “Advantages of Embanking the Tide Marshes of Maryland,” letter from Timothy, June 26, 1839, in Edmund Ruffin, Ed., The Farmers’ Register, Volume 7 (Petersburg, Virginia, 1839), 429. Accessed via the digital archive “The Countryside Transformed,” cited in note 9.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Of course, these false assertions are to be rejected. Marshlands are in fact more productive than marginal agricultural fields, and this farmer’s thinking is shaped by an ideology of White supremacy, emphasizing Europeans’ dominance and superiority over other humans and land — a stain on settler culture and the institutions and history we maintain.
  15. John Berne Hannum Carter, et al., An Economic and Social Survey of Accomac County. University of Virginia Record Extension Series, Vol. 13, No. 9 (1929), 53.
  16. Emily Hall, an undergraduate geology student advised by Matthew L. Kirwan at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, College of William & Mary, kindly took us on a tour of ditch banks in Gloucester County. Her undergraduate thesis, “Hidden Levees: Efficacy of Small-Scale Barriers to Sea Level Driven Marsh Migration on Rural Coasts,” was submitted in 2021.
  17. Here we do not want to overstate the uniqueness of our interest in the marshlands. There has been a tremendous amount of work on marsh migration in the Chesapeake and its implications for urban and rural communities, often with an emphasis on policies needed to adapt communities to sea level rise. See Elizabeth Andrews and Jesse Reiblach, “Reflections on Rural Resilience: As the Climate Changes, Will Rural Areas Become the Urban Backyard?,” William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review 44 (2020), 745-76; and Elizabeth R. Van Dolah, Christine D. Miller Hesed, and Michael J. Paolisso,  “Marsh Migration, Climate Change, and Coastal Resilience: Human Dimensions Considerations for a Fair Path Forward,” Wetlands 40 (2020), 1751-64. And some of this work has focused on traditionally marginalized groups, including Black communities (Michael Paolisso, et al., “Climate Change, Justice, and Adaptation among African American Communities in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” Weather, Climate, and Society 4 [2012], 34-47,, Indigenous people (Nicole S. Hutton and Thomas R. Allen, “The Role of Traditional Knowledge in Coastal Adaptation Priorities: The Pamunkey Indian Reservation,” Water 12.12 [2020], 35-48,, immigrant workers (Thurka Sangaramoorthy, “Liminal Living: Everyday Injury, Disability, and Instability Among Migrant Mexican Women In Maryland’s Seafood Industry,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 33.4 [2019], 557-78,, and religious communities (Christine D. Miller Hesed, Elizabeth R. Van Dolah, and Michael Paolisso, “Engaging Faith-based Communities for Rural Coastal Resilience: Lessons From Collaborative Learning On the Chesapeake Bay,” Climatic Change 159.1 [2020], 1-21,, reflecting the nuance and complexity of the cultural landscape.
  18. One exception is the recent Places article by Diane Jones Allen, “Living Freedom Through the Maroon Landscape,” Places Journal, September 2022, Her piece considered the marshes of coastal Louisiana and the practices and stories of Maroons in the context of climate adaptation, and she perceptively noted broader geographic applications, including in the Tidewater Region of the Chesapeake Bay. While our work here focuses more on the landscape itself, our aims are similar to this beautiful study.
  19. This is not to say there are no advocates. Historians including Kate Clifford, Kirk Mariner, Curtis J. Badger, and Brooks Miles Barnes, and writers including Tom Horton, Elizabeth Rush, and Earl Swift have devoted years to appreciation of these cultural landscapes.
  20. William J. Mitsch and James G. Gosselink, Wetlands (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 2001).
  21. The scholarly literature on marshes in the Chesapeake Bay region is quite large. On how marshes respond to sea level rise, start with Taryn A Sudol, Gregory B. Noe, and Denise J. Reed, “Tidal Wetland Resilience to Increased Rates of Sea Level Rise in the Chesapeake Bay: Introduction to the Special Feature,” Wetlands 40.6 (2020), 1667-71, On how they work as natural infrastructure to attenuate waves and storm surge, see Emma M. Glass et al., “Potential of Marshes to Attenuate Storm Surge Water Level in the Chesapeake Bay,” Limnology and Oceanography 63.2 (2017), 951-67, In addition, the Dredge Research Collaborative, which includes Brian as a member, looks at these landscapes from a design perspective, both as places that have been designed, and as places that may provide inspiration or insight for future designed forms and approaches.
  22. Robert T. Watson, Marufu C. Zinyowera, and Richard H. Moss, Eds., The Regional Impacts of Climate Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability, Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II (Cambridge University Press, 1997), Section, “Physical Effects and Their Implications.”
  23. Mark Schuerch, et al., “Future Response of Global Coastal Wetlands to Sea Level Rise,” Nature 561 (2018), 231-34,
  24. Matthew L. Kirwan, et al., “Overestimation of Marsh Vulnerability to Sea Level Rise,” Nature Climate Change 6 (2016), 253-60,
  25. Of course, for this process to succeed there needs to be enough sediment in the water, which means that marshes may be threatened less by sea level rise than by river dams that trap sediments upstream. In the United States, most coastal environmental regulations were conceived in a time when sea levels were rising slowly and sediments were often toxic, so there was a concerted effort to keep sediments out of estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay. Now that situation has inverted.
  26. Tom Horton, An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake (Norton, 1996), 6.
  27. U.S. Geological Survey, “Parksley Quadrangle, Virginia, Accomack County” (1968).
  28. Rob Holmes, “The Problem with Solutions,” Places Journal, July 2020,
  29. The Peruvian landscape theorist Wiley Ludeña Urquizo has a beautiful perspective on this idea of art as mark-making, and its long tradition in landscape as a fundamentally human act. See Ludeña Urquizo, “Paisaje y paisajismo Peruano: Apuntes hacia una historia crítica,” Textos Arte, 2008.
  30. Helen C. Rountree and Thomas C. Davidson, Eastern Shore Indians of Virginia and Maryland (University of Virginia Press, 1997), 21.
  31. J. Douglas Deal, Race and Class in Colonial Virginia: Indians, Englishmen, and Africans on the Eastern Shore during the Seventeenth Century (Garland, 1993), 10. Contemporary and historical spellings of tribal names vary, with Accomac and Accawmacke also in wide use. We have followed the spelling used by Deal.
  32. Olmsted, Vaux, and Co. Landscape Architects, “Report Accompanying Plan for Laying Out the South Park” (Chicago South Park Commission, 1871), 9, 36 [PDF]; and Adriaan Geuze, “Flatness,” in Mosaics: West 8 (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), 6-24.
  33. The development of these roads and, eventually, the railroad are documented in the digital archive “The Countryside Transformed,” which contains a wealth of primary documents, often contextualized. See note 9 for full citation.
  34. Exploring the etymology of aesthetics, James Hillman argues that aesthetic experience arrests motion, causing an intake of breath, a gasp. See Hillman, “The Practice of Beauty,” in David Shapiro and Bill Beckley, Eds., Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics (Allworth, 2001).
  35. The south Chesapeake Bay has the highest rates of relative sea level rise on the East Coast, and some of the highest in the nation, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences at the College of William & Mary (U.S. Sea-Level Report Cards, VIMS, 2021). This is partly due to the fact that the Bay is subsiding in response to post-glacial isostatic rebound and the effects of a large bolide impact some 35 million years ago. For more, see John D. Boon, et al., “Anthropocene Sea Level Change: A History of Recent Trends Observed in the U.S. East, Gulf, and West Coast Regions,” Special Report in Applied Marine Science and Ocean Engineering (SRAMSOE) No. 467, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, William & Mary,
  36. See Grace D. Molino, et al., “Variability in Marsh Migration Potential Determined by Topographic Rather than Anthropogenic Constraints in the Chesapeake Bay Region, Limnology and Oceanography Letters 7.4 (2022),
  37. Again, see Holmes, “The Problem with Solutions.” Many such projects are advanced through the Water Resources Development Act, a biennial bill that authorizes new federal spending on infrastructure. In 2022, for example, the Senate approved funding to plan for a $31 billion megaproject to partially protect Galveston Bay and Houston from storm surges with 80-foot gates that would close a two-mile gap between shoreline levees. Other projects underway include the $1.3 billion Lake Borgne Storm Surge Barrier (“Great Wall of Louisiana”) and the $300 million Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative in New York state.
  38. Azzurra Cox, “Reading Detroit in a Season of Mourning,” Places Journal, January 2022,
  39. Denis Cosgrove, “Landscape and Landschaft,” GHI Bulletin 35 (Fall 2004), 68; cited in Cox, “Reading Detroit.”
  40. See Alfred Korzybski, Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering (Dutton, 1921). In this egregiously titled work, Korzybski introduced the term “time-binding” as the activity that distinguishes humans from other animals, and the process by which civilization produces culture and operates. For Korzybski, “past achievements — the fruit of bygone time — thus live in the present, are augmented in the present, and transmitted to the future. … [Although time] increases arithmetically, its fruit, civilization, advances geometrically” (106). While Korzybski’s pollyannish tone and many of his terms are dated, his basic insight about the relation between time and human culture is profound. We refer to that line of thinking here.
  41. Here we recommend the wonderful, short video by the U.S. General Services Administration, “Landscape Architecture—Designing with Time” (June 29, 2018). Other important touchstones are J.B. Jackson’s famous formulation of landscape as “man taking upon himself the role of time,” in John Brinckerhoff Jackson, “The Word Itself,” Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (Yale University Press, 1984), 3-8; Julia Czerniak’s entire argument in “Challenging the Pictorial: Recent Landscape Practice,” Assemblage 34 (Dec. 1997), 110-20,; and Brett Milligan, “Accelerated and Decelerated Landscapes,” Places Journal, February 2022,
Erin Putalik & Brian Davis, “Bay Migrations,” Places Journal, October 2022. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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