Studies at Spitzer's Choptank U Place: The "professor" teaches that while an unexamined life is not worth living, an unexamined region is not worth living in, either.

On the Bay

August 16, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT WAS MID-JULY WHEN Paul Spitzer and I set out for a summer ramble through southeastern Talbot, where the mid-Shore county's waterfront estates and touristy sailing towns and upscale developments named for the natural features they bulldozed aren't to be seen; where the landscape remains pleasingly textured, parceled among woods and corn and wheat, interdigitated with the green and marshy corridors of tidewater streams; where back roads and creeks wind down to funky Choptank hamlets like Windyhill.

Travels with Paul are always meanders, excursions into lovely, unanticipated streams of thought. Canoe launching must wait as he regales a man, mowing grass, with the status of the Choptank near his house in Windyhill:

" Endless, deep delight; just enough of a plankton bloom to make it bottle green when you open your eyes underwater; and a touch of saltwater coming up from the bay. It makes the water feel silky on your skin, and you can just swish your body about like you'd do a fishing lure, except you are the lure and it is just an endless, deep delight. "

He is forever breaking out with stuff like that, spontaneous as breeze, lovely as sunset. Paddling for the next few hours is a smorgasbord of nature and Spitzer, intertwined.

We pass young eagles, learning to fish, he notes, by gliding from dead trees on the bank to pluck catfish, perch and carp. A white fledging feather from one drifts down, delicate as a mimosa blossom, settling so lightly on the brown creek it does not break the surface tension.

Onward, past bumper crops of beechnuts and the flute calls of wood thrush, past the scratchy creaking of cowbell frogs and swaths of spatterdock and sweet flag and marsh mallow.

Around a bend, a vista of ripening green-golden wild rice, tall and plumed, flows into darker shades of tasseling corn that roll up and back from the creek. A red farm building caps the picture.

The juxtaposition of human and natural bounty is beautiful, art even -- but farm runoff may be polluting the creek if the landowner is not zealously managing chemical applications in accordance with bay restoration guidelines.

"To be happy on this planet, you have to be a humanist and a naturalist," Paul muses, "but you also see this incredibly unfinished aspect to humans. I think of us as on a voyage of understanding; and the life well-lived partakes both of the spaceship [Earth] and of the voyage."

The life well-lived. Later I recall that phrase, an unexamined life being not worth living. Perhaps an unexamined region is not worth living in, either -- in fact, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We can live sustainably with nature only to the extent we value her; and we can value her only to the extent we fully comprehend the impacts, obligations and delights of the human-nature relationship.

So it is that today's trip is a pleasant afternoon ramble, but also continuing education credits for the environmental writer.

And this is a Talbot County creek, but also a University of Place, Spitzer State College.

And Paul, that rarest of all birds, a free-lance Ph.D. whose resume runs from studies of cranes on the Tibetan plateau to researching heavy metals in Canadian ospreys and the ecology of wintering loons on the Chesapeake -- he is also a professor of disciplines that scarcely exist, but surely should.

The writer Barry Lopez proposed roughly this sort of thing, "to bridge the chasm between a colonial attitude toward the land and a more filial relationship with it."

Every university and college, he said, should create a position for a senior student, to become intimate with all the nonhuman elements of the campus, to record the knowledge gained, pass it on to others, confer with architects and groundskeepers.

The idea does not go far enough. Environmental education in bay region schools, from pre-K to colleges, has grown by leaps in recent years.

But it is just scratching the surface if we are to make living sustainably on this bay and this earth a full-fledged element of good citizenship -- a necessary extension of the Jeffersonian democratic ideal of virtuous and informed citizens living close to the land.

We need a mature curriculum devoted to what, awaiting a catchier phrase, I'd call "Learning How to Live in a Place."

It would involve plenty of standard teaching positions and established academic disciplines, but to infuse it with proper spirit would require a Spitzer, who headed for the Choptank recently instead of the lab because "the fringe trees were blooming."

Such a person would focus on the locality where he or she was -- but the lessons learned would not be parochial; rather they would instill in our mobile culture how -- wherever one plunks down -- to go about fitting in with natural society as well as human -- civilization in the full sense of the word.

This should be extended to every corporation and research laboratory and newspaper worth their salt. Each ought to have fully funded, resident position, for which prototypes exist besides Spitzer's Choptank U.

I also attend the University of Small Watersheds, run by biologist Nick Carter; and the College of Lower Dorchester, headed until his death this week by forester Tommy Tyler. Recently I was accepted into Chesapeake Bay Foundation official John Page Williams' Severn River Institute of Fishing and Beyond.

On our voyage of understanding, such schooling must become part of the core curriculum.

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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