There was a time, not long ago, when the creatures of the Chesapeake Bay decided they'd had it. They were fed up with the pollution, the chemicals, the runoff, the poison. And so, one night, they picked up and left.
Eventually, the fish came back in "The Day They Left The Bay," the award-winning children's tale written by Annapolis maritime advocate Mick Blackistone.
But when schoolchildren ask the author, "Will the fish come back?" he tells it like he sees it. It depends, he says, on them.
Blackistone, known around Annapolis as the executive director of the Marine Trades Association of Maryland, believes adults should prepare children for the problems they'll undoubtedly inherit, like a bay in declining health.
Children, he says, need to learn early about America's largest estuary.
So he tells them stories. During the past year, he has spoken to more than 15,000 elementary schoolchildren who've read his book -- the 1989 winner of the EPA's Environmental Education Achievement Award.
His message about the bay is this.
"If they live there, it is theirs," he says. "Second, they have to play a role and fulfill their responsibility to keep it clean."
Blackistone repeats his message in "The Buffalo and The River," his newly released, second children's book, published by Blue Crab Press in Annapolis.
In this story (illustrated by Jennifer Heyd Wharton), an American Indian teaches a young boy how man's indifference has damaged the bay and reduced harvests of oysters, crabs and fish. The Indian uses the analogy of white settlers moving west across the Great Plains and killing off the buffalo.
The young boy dreams of thousands of fish lying dead on the water and says, "We did that! We killed the fish and everything else because we didn't care what we did with our trash, chemicals, fertilizer or sewage."
"When I began going to schools and talking about the bay from a waterman's perspective, children had a difficult time creating an image of a declining harvest," says Blackistone. "But from cowboys and Indians, they know about buffalo."
The book also lists ways children and their parents can help preserve the bay and rivers, from taking shorter showers to recycling garbage to planting trees.
Blackistone attempts to reach adults through his books, too.
Two years ago, the author spent a year with Chesapeake watermen, through the crab and oyster harvests. His experiences on the water, and as a lobbyist for the Marine Trades Association, resulted in "Sunup to Sundown: Watermen of the Chesapeake."
The book -- used now in several university sociology and anthropology courses -- documents life and work on the bay, as well as the increasing regulations, development and pollution that have threatened the watermen's way of life.
Blackistone never worked as a waterman. But since 1978, the 44-year-old Annapolis resident has run M.S. Blackistone & Associates, a public relations firm that has represented more than 80 maritime companies.
And his connection to the water stretches even farther back, to his days growing up near the lower Potomac River in St. Mary's County, on a family tobacco farm worked by tenant farmers, near men who labored on the water.
Along with "The Buffalo and the River," Blackistone has released a collection of poetry accompanied by works of Chesapeake Bay photographer Marion E. Warren. Warren has published six books of photographs and donated more than 100,000 negatives and prints to the Maryland State Archives.
Blackistone, who sees the heart of the bay and its changing environment in Warren's photos, approached the 65-year-old Annapolis photographer almost a year ago with his idea.
"He said it was an interesting concept and gave me some proofs. I did 15 poems to the pictures and met with him again. He liked it."
For the past year, he'd wake up at 4 a.m. and write until 7 a.m., studying the moving photographs of bay and farm life.
In one photo, an elderly waterman wearing rubber boots and a cap is perched atop a worn, wooden workboat that appears to have seen better days.
"I've been thinking lately," Blackistone's accompanying poem goes.
"Maybe we should make some changes. Nothing dramatic you understand. But, I suppose, we could do a few things to make our relationship a little, just a little, more exciting. I treasure my time with you. The open relationship, times of silent reflection, planning.
"Even when I'm furious with you I'd still rather be with you than somewhere else. Yea, we should make some changes. I think they'd make us feel better even though we feel good now. Just something small to start with. So, anyway, I'll get the paint."
Blackistone says the book has passed its first, true test.
Watermen who read that particular poem laughed and told Blackistone, "Yeah, that's me."