I always worry, as I dust off the syllabus and prepare my fall course at Salisbury University – will the final exam show up?
Storms along their 4,000-mile migration corridor, conditions on their sub-Arctic nesting grounds might delay the wild swans. They seldom arrive where I take my students until just before the semester ends.
I designed “Topics in Chesapeake Bay” to be different. The university affords me the luxury of doing it as an inspirational condiment atop the required courses.
To cram what’s important from more than 60 years of living and reporting on the Chesapeake into 15, three-hour classes, we often talk more about land than water, about economics than ecology, about retooling our lifestyles than inventing new tools to cut pollution.
We start basically. This estuary is one good eatin’ place if we treat it right. The lecterns in the Liberal Arts school are ill-designed for shucking oysters, picking crabs and disemboweling and filleting rockfish, but we manage. A good time – and a biology lecture – is had by all.
We also start broadly. The syllabus begins: “(this course) is about learning how to live in a place without screwing it up.”
Which brings me to giving hope. Many of my environmental studies majors are quite aware that we are screwing up the bay, not to mention the planet. Their chosen major, some joke, is a ticket to four years of being depressed.
Easy enough to depress them, and I won’t gloss over the realities; but without hope, we might as well send them home after we finish off the crabs and oysters in that first class.
To me, hope means envisioning, without resorting to science fiction, pathways to a Chesapeake about which we can someday feel optimistic.
There’s plenty to teach there. We start with the tried and true, like funding good science, setting standards and deadlines, enforcing regulation and penalties. Not sexy, but where we’ve done it, as with rockfish, as we’re doing with blue crabs and maybe soon menhaden and oysters, it works.
Then there’s food. Just shifting from the unhealthy amounts of meat we eat to a diet that is still far from veggie could dramatically cut farm runoff, the bay’s biggest source of pollution.
There’s the odd but almost universal notion that we must forever grow the economy and the population or face ruin – quite impossible on a finite planet. So we talk about prosperity within a stable economy and population.
Energy use. I pick on the tiniest student and ask whether anyone would call them whale-like? Calorically, even the smallest among us consumes as much energy per day to live and drive, heat and cool, as a mature sperm whale. Someday we’re going to all tow whale size balloons around campus to demonstrate how much ‘space’ we take up ecologically.
I assign students to “projects.” Nick Carter is one. He’s a biologist who has lived on a piece of land without screwing it up – indeed making it better – for half a century. Nick’s one of what I call the “elemental people” of the region – farmers, watermen, naturalists – people who educated me through their deep and intimate connections to land and water.
And we take field trips, which require precious Saturdays out of campus life. As an incentive I promise, “show up sober for all field trips and you’re 25 percent of the way to an A.”
We go to Smith Island, where the bay’s nature still drives the show instead of the other way around. We paddle the shore’s biggest agriculture drainage ditch, to where ditching stops, and the natural meander of water resumes its magical way, showing the difference between straight lines and curves, between ditches and swamps. We learn in bay forests, nestled around the buttressed trunk of a 560-year-old bald cypress.
I try to model. Sometimes I think that long after they forget about the Chesapeake’s two-layered circulation, they might recall the old prof rode his bicycle everywhere.
We walk down by the local river and I wade out and grub in the muddy bottom and come up with a chunk of giant aquatic root the class never dreamed was down there. It fed the native Americans, and it still grows abundantly right here in the city limits.
This leads to talking about how resilient this bay and the lands that drain it can be if we give nature space to operate.
Finally, we go out at sunset, down a lonely dirt road, to a green river corridor protected by the state, to wait for the swans.
I’ve got tons of facts on the physiological adaptations of long distance migrators and the importance of protected shorelines.
But the real lesson’s just beauty; a beautiful way to end the school year.
Tom Horton is author of six books about the Chesapeake. This column was distributed by Bay Journal News Service.