Lessons, hidden amid bluebirds and sunflowers and marshes, line a lazy trail that follows the contour of the Patuxent River. And to learn them, students of nature don't even have to get their feet wet.
The wildlife and land by the water are the teachers, conservationists say, and what they teach remains unchanged: Save the natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay.
From noon until 3 p.m. tomorrow and for the next three Sundays, the public is invited to visit this natural classroom in Upper Marlboro and to take part in a driving tour, as part of the state's fourth month-long Party on the Bay celebration.
And as part of an effort to educate the public about restoring thbay, activities for the month also include crab feasts, fishing tournaments and environmental exhibits.
"The driving tour doesn't have all of the hoopla of food and music [like the other Party on the Bay activities]. It's a much more tranquil event," said Eleanor Falk of the Governor's Chesapeake Bay communications office.
The self-guided tour, called the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Driving Tour, starts at the entrance to the Jug Bay Natural Area of the Patuxent River Park on Croom Airport Road in Croom and ends at the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary.
The "critical area" includes the bay and its tributaries, such as the Patuxent, as well as the land underneath those bodies of water and the land within a 1,000 feet of them, according to Tom Ventre, a staff planner for the Critical Area Commission.
Surrounding zones important to the vitality of the bay include the wetlands, which serve as breeding grounds for wildlife, and the forest buffer zones, which protect the area from soil erosion.
Signs explaining the historical and ecological importance of the area mark the trail. "The interpretive messages that are on the driving tour talk about how important it is to protect the natural resources," said Greg Lewis, a nature facility program manager for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Historical evidence of human habitation along the shores of the Patuxent dates back more than 8,000 years, where primitive tribes of American Indians lived until New World colonists began developing port towns there in the late 1600s. Commerce on the river continued until the early 20th century.
Although development has replaced some of the natural vegetation along portions of the Patuxent, the river remains a vital tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, and the efforts to protect it are serving as a model for how to save and protect the bay.
"The Patuxent River is like a microcosm of the bay," said Mr. Lewis. Like the bay, the Patuxent has a freshwater influence, a marshy area in which freshwater and saltwater mix and an area of commercialization, providing a near-perfect replica of what is going on in the Chesapeake Bay.
The shore along the Patuxent is also an area of concentration for conservationists. "What happens in that 1,000 foot ribbon has a severe impact on the bay," said Mr. Ventre.
Concern for the water quality and the animal and plant life surrounding the bay and its tributaries inspired the formation of the Chesapeake Bay Initiatives, a series of legislative acts passed by the Maryland General Assembly. The Critical Area Criteria for these initiatives, passed in 1984, calls for restrictions on shoreline development, designation of a forested buffer area around tidal waters and the development of local guidelines for long-term protection of the bay's natural assets.
"We're not saying don't develop -- just, if you must develop, follow these rules," said Mr. Ventre, who attributes much of the problem to the fact that "everybody wants a view of water."
Highlights of the driving tour include a 40-foot observation tower that provides an expansive view of the river and a boardwalk to the river that gives visitors another opportunity to get out of the car and get a closer look at the water. A 1,000-foot wooden bridge curves over marshland and joins Prince George's County land with state-owned land.
Black-eyed Susans, Maryland's state flower, line the route joining fields of golden sunflowers bending toward the sun. Bluebird nest boxes can also be seen as part of a Prince George's County effort to save the declining population of bluebirds in the east. Osprey nest boxes stand in the critical area to attract the brownish hawks.
And if birds are what you're flocking to see, the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary and Visitors Center, which sits at the end of the driving tour, provides the perfect setting. The sanctuary is named for Merkle Press founder Edgar Merkle, who donated his land to the state in the early '70s, and was instrumental in convincing his neighbors to do the same, for the primary goal of reintroducing Canada geese to Maryland's western shores.