When 2 living treasures come knocking at door

ON THE BAY

November 21, 1992|By TOM HORTON

Early morning. Try to make the coffee quietly and not disturb the two lumps on the living room floor. Brown pony tail protruding from one must be Jamie; the blond-thatched sleeping bag is Laurissa.

They usually come our way spring and fall, welcome as the dogwood blossoms and the crimsoning of the maples, driving their big Ford pickup with nine canoes, the tools of their trade, attached. Thanks so much for letting us stay, they always say; motels aren't much fun, and travel budgets are tight. We should pay you, my wife and I always think. You rank right up there with horses as the neatest things in our 11-year-old daughter's life. We couldn't invent better role models.

Jamie and Laurissa are just average members of an extraordinary group, the 40 or so educators employed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to turn 33,000 school kids a year onto the charm and wonder of the Chesapeake.

One of my last tasks before leaving CBF last spring to begin this column was to write the organization's annual report, celebrating its 25th anniversary and recapping the highlights of a quarter century of bay-saving.

I recounted how CBF had grown from the dream of a few citizens into the nation's largest regional environmental organization, with more than 80,000 members and offices in three states.

But as I look back at the five years I worked for the foundation, nothing seems personally so vital as the associations with the Jamies and Laurissas and others, out there for low pay and long hours in the streams and marshes and urban harbors.

Though the bay's biology is their classroom, very few of these educators teach science in the traditional sense. Their aim is to instill a fascination and caring, a sense of stewardship, for the natural world. Without that, no amount of scientific and technical knowledge will save the Chesapeake. And if you think being inspirational is a lazy substitute for scientific rigor, try living for up to six days straight in a CBF education center with 20 seventh-graders, and generating enthusiasm at 5 a.m. for the final day's canoe trip when the weatherman predicts 95 degrees by 10 a.m.

I worked with dozens of these educators, most of them 20 years or more my junior; and whatever knowledge of the bay I was able to give them was well repaid by the fresh and varied ways it got translated to kids.

I remember Brendan, a strapping, ebullient Irishman, and inventor of the Great Blue Heron handshake. He believed in experiencing the bay up close and personal.

The first time I saw him leading a group back from a canoe trip into the marsh, I remarked that it was odd they were all wearing their black, head-to-toe wet suits on such a warm day. As they got closer, I realized it was mud.

Others took a quieter approach. I remember Viva requiring an hour of total silence, so students in a seated circle could touch and contemplate her collection of skulls and bones and shells of bay creatures.

The educators were adept at turning any encounter into thought-provoking environmental lessons. Judy once led a group of us to a special mystery she had discovered in the woods near Wye Island, where the skeletons of perhaps 20 deer lay strewn over an area not more than 100 feet square.

What had happened here? We spent hours examining bones and teeth for signs of starvation, of dog attack.

Were they poisoned? Shot?

We never solved the mystery, but we thought more deeply about the ecology of deer in that hour than we had in the rest of our lives.

Another time, a visit to a huge nesting area, where sea gulls had overrun the habitat of other, scarcer birds, led to a profound discussion about the environmental ethics of raiding some gull nests for a breakfast omelet.

Some of the educators' best work, I thought, came when they simply put the kids in a magical situation and said and did nothing: like drifting silently in canoes on a marsh creek near midnight; fireflies lit the marsh, starlight twinkled in the black water, and the creek edge flamed with cold fire from a bloom of bio-luminiscent algae.

For maximum creativity, I'd have to give an award to Bruce's "oyster game," where each kid, just like the bay's watermen, began the "season" by plunging headlong into a circle littered with chunks of dog biscuit, representing shellfish.

After several rounds, with oysters getting scarcer, and discussions under way about the need to leave some for next year, Bruce let his very hungry dog into the ring, with predictable results.

"Meet MSX," Bruce said, and proceeded to explain how the disease by that name is complicating attempts to conserve the bay's oysters.

There is more to this generation of CBF educators than cleverness in communicating about nature. In their personal lives they tend to live the virtues -- recycling, water and energy conservation, less materialism -- to which many environmentalists of my generation merely pay lip service.

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