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The Cultural Heritage Cost of Climate Change

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I grant you that when you think about the horrors of climate change, the impact on cultural heritage is probably not on the top of your agenda. But it’s a very real thing. For reasons that are somewhat obscure, I am on an email list of cultural heritage practitioners that write about climate change’s impact on our historical sites and I can assure you it is very real. I mean, lots of societies developed along the ocean and so rising ocean waters also means the destruction of our historical legacy. Again, sad but maybe not its greatest impact in terms of contemporary society. However, think about its impact on the legacy of Harriet Tubman’s landscape of freedom before you dismiss the idea as unimportant.

This year commemorates the 200th anniversary of her birth and tributes to Tubman abound, including those set in the landscape of her native Dorchester County. I headed to the Eastern Shore to learn how people there remember this Black American freedom fighter, only to discover that the rising waters of climate change are washing away the memories of Tubman that are embedded in the coastal marshland she knew so well.

Today, it is arresting to witness how climate change along the Eastern Shore is all too quickly remaking the terrain that was the site of Tubman’s earliest exploits. The transformation gripped me when I encountered the ghost forests that dot Blackwater’s landscape. Decaying trees — devoid of foliage and branches, weathered to an eerie gray — stand tall in the brackish waters where the bay’s salt is overtaking inland sweet waters. Vestiges of a past or harbingers of the future, the skeletons of once mighty oaks and elegant loblolly pines defy efforts to wholly preserve Tubman’s memory on these lands.I felt emboldened — perhaps Tubman’s courage was fueling my own — and ventured farther off the beaten path out to Parson’s Creek and a thread of water that was known as Stewart’s Canal in Tubman’s time. I stood alone on a short bridge that crosses the wetlands and saw a deep scar left by the enslaved laborers who long ago cut a canal that serviced timber production. Grasses are slowly claiming it. All I could hear was the wind rushing, but underneath were ancient echoes of the effort that Tubman, still enslaved, exerted alongside free men like her father, Ben Ross, as they felled, chopped and wrestled trees along these waterways. Time is rendering the scenes of Tubman’s grueling manual labor almost bucolic.

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Surely, Tubman, ever the activist, would encourage those who arrive in Dorchester County to discover her memory to also take time to discover how much more difficult that will be by 2050 when it is estimated that 50 percent of the lower Eastern Shore’s high marshes will be gone. Satellite images from the U.S. Geographical Survey show how land has already been lost to rising tides. Gone are some spots where a century ago migrating birds regularly stopped over as they traveled north and south.

Two centuries after her birth, Tubman’s story continues to point toward the nation’s highest ideals. These include older lessons about the man-made world where aspirations for freedom, dignity and equality remain a high bar. Newer is what Tubman’s story reveals about the natural world, the land she knew so intimately. On the Eastern Shore, the Tubman Park and the Blackwater refuge are two chapters of the same story. We can walk in Tubman’s 19th-century footsteps on the very land where she struggled against slavery. Along the way, we may also discover our own footing in the climate challenge of our time.

Martha Jones, who wrote the piece, is one of our finest historians, not to mentioned she responded on Twitter to a picture of my late great cat Torvald on my lap watching her give a talk for URI during the pandemic. The combination of historian and climate watcher is a tough combination to have these days. It’s important to save these low-lying lands for many reasons. One of them is to remember Harriet Tubman and her time and place.

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