Wellspring of care for bay endangered

ON THE BAY

September 04, 1993|By TOM HORTON

JUG BAY, Patuxent River -- Morning mist is burning off the broad river marshes. A rising tide braids liquid silver through the dark green spatterdock lilies. Islands of 10-foot high wild rice nod in the breeze, catch the light, green-golden with late-summer flowering.

The old blue crab, from his vantage point on a bluff, inhales the scene, feeds his soul on the ospreys fishing overhead, and the herons shuffling minnow-seeking toes through mud flats below. He relishes the big, mysterious swirl of a fish and the bright traffic of kingfishers and redwing blackbirds.

For the old crab, a k a Tom Wisner, the Chesapeake singer, these are bittersweet times. He's in a molt, seeing yet another set of personal and professional relationships slough away.

Shedding his comfortable, protective shell, he says, seems to be the only way he can grow; but as with real crabs, it's a painfully vulnerable time, and each time it gets harder and more dangerous.

More immediately, this bluff in Prince George's county's Jug Bay Natural Area will make a fine place, he thinks, to teach this morning's session of Humanities 498B, a unique, wonderful and soon-to-be nonexistent offering of the University of Maryland's University College continuing education program.

"From here, I can find some nice words to give 'em," Tom says. During the next few hours he will have his students, mostly business professionals, writing poetry and smearing watercolors to recapture images from the natural places of their own childhood.

"Do you see the next step?" Tom says as the session winds down. "Tie the garden of your childhood to the great, massive nTC garden of the bay's [six-state] watershed -- connect your immediate environment to all the ways 15 million people affect the bay."

Wisner's popular course, "Life in and around the Chesapeake," has been turning students away for years. Its eclectic, 290-page curriculum guide, developed by Tom, is alone worth the price of admission. I would rank it, along with a very few books and films, as essential for anyone wanting to become truly educated about the bay.

Many approaches

It leads you through cultural, geographical, literary, scientific and spiritual approaches to the estuary, drawing on sources from St. Francis of Assisi and John Barth to Cree Indians, muralists, watermen, ecologists and descendants of slaves.

And into all this the course injects Wisner, born under the sign of Cancer the crab, and perhaps the most complete and multitalented environmental educator I have ever met.

Sing, dance, paint, draw, sculpt, carve, write (songs, poems, essays), story-tell -- he could have concentrated successfully, I suspect, in any of these fields, but chose instead to bring them all to bear in the cause of Chesapeake Bay education.

There is nothing else around like his course, and soon there will be nothing like it around at all.

The University College, Tom's been told, is moving more into "distance education," classes tailored for busy adults so they needn't actually attend.

That may be fine for some subjects, but with Wisner, the classroom can stretch from Smith Island to the headwaters of the Susquehanna River.

He doesn't just lecture about how the bay's water quality is hooked to a watershed nearly 20 times its size. He has students come to his southern Maryland studio and run their hands across the three-dimensional watershed map he has built. It's hard to bring the map -- 8-by-10 feet and weighing about 400 pounds -- to class.

Many classes in many schools and universities these days study the bay's rivers. Only Wisner sits you down beside -- maybe even in a river -- and sings you lyrics like:

Hey there wild river/teach me to flow/tell me your poems/

and all the songs that you know/reborn each moment/yet old as the land. . . .

And you may never approach a crab feast again the same after Tom sings to you:

I wonder if some people/ever wonder what it's like/

to be put into a kettle/And have the lid snapped tight/

You wander in the darkness/Can't find your way around/You are destined to become/the tastiest treat in town/

When yooouuu are steeeeeamed aliiive!/

It's not just songs and watercolors. Heavy duty essays are assigned, with emphasis on careful documentation of sources. The subjects can be good enough to borrow for my future columns, like one by Ann Anderson of Laurel that traces changes in bay cultures through changes in piers and docks around the shoreline.

Tom's class at Jug Bay ends at noon, but some students who have business and marketing experience linger. They are upset by the abrupt dropping of his course, a severe financial blow to Tom, who at 63 does not even have health insurance.

They tell Tom he has a fine product, the way he connects people to nature, and to their own inner natures. People -- and corporations -- will pay good money for such experiences; but Tom must market himself.

The Chesapeake religion

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