I’m going to guess that, all things considered, the Davis Island we saw yesterday is not so different than what William Selkrig found here in 1777. A British loyalist, he then received a royal land grant, but quickly learned how precarious our dreams of land use can be. Seized by Americans, Selkrig found his farm was empty when he returned: local Indians -- the land's first inhabitants -- had claimed his property as their own. Later, the new American government refused to honor Selkrig’s British grant, so he left the region for elsewhere.
We stopped at Davis Island at my request; I wanted to at least stand in a place that had defeated so many land owner’s dreams.
The island is named for Joseph Davis -- older brother to Jefferson Davis, U.S. Senator, and later president of the Confederate States, who also had a home on the island. Davis, who acquired land here in 1818, had unusual views for the time. He trained his slaves to read and write -- and many other skills; he built them a hospital; when they were accused on infractions, he had them tried by a jury of peers. (Don’t mistake this for a more moral position: still Davis viewed other human beings as things to own. He just believed he’d get more work, and better value, if he treated them halfway well.)
During the Civil War, the island was used as a freedman’s colony; afterwards, Benjamin Montgomery, one of the most talented of Davis’s former bits of property, bought up the plantation and tried to run it as a cooperative, black-owned farm. Again and again, these utopian visions were defeated by the same villain: lazy neighbors who failed to build a solid levee on the next farm up the road. When the floods came, that failure meant the water poured onto the land.
The work that’s done to turn riverside land to a plantation could be justly called geoengineering: you build up a wall; drain the landscape of water; alter the soil; introduce a whole new ecosystem. Geoengineering is almost always compromised by one challenge: if one group fails to cooperate, the whole thing isn’t going to work. (Later that afternoon, I read a New York Times article that mentioned potential "irreconcilable geopolitical frictions" that might beset any attempt to fight climate change.)
On Earth Day, on Davis Island, this was a worthy insight: saving an ecosystem -- or a whole planet -- requires more than connecting people with the land. It requires connecting people with each other: collaboration, cooperation, working hand in hand.
Under the current regime, Davis Island appears to be doing just fine. The current private owners run it as a hunting camp and timber operation, one of the busiest we’ve seen. Still, it’s nice to see its woods in bloom. I granted myself a bit of that bloom: as we stood on the riverbank -- protected forever by a public easement -- I helped myself to a snack of the dewberries growing there.