Realizing we are `made of water'

ON THE BAY

Calling: A performer and educator has spent his life urging people to take care of the Chesapeake.

On The Bay

May 17, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

Hey there wild river, teach me to flow.

Tell me your poems and all the songs that you know ...

The lyrics are from one of the most beautiful Chesapeake Bay songs I know, written by Tom Wisner. It's one of many on his remarkable new CD, Made of Water: Songs of Chesapeake Riverlands, that he'll be performing Sunday evening at the historic Avalon Theatre in Easton.

The CD is Wisner's latest and probably best effort in a lifetime of exhorting people to care for the Chesapeake.

Looking at how much we've damaged the bay in that time, Wisner sometimes rues that he has "spent 40 years walking south - on a northbound train.

But at age 72, preparing for perhaps his last big concert, he says he remains "firmly fixed on getting to the caboose."

Indeed, all the performers who will be on stage with Wisner on Sunday are not only superbly talented musicians, but also have bay water in their veins.

John Cronin, for example, a guitarist from Calgary, Alberta, who backed up the folk duo Ian and Sylvia, is the son of an eminent bay scientist, the late L. Eugene Cronin.

It was the elder Cronin who, as director of the University of Maryland's Chesapeake science laboratories, set Wisner on his performing career.

He recognized, long before environmental education became fashionable, that scientists can show us the way to a restored environment, but artists can set us marching off toward the goal.

"Follow your heart ... get the message out about the rivers," Wisner says Cronin told him. Cronin backed it up by hiring Wisner, something science labs of today ought to be doing.

Wisner has so many talents - in song, dance, painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, storytelling - he might be a lot richer had he focused on one, instead of bringing them all to bear in the cause of educating children and adults about the bay.

But anyone who experiences an evening with him is the richer for it. Wisner has always grasped that the Chesapeake and its rivers, beyond all that science can tell us about them, are a reflection of who we are.

The quality of their waters measures the quality of our lives across the lands of the watersheds - lands that can shed clean water or foul, indulge life or death, depending on how our human communities relate to the natural communities.

"Made of Water," the CD's title song, comes at this complex truth with artful simplicity:

I'm made of water

flowing water

sun and salt

and winds that blow.

Though my bones

were formed in mountains,

It's through my blood

This river flows.

The CD, produced with a $35,000 grant from the Sumner T. McKnight Foundation in Baltimore, features a beautiful mix of guitar and voices, along with thousands of wild geese piping up the dawn, the wind through the rigging of a skipjack, the bawling of Angus cattle, and the liquid warble of the Carolina wren.

Frank Schwartz, one of the guitarists and singers who will be at the Avalon on Sunday, performed for years in Baltimore with O'Malley's March. His wife, Teresa Whitaker, one of the best female vocalists you will ever hear, sang with Wisner on his first album, Chesapeake Born, in 1979.

Wisner's decades as an independent bay performer and educator, working with scant social or financial safety net, sometimes have been tough. He often compares his career to the lifestyle of the Chesapeake blue crab: "To grow, you have to keep shedding your shell, making yourself really vulnerable [like the soft crab after each molt]."

Now, on the strength of Made of Water, it's apparent he has emerged as one of the finest big old crabs the bay has ever seen. In my 40 years of travels throughout the region, I've met few who cut as close to the heart of what we must be about to restore this national treasure.

And true blue to the crab he emulates, Wisner has written maybe the only song ever from the crustacean point of view:

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

You can't find your way around.

You are destined to become

the tastiest treat in town;

When you're STEAMED ALIVE!

And like the crab of that song - who does escape - Wisner continues to hope: "When I am singing with people, and I feel the rhythms rising up, at that moment I am alive and I have hope, completely."

He continues, after all these years, answering his mentor Gene Cronin's charge: "Take the message of the rivers to the people and sing it."

For tickets, which are $18, call 410-822-0345; the CD is available at www.Chestory. org.

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