Where We Live
The Church of the Great Outdoors
by Steve Carr
After 2,000 years of human occupation, Java Farm is returning to nature in only 40 years of lying fallow
As the one day in the week we’re likely to have some free time, Sunday is a day for reflection. Many folks go to church, and I think that’s a good thing.
Worship has the power to plug us into the things that really matter. Call it God. Call it Gaia. Call it the Man in the Moon. Organized religion, with all of its rituals, songs and prayers, can guide us along the path to "good".
• I go to church religiously, but my Sunday's services are outside, in forgotten backwaters where nature still dances the light fantastic.
Last Sunday, I worshipped at the church of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, otherwise known as Java Farm.
I hadn’t been there for over 10 years, but I figured the trails would still preach a rewarding Sunday service.
On South River Clubhouse Road, the rolling farm fields were covered in a sparkling blanket of dew, and blanket-backed horses and bushy cows almost glowed in the bright morning sun, a wispy steam rising off of every living thing. Cresting a short hill, I pulled into a gravel turnout by a tiny white wooden clubhouse. The roadside marker proclaimed that this historic landmark was the oldest social club in the country, dating back to 1700. Not much bigger than a one-room schoolhouse, it stands atop a knoll surrounded by giant hardwoods. Both simplicity and location give it a warm feeling of continuity and grace.
Then I turned down Contees Wharf Road onto one of the few remaining dirt roads around these parts. This road used to be a bustling thoroughfare connecting Contees Wharf with a nautical world stretching all the way to China. It was a social and economic hub of southern Maryland. Steamboats like the Emma Giles carried goods and people from this thriving tobacco port until the early 1900s.Today all that remains are a few land-rich farmers and over 2,600 acres of federal woods and wetlands bordering the sleepy little Rhode River. Science and farming now rule the day.
Lessons of the Land
At my service, interpretive signs along the Java Trail trace the path humans have followed in this coastal paradise, starting with the Piscataway Indians who flourished for nearly 2,000 years and who are now pretty much gone. The Indians burned the woods to herd game to slaughter. They also built small dams and netted, trapped or speared heaps of local seafood. Small-scale agriculture played a minor role in their daily lives, but they were for the most part hunters and gatherers. After prospering for millennia, the Piscataway were eventually overwhelmed by our European ancestors and vanished in a generation.
What lesson can we learn from the Indians of the Chesapeake? How about Nothing lasts forever?
Soon after came the ambitious folks who built the South River Social Club. Thomas Sparrow’s two-and-a-half-story, fire-gutted mansion still stands on a lonely hill above the entrance to this Smithsonian center, a reminder that history often repeats itself. Tidewater tobacco was sold in London and Amsterdam. And many a gentleman planter of the 1800s fell into catastrophic debt because they got less for their tobacco than the seed they bought on credit. Ultimately many were forced into bankruptcy and ruin.
Easy lesson there: Don’t live beyond your means.
The fields of Java Farm were next transformed into a regional dairy farm, producing the only state-certified milk for the people of Annapolis. Intensive animal farming eventually took its toll on the land, eroding stream valleys and fouling the water. By World War II, the world had so changed that dairy farming in Southern Anne Arundel County was no longer profitable. The farm’s owner, Robert L. Forest, eventually closed his dairy business and donated the entire property to the Smithsonian when he died in 1962.
After just 40 years of lying fallow, it is impossible to imagine open fields covered with Holstein cows and grain silos at Java Farm.
The final leg of the trail is about Java’s return to nature. Fields become forests, while wetlands buffer the fragile land and sea. Java Farm is slowly transforming itself back into a natural watershed filter. The story comes full circle.
The lesson is simple: Nature can heal itself if given a chance.
As I walked back to my truck, my head was spinning with history lessons. In over 2,000 years of constant human occupation along the Rhode River, I take my turn to ponder the survival scars and signposts. Now I thank God for this sacred ground.