Baltimore's earth and water got a spring cleaning and greening yesterday.
Hundreds of volunteers, students, Boy and Girl Scouts and environmental experts rose early to meet at more than 50 locations across the city and county to help clear the stream systems and a Chesapeake Bay tributary of trash that befouls the waterways.
Near a hay-colored tidal marsh by the shore of Fort McHenry, a Maryland congressman found a reason to hope that a federally funded effort to reclaim wetlands destroyed by industrialization would work.
"Look out there at the beautiful land. We're reversing the trend. Birds and fish are coming back to life," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. The Democrat could remember a time in the 1970s when you wouldn't dare walk near the polluted water.
Cardin came to the historic fort yesterday to encourage an ongoing environmental project staffed by the National Aquarium that is carefully monitoring water quality and weather -- every 15 minutes or so -- and trying to attract wildlife to use a carefully cultivated 10-acre marsh as a habitat.
The reason they're there is restoration -- "back to the way it was before the British [soldiers] were here," said Glenn Page, the aquarium's conservation director, referring to the battle in the War of 1812.
Yesterday, about 100 people participated in the latest event designed to acquaint the public with the rough grandeur of the land and water surrounding the fort.
Some planted native Maryland shrubs and trees in the marsh soil and others fished for debris.
At the same time, in scattered sites near the Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls and the Herring Run, morning clean-ups coordinated by the Irvine Nature Center took place.
Lisa Green, a sophomore at Morgan State University, came on a field trip with her class taught by professor Livingston Marshall, a marine scientist. A Baltimore native, she had never seen the view from Fort McHenry before.
"It's one thing to learn something and it's another to experience it," she said, taking in the confluence of nature, history and industry.
The Morgan State group collected 1,800 pieces of debris from the marshland in two hours, students said, including two objects to fascinate future archaeologists: a bean bag kangaroo toy and a stress ball.
"We find treasure there all the time," said Chris Trumbauer, 26, a weekend volunteer who works for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Bill Hogarth, acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also came to lend a hand and see a NOAA restoration program at work. Explaining that the state-owned wetlands were created with the completion of the Interstate 95 tunnel in the 1980s, Hogarth said marshes form the basis for fisheries, since they are where birds and fish find nourishment and havens. "We're going to give them some more help," he said, referring to the Fort McHenry site, one of 14 such NOAA monitoring projects around the bay.
Pointing to red-winged blackbirds in the distance, Page said 126 bird and 23 plant species live in the area. "It's no different from a garden," he said.
Page added that a community can maintain a public space if a government entity first puts things in place. "But without community support, it can only go so far," he said.
Several miles north of the Inner Harbor, near Seminary Avenue and Dulaney Valley Road, Lynn Jordan, board president of the Irvine Nature Center, had an epiphany as she and others cleared beer bottles out of a stream.
"I had not a clue there was this beautiful stream here," said Jordan. "What have we done to this country in a few hundred years?"
Cardin, noting Passover, offered a parallel between saving the Chesapeake Bay and the biblical Jews escaping slavery in Egypt.
"Literally the bay was enslaved, in danger of extinction. There was individual leadership, there were special interests, there were plagues and high cancer rates. So, remember the past," he said.
And for the future?
"They carry the message," Cardin said, pointing to the parade of volunteers along the marsh. "You get your hands dirty, you're more likely to carry the message."