Inspiring, remarkable pictures are worth almost 600 columns


October 04, 2005

I've been putting dear, old friends in boxes - nothing funereal, just packing for a move from the home office where I've spent 17 years pecking out almost 600 of these columns.

Writing can be a lonely occupation, so I've surrounded myself with walls full of pictures of people, places and critters who've been inspirational or remarkable over the decades.

Sidney Posuelo I met a long way from the bay. He was a sertanista in the Brazilian Amazon, charged with making first contact with indigenous tribes before civilization overran them.

When I saw Sidney, his men had just been attacked, and a couple of them wounded by a band of natives. To bolster morale, Sidney held up an arrow pulled from one worker, noting how strong and straight and well-crafted it was.

An excellent sign, he told his shaken crew. It meant this tribe still had its act together, that they might be in time to help them retain their culture.

I think of that whenever I get frustrated with bay watermen hollering about conservation laws. If the watermen ever stopped rattling cages, Chesapeake politics would be a lot easier - and we would all be the poorer for it.

Then there's the late Jimmy Hancock, a small, hunchbacked man who made his living as a cobbler in Charles County. His politics were to the right of most environmentalists, but no one was a fiercer defender of nature.

He earned a law degree by correspondence to fight for Mattawoman Creek, a tributary of the Potomac that still has some of the highest biological diversity and quality of any Maryland waterway. That it does is tribute to Jimmy Hancock.

In 30 years of covering the environment, I've learned as much in a dozen or so extraordinary days as in the rest of that time put together.

A canoe paddle with Jimmy was one such day. He showed me his childhood swimming hole, where his father had swum before him, and dense clusters of rare, giant water lilies where he would lie on the sun-dappled gravel of the creek bottom and breathe through the hollow stalks.

We saw wood duck chicks and flowering aquatics, and smelled the delicate scent in the root of a marsh plant. He spun tales he used to tell his kids about a magical Mattawoman community presided over by Old Judge Owl and Old King Possum.

There is Walter Boynton, who's devoted his life to bay science at the University of Maryland's laboratory at Solomons. No one translates the findings of academia into gritty English better than Walt.

Many years before governments got around to defining the current bay restoration goals of reducing nutrients in sewage and manures and curtailing the runoff of sediment, I had asked Walter what was killing the bay.

"Most likely too much s - - and too much dirt," he said, noting we would spend a lot of time and money before we convinced everyone of that.

Judy Johnson, now living in a Cockeysville retirement home, showed me what a single person can accomplish. Not that Judy saved Assateague Island from development single-handedly; indeed, she involved everyone from the highest levels of federal government down to the local volunteer level.

She spent decades without pay spearheading her Committee to Preserve Assateague. If you ever wondered how we saved the environment before the rise of professional environmental organizations, it was people like Judy.

Arthur Sherwood's picture evokes such a mix of memories. His boundless enthusiasm for the bay sometimes led to bizarre ideas, like equipping school kids with snowshoes so they could better explore the marshes; but he had many winners, like starting the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, now probably the biggest regional environmental organization in the nation.

His suicide was a shock and loss to the bay community. The day I heard about it, I told my late wife, Cheri, who was in a cancer ward in Baltimore. Cheri was one of the kindest people on earth, and she liked Arthur a whole lot, but her reaction was swift and hard: "That s.o.b. - some people are fighting for life, and he just gives it away."

Great blue herons also line my office walls. They are elegant birds, found from tidal salt marshes to mountain bogs and inland ditches. They exploit the bay and its 64,000-square-mile watershed more thoroughly than any other creature, with the possible exception of humans.

They are survivors, supremely adaptable and on no one's endangered list anywhere - nice to see when you are writing so often about environmental losses.

Finally, atop the computer monitor where I write sits the shedded shell of a horseshoe crab. Old Limulus was firmly established in the geologic record more than 100 million years before dinosaurs arose.

Human endeavors have struck the crab some blows - overfishing and developing sandy shorelines where it spawns. But every summer on full and new moon nights, horseshoes crawl out en masse to mate as they have for some 300 million years.

I have little doubt they'll outlast our upstart species. They counsel patience and humility, good qualities for writing and for life.

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