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Commentary by Nina Beth Cardin
I am a landlubber. I sailed solo in my youth, canoed and swam in ice-cold rivers and even fished. But I am not — by any stretch of the imagination — a water person.
Yet that has always puzzled me because I grew up in Baltimore — a harbor town defined by and reliant on the water.
I remember fourth or fifth grade, when we studied the attributes of our fair state — our flag, our geography, our major industries and resources. We were given black and white maps with the counties boldly outlined and were told to fill in their names, color their spaces and highlight the economic engines that drove them all. But the exercise did not include, that I can remember, the Bay itself.
If we schoolchildren were taught the value of our rivers, the romance of the Bay, their unique geological history and colorful traditions, I missed it.
Much has changed in 40 years. The Inner Harbor now reminds us landlubbers that Baltimore is a water town. The booming residential construction and human migration to all sides of the harbor demonstrate the water’s lure. The health (or “ill-th” as some might call it) of the Bay is news. Gov. Martin O’Malley’s penchant for fact-driven policy has created BayStat, a tool that allows us “to assess, coordinate and target Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay restoration programs and to provide citizens with a way to track our progress.”
But the truth is, raw facts do not motivate us. Facts embedded in a compelling story do. Baystat may form the incontrovertible scaffolding of Chapter Two. But what is missing is Chapter One: the once-upon-a-time narrative of the rivers and the Bay, the stuff that seeps into our dreams, that children conjure up in their play, the stories that rouse passions and delight.
For those who live on or by the water, the Bay is the metronome of their lives, beating out the pulse of time. It colors their days, spices their air, brings forth their food, spreads before them in broad, open spaces. The water runs along the edges of their homes and in their veins.
For the rest of us, though, the Bay hardly exists. And yet we, all 17 million of us scattered throughout the six states and the District of Columbia of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, affect the quality of its water and in turn are affected by it.
So the question is, how do we get all of us — the far-flung denizens of the Chesapeake watershed who are bound together by the lay of the land and the water that rushes by us — to our common pool, to care about our rivers and our Bay?
Chapter One. The stories. Think of the storied Thames, the Mississippi, the Nile, and the Amazon. (The Chesapeake is, after all, a drowned river. How dramatic, or romantic or adventurous.)
The Chesapeake region (the Bay and its watershed) does not lack such romance or history or stories. We can hold our own with the best of them. It is just that our stories are largely unknown beyond the water’s edge.
Bay storyteller Tom Horton, on the one hand, and the “Bard of the Chesapeake” Tom Wisner, on the other, are rightly celebrated and stand out in their power and talent. But we no doubt have more hidden jewels.
Their work is likely hidden in the attics and cupboards of old Eastern Shore houses — the diaries of the watermen, their wives and their pastors. They are likely on mimeographed sheets in local shore libraries. Or in kitchen drawers next to the keys to the tool shed.
We need to surface and encourage and promote all of this work, speak of it, celebrate it. We need to hear about the moods of the Bay. How many shades of anger does she have? How many styles of softness? We need to publish and broadcast and You-Tube the full-bodied, sun-streaked, wind-blown, river-swept, bank-sitting, foot-dangling, water-logged stories from all up and down the vast Chesapeake Bay and her great rivers.
How wonderful that Preservation Maryland's Endangered Maryland program recently placed the Chesapeake Bay “watermen” on the endangered icon list. How great that there is an effort afoot “to provide watermen and their family members skills they would need to provide tours or programs about their region's stories, their local waters and their work.”
We are all sentient beings who “think” as much with our hearts as with our minds. To tell the stories of the Chesapeake region is a necessary companion to speaking the facts of the Bay. Once animated in story, the Bay will become more than a commodity or policy issue or even economic engine. It will become — as it is — our enchanted home.
Nina Beth Cardin writes from Baltimore. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.