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How to Love the Bay

Tom Wisner’s lessons live on in Gather ’Round Chesapeake

    Where does the hope lie?
    Hope lies in bringing forth the truth about the Chesapeake Bay and placing our awareness right next to the issue, facing it. An answer might not come in this generation, but we must seek it.

–Tom Wisner


In Chesapeake Country, we embrace the environment, encourage conservation and fancy ourselves as amateur historians and naturalists. We’re at the right place at the right time.
    Green was not always in. Forty years ago, our rivers and bays had to put up with the worst we could give them. At the low end of the spectrum, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it regularly caught on fire. The Chesapeake’s case was not so dramatic. But we all know its plight.
    Many, many of us even care about it.
    How did we get from then to now?
    For many people throughout the great Chesapeake watershed, Tom Wisner was a mover in changing our attitudes. His works and words made us love our Bay and want to do right by it.
    Tom worked his magic person to person, and mostly in person. So his death in his 79th year, on April 2, 2010, could have meant we’d be caring for the Chesapeake with our minds but not our hearts.
    Had not Tom’s friends acted to keep his vision alive.
    This very week, the first of a new book of Wisner’s love songs to life and the Bay appears.

     The Wisner Legacy    

    The Tom Wisner Legacy Group is creating many other projects to build on Tom’s work.
    Chestory, the Center for the Chesapeake Story Tom founded with Sara Leeland and now directed by Jane Clement, is finishing the music charting Tom started so it can continue to be sung.
    Musicians Teresa Whitaker and Frank Schwartz, who joined Tom on his recordings, are working with poet Michael Glaser to bring out a songbook, based on the charts from Chestory, of Tom Wisner and Whitaker’s children’s songs. Next comes a complete Wisner songbook for all ages.
    A digital Chestory Archive of Regional Story and Song — including interviews with Chesapeake watermen and women, photos and more — is being compiled at Calvert Marine Museum, under the direction of archivist Richard Dodds.
    WRYR FM Radio continues to air Tom’s seasonal programs. The Smithsonian Folkways carries Tom’s two early recordings, Chesapeake Born and Come Full Circle.

Gather ’Round Chesapeake

    Gather Round Chesapeake, its 126 pages hot off the presses, is being introduced at Tom’s beloved river at Patuxent River Appreciation Days October 7 thru 9 at Calvert Marine Museum.
    Editor Sara Leeland began her project imagining she’d be writing a biography. But as she scoured Tom’s journals, their Chestory communications, and “box after box in the Wisner archives at Calvert Marine Museum,” his words and images so moved her that bringing them to your eyes became her mission.
    As she read, “My heart leapt like his favorite image of a thousand geese rising up on a river,” she said.
    From We Are of This Place to Living Ever Deeper, his writings are organized into nine sections of themes central to his life. Most of these poems, reflections, pictures and drawings are published here for the first time.

Romancing Mother Earth

    “I am searching, sifting through the answers, looking for the questions,” wrote Tom in the poem Choosing Life.
    You get a sense of the forces that moved Tom in the poem What Mother Earth Would Teach:

When I think about
what the mother earth, mentor
of all teaching and teachers, would teach us—
I believe she would gather us in the morning
and make light over the world
and fill it with turtle and crow and all
the songs of creatures we know and love.
She’d honor the souls in forest, field,
shallows, rivers, and sea; and she’d say:
‘Do this in remembrance of me.’

    A Washington native, Tom was born at Walter Reed Hospital on June 29, 1930. He served with the Air Force in Japan during the Korean War, went to college, did graduate studies in biology and ecology at Cornell University, began his career as a biological researcher in D.C. and then as a naturalist at Sequoia National Park. From 1966 to ’69, he taught high school science in St. Mary’s County.
    His saga took a leap at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, where Gene Cronin hired him as regional educator. There, Tom created his experience-oriented children’s laboratory and educational program.
    A decade later, Tom became the Chesapeake’s self-appointed troubadour, its roving writer, singer, artist and teacher. He continued in that work  until his death.
    “It’s important for us to understand the science of the Bay, and Tom was trained as a scientist,” Leeland says. “But many people hear the science, and it leaves them cold. It takes a story teller to make that story real.”
    Tom Wisner was that storyteller.
    In workshops or concerts, he was the ultimate showman. You were having so much fun that you hardly noticed you were learning — and changing.
    Tom’s most beloved audience was children, because, he said, they were open to wonder.
    So he made special friends of teachers throughout the region, who have in turn taught his songs and wisdom to eager students. Chesapeake Born is so widely sung that it’s the people’s anthem of Chesapeake Country.

Connected by Love

    I’m one of those teachers. I knew Tom for over 30 years — though he did not know me. I attended his workshops and seminars, used his lesson plans, songs and videos in my classroom. I was entertained by him numerous times, finally at his January 29 mid-snowmaggeden concert at the Calvert Marine Museum, his next-to-last public performance.
    Like me, everybody who heard Tom felt they knew him, and that was part of his plan.
    “An essential ingredient to any relationship is love and respect,” he wrote. Connection was the central theme of his life and doctrine.
    “The experience of connection is the essence of teaching about the Bay,” he wrote. “A transition from the concept of use to the concept of relationship is crucial to our full appreciation for our interactions with the life of the Chesapeake Bay. The notion of listing the best uses of the Bay is akin to listing the best uses of our mother.”
    Tom’s legacy continues to shape our lives and environmental policy. It was he who persuaded former state Sen. Bernie Fowler to begin his now legendary Patuxent River wade-ins.
    The wade-ins have become a rite of spring in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties and spread throughout the state. The secret of their success? People got connected, joining hands and joining the water.

Get your copy of Gather ’Round Chesapeake at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, the Annapolis Maritime Museum, or $10.