As nature retreats, so does quality of our lives

This Just In...

July 30, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

A GREAT BLUE HERON flying against the sun casts a pterodactyl shadow and, if you've ever canoed the Susquehanna River or Deer Creek, the shadow suddenly on the water can give you a start, whiplash if you look up too quickly. The only thing more startling is the heron's cry -- a supernatural shriek from the backwaters of time.

I heard that cry for the first time while prospecting for trout in the Big Gunpowder Falls in Sparks, northern Baltimore County.

I'd seen heron hundreds of times -- perched in rows, formal as sitting judges, on rocks in the Susquehanna; standing still and primed for spearfishing on the banks of Deer Creek and at a place I call Father's Day Pond -- but I'd never heard one shriek.

It took my breath away.

The heron caught me as I waded through the Gunpowder, looking for trout. It was one of those sullen summer mornings, about 6: 30, quiet and cloudy. Hardly any traffic on the road to the river. No human sounds from the hike-and-bike trail nearby. A dearth of birds and song.

Then, sudden as a gunshot, the heron shrieked. The shriek echoed off the river.

To call it loud is to demean it. The heron's shriek has not only decibels but depth. It's a spiral of sound, as if there are shrieks within the shriek, generations of herons crying out from the soul of the living bird. The great animal, wings spread, circled and shrieked again.

Then the shriek diminished into a squawk, and the heron soared over a leaning sycamore tree, complained once more and disappeared.

I know what this sounds like -- it sounds like I got into the Jack Daniels before breakfast again -- but I'm pretty sure the great blue heron was angry with me, and maybe with all the other anglers and waders and canoeists and kayakers who muck up his home waters. I heard in his prehistoric shriek a chorus of animal spirits crying out for freedom -- more room, more space, more time left alone, more opportunity to feed and to thrive. The bird must have felt crowded, violated.

I called it a day and went away. The fish were more important to the heron than to me. I drove home -- past the new, single-family houses along the road to the river, past new McMansions on the rolling hills of an old farm in Sparks, past the construction of a shopping center where a Cockeysville strawberry field used to be.

Do you ever wonder where it's all heading? The land, I mean, the quality of life.

Smart Growth. Controlled Growth. Growth Management. Managed Growth. Politicians keep telling us these initiatives and imperatives exist -- that we've changed our ways -- but all I ever see is more development. We live in a society that measures progress by building permits.

In Glen Burnie, Harundale Mall is being redeveloped and that's good. If a Wal-Mart had to go somewhere in central Baltimore County, I guess it's good they stuck it in Hunt Valley Mall, instead of destroying another woodland for it. I guess that's Smart Growth.

But they are exceptions. Most of what i see around here is new development -- more open space disappearing after a couple of decades of phenomenal growth and, in certain counties, out-of-control growth.

I don't see where we've changed our ways in the profound, holistic, earth-loving way that is necessary. A few weeks ago, I saw a bulldozer eating up trees in a forest that will soon become another massive shopping center. It made me want to shriek like the great blue heron.

How much further can we go with this? The population keeps growing, keeps pressuring the land. When are we going to start thinking about the future? When are we going to look inward again -- to the older suburbs and to Baltimore for good housing, a good way to live and to work?

In 1990, about 14.2 million people lived in what experts call the Chesapeake Bay drainage basin. By next year, that number is expected to be 15.5 million, and by 2020 it will be 17.7 million. Maryland, already one of the nation's most densely populated states, is expected to add a million people to its population of 5 million by 2020, according to the state Office of Planning.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that, throughout the Chesapeake watershed, 10 acres of land are developed every hour.

That's 1,680 acres a week.

That's 87,600 a year.

American Forests, a national conservation group, looked at loss of tree cover in the southeast portion of the Chesapeake watershed, including the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. It found that leafy areas dropped from 6.3 million acres to 4.4 million in just 25 years.

The three bay states -- Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania -- have lost 56 percent of their wetlands since Colonial times.

The last message from John Griffin, ousted recently by the governor as secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, appears in a special Chesapeake Bay edition of the department's magazine, The Natural Resource. Looking into the 21st century, Griffin predicts: "More engine exhaust will emit more pollutants into the atmosphere. ... More nutrient-filled runoff from lawns and fields will foul the rivers and streams. ... More strip malls and parking lots will consume more acres of forests and wetlands, damaging more habitat. ..."

No wonder the great blue heron shrieks.

Pub Date: 7/30/99

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