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HOLLAND ISLAND: The Final Chapter
by Tom Horton

When you’re doing a film on rising seas, higher tides and worsening erosion around these parts, you need to start with Holland Island—or finish with it; maybe both, we’ll see.

Before the Bay soon claims them, we’ve come to film gravestones, etched against the sunset, ghostly in the starlight, aglow with rising sun, over-arched by the gnarled skeletons of dead hackberry trees.

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Photo by Dave Harp

We’ve arrived the only way you can, by water, on December 21, the winter solstice, darkest day of the year, the longest night—that timing perhaps a metaphor for the troubling implications of the recent presidential election for us environmentalists.

Surely the tundra swans piping their haunting, wild music all around us through the wintry night here neither know nor care who rules in Washington. They have been migrating here annually for millenia, from as far off as the Bering Sea and the Yukon Territories. The next four years won’t change that.

Past caring, too, are the Prices, Todds, Parks and other Holland Islanders who sleep beneath this fast eroding island—mute testament to what for two centuries was a thriving community at this southernmost tip of Dorchester county.

A hundred boats once harbored here—skipjacks, bugeyes, seagoing schooners. Upland soils grew wheat, corn, asparagus and both white and sweet potatoes. Six orchards flourished. The sweet smell of their blossoms wafted across the water would greet Holland Islanders returning.

Old photos show a main street of impressive homes shaded by mature hardwoods along a ridge of high ground. There were stores, a church, a community hall and two ballfields.

And now: gravestones lapped by encroaching marsh and water, a couple clumps of trees, most dead or dying. The last house was burned a few years ago as it teetered into the Bay. Only the raised shovel of an old backhoe, barely above the water on a high tide, marks where it was.

As recently as the fall of 2001 we camped between the last house and the backhoe. A picture Dave shot in 1989 shows me playing ball with a bunch of schoolkids in what was then the house’s front yard. All gone now, and the rest of the place is going fast enough that we feared waiting for warmer weather to film the scene here.

The final stages of Holland in its winter have a pared-down, elemental beauty that focuses eye and mind on the essentials. The low-angled solstice sun turns the island’s ponds and creeks to discs of gold, interspersed with dark bands of needlerush.

The light today will last a scant 9 and a half hours, low ebb in a grand slow tide that will swell to nearly 15 hours of sun by the summer solstice, June 21. The Bay’s tide was at dead low too, shortly after we arrived, grounding our skiff. But just as we know tomorrow the light will last two seconds longer, we know that in six hours another high tide will buoy the skiff.

And the music of the swans will last all night, every night until March, when it’s time to leave for Alaskan nesting grounds; and will return next November. The hackberries that shaded Holland Islanders and, more recently, nesting egrets and herons, will give up their centuries of stored sunlight on our campfire, repealing the cold and the dark.

Sunrise on Dec 22d reveals a raft of ruddy ducks stretching off the island’s east side for hundreds of yards…as many as 3,000 of them. They are eerily silent, perhaps it’s why locals call the ruddies “sleepy brothers.” When they take off, their wings beat the shallows to a froth, all jade and foam and sparkly in the light of a new day.

I’ll retrieve from the clear shallows a lovely fragment of some Holland Islander’s coffee cup, circa 1800’s, to hang on my 21st century Christmas tree in Salisbury. My home there is a comfortable 25 feet above sea level; but all of the Delmarva Peninsula was once ocean bottom, and it will be again.