They came to the water's edge carrying aluminum pans that seemed perfect for a sheet of lasagna but were filled instead with a marshy mix of sand, soil and grass. Some slid into too-big chest waders and slipped into the creek, where a biologist dressed like a frogman scooped a handful of brown and green and disappeared beneath the water's surface.
One wild celery plant planted, 99,999 to go.
That might seem like a lot of celery grass, or it might seem like a pittance when set against the vast waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Either way, the elementary, middle and high school students who yesterday brought their classroom-grown seedlings to Baltimore County's Rocky Point Park were literally delving beneath the surface to learn a lesson in save-the-bay ecology.
"When I was doing it, I felt like `The Man,' helping the animals, helping the world," said Jasper Baker, 14, who attends the Kennedy Krieger School in East Baltimore. Baker, who dreams of being a scientist, added, "I love plants. They call me `Green Thumbs' in school."
His teacher, Sam Kratz, said, "These kids are mainly in an urban setting, mainly city kids, and they are just becoming familiar with the bay and its problems."
As if on cue, a great blue heron glided past as Jasper and two of his schoolmates stepped into the water yesterday. The big bird, a symbol of bay environmentalism, paused briefly before doubling back on Long Creek and heading toward the Chesapeake.
In all, 70 Maryland schools grew wild celery seedlings this spring for Bay Grasses in Classes, a program organized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Each school received 2,000 seeds, with hopes that 100,000 seedlings would sprout and be planted in beds in Queen Anne's County, southern Prince George's County and in the creek that feeds the bay at Rocky Point.
Because the grasses are out of view, environmentalists feel the need to spread the word that "submerged aquatic vegetation" provides essential shelter and food for crabs, fish and waterfowl.
Thousands of acres of bay grasses have been lost, with much of the decline because of tons of silt dumped into the bay by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. State officials have set an eventual restoration goal of 114,000 acres.
Michael Naylor, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, said many transplanted bay grasses do not survive. But celery grass was chosen, he said, because its chances of reproducing and thriving are better than other species. A bed planted more than a decade ago in the upper Chesapeake Bay is alive, he said.
Since the classroom program started last year, experiments with lighting, soil and water conditions have shown the best conditions for growing the strongest seedlings. The schools share test results through the Internet.
"This is real," Naylor said. "We're really learning about the plants."
He was one of four environmentalists who donned wet suits yesterday morning to await bus loads of pupils from North Harford, Magnolia and Havre de Grace middle schools in Harford County, along with other schools from Carroll County and Baltimore City.
Trios of pupils wearing waders formed a sort of bucket brigade to pass pans of plants to the men, who planted seedlings in a pen about 40 feet long and 10 feet wide marked with stakes and string.
Later, chicken wire will encircle the tender plants. Otherwise, water turtles would feast on them before they have a chance to grow.
After the young people saw their grasses planted, they moved on to other activities designed to raise environmental awareness. They painted fish -- real and rubber. A dead hickory shad, painted shades of magenta and blue, was used to make a print on a T-shirt. They also waded, using seine nets to pull in grass shrimp, tiny silversides and an inch-long flounder.
"It's a get-wet kind of day," said Sally Clement, an educator from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Teachers said their pupils' attention was captured by the hands-on experience of growing the bay grasses.
"They know they are definitely making a difference," said Angie Teagarden, a seventh-grade science teacher at Havre de Grace Middle. "We can talk about it in the classroom, but they're actually doing it. They feel an ownership."
Jamie Baxter, the bay foundation's restoration coordinator for Maryland, said the educational benefits probably will outweigh the real effect the planted grasses will have on the bay.
"It helps create better stewards of the Chesapeake and the environment," Baxter said.
Bill Street, a bay foundation restoration manager, said: "When people get wet and muddy, they tend to learn more."
Pub Date: 5/19/99