April 23, 2019

Sandy Cannon Brown, Dave Harp, and Tom Horton at their finest in portraying the remarkable Marshalls of Smith Island, MD.

There are three exceptional talents who collaborate on environmental films, ones that both celebrate the Chesapeake Bay and chronicle its travails. All three are in their seventies, and fortunately all three can't stop doing what they love despite occasional conversation to the contrary. Each time a new work emerges, it demonstrates how their collaboration improves with time. And of all the films they've done together, I find none more compelling or moving than An Island Out of Time.

Watching these artists at work is as entertaining as viewing their final product. Each has strong opinions, but through their mutual appreciation and deep respect for one another, things eventually get worked out with hardly any conversation directed at the issue at hand, at least from what I can tell.

Dave Harp, Sandy Cannon-Brown, and Tom Horton conducting an interview for An Island Out of Time.

Last year, they let me tag along when they started working on their portrayal of Smith Island in the Chesapeake's remote lower region, giving me the opportunity to provide not only the transport and chase boat but also to pester Tom and Dave with questions about the Eastern Shore, including where some of the best places for photography can be found. I'm not sure each was completely forthcoming, but I've been following their suggestions ever since.

Among the three, Tom Horton is the resident genius on all things Chesapeake. After growing up on the Eastern Shore, he spent 35 years writing and reporting for The Baltimore Sun. Among his many books is the Chesapeake classic, An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake, which is the inspiration for this particular film. It is an intimate portrayal of the two years he and his family resided in Tylerton in the 1990's, one of Smith's three towns. In their collaboration, Tom is the front man, serving as the ambassador to the Shore's legacy communities, writing brilliantly, and narrating in a style reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart.

Tom Horton

Dave Harp, formerly with The Baltimore Sun and now The Chesapeake Bay Journal, is one of the nation's best photographers of the Chesapeake whose work can be found in dozens of publications, including the New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon, and Sierra magazines. Dave is the visual director, cinematographer, and drone pilot who gives their work its magic. One of the world's nicest guys, he is intense during filming. I learned to avoid doing things that merited his evil eye.

Dave Harp

Sandy Cannon Brown is an award-winning environmental filmmaker who was associate director for the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University for several years and is a major figure in the environmental film community. She is the glue holding the enterprise together, serving as director, producer, fundraiser, editor, sound engineer, and chief marketing officer among many other tasks.  

Typically the three collaborate on environmental films, but they took a different tack with Island. They focused on how profound changes in Smith's receding land and the island's economy have impacted two stalwarts of the Tylerton community, Dwight and Mara Ada Marshall. Both were born on Smith Island. Both grew up there, met and married there. Both remained there just as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had done since the early 1600s when their ancestors first arrived on the island.

She is an Evans, he a Marshall. They trace their heritage like most people on Smith to those who emigrated from Cornwall, Devon and Dorset in southern England shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Their children, however, have taken a different path, leaving the island permanently for opportunities on the mainland and as far away, both geographically and culturally, as suburban Washington, DC. Their story, like so many others on Smith, means that a population once numbering in the thousands may vanish completely in another generation or two and along with it the tight knit communities that characterize the island's three towns.

Environmental films can be scientific tomes discussing abstract theory devoid of humanity, but that is not An Island Out of Time. It is an elegy to a way of life coming to an end lived by a remarkable and resilient family in the midst of overwhelming natural and economic forces.

Dwight Marshall's shack pictured above is a few steps away from his house. Tens of thousands of pounds of crabs, oysters and even turtles have come through this shack over the decades and been delivered as far away as the Fulton Fish Market in New York and wholesalers in the Far East.

Dwight Marshall

Mary Ada Marshall, along with her neighbors on Smith, popularized her multi-layer Smith Island Cake and successfully lobbied Annapolis to make it the official Maryland desert. She can receive orders for more than 30 a week. She bakes those when not picking crabs caught by Dwight and others for the seafood markets.

Mary Ada Marshall

And here is the entire Marshall family with Sandy, Tom and Dave at the showing of the video at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

Theirs is a touching story. It will make you laugh and leave you with a lump in your throat.

And yes, that's our boat in the middle of the picture below. Her finish is not exactly indigenous to Smith, but her lines are Chesapeake deadrise, one more reminder of a maritime heritage fading away.

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