Volume XI, Issue 22 ~ May 29 - June 4, 2003

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The Plagues of Summer | Between the Covers

Between the Covers

John Wennersten’s Environmental
Biography of the Bay
For us newcomers, it’s always been take, take, take.
by Sara Ebenreck

It’s a stunning act, looking straight into the flow of the last 400 years of Chesapeake environmental history. John Wennersten, author of The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography, took about 10 years to do his scanning. The result? An eye-opening book and a call for all-embracing change.

Open his book and you find a description of a Chesapeake forest unknown to us 21st century folk: walnut, oak and cypress trees 18 feet in circumference. It would take six adults hand to hand to reach around one of those giants. But colonists didn’t come here to admire the land; they came to make new lives — and profit. Wennersten traces the possibilities. Wild grapes suggested to some the profitability of wineries. Beaver and deer skins had potential. Trees had to be cut to clear space for tobacco fields.

“Damn your souls, raise tobacco!” So Wennersten quotes an English colonial official in 17th century Virginia. In page after page, he helps us see what happened in the colonies. Back in England, early measures to protect the countryside were underway, but in the New World the riverlands were sacrificed to tobacco. By 1638, three million pounds were traveling from the Chesapeake back to Europe. The ancient forest was turned into lumber, potash and ship-building materials, then shipped to England and the Caribbean.

Land, the English thought, was improved by making it productive. Timbering and planting and harvesting took the ‘wildness’ out, civilized the place.

The colonists and founding fathers were dreamers. “Chesapeake waters were from the earliest period defined by private business and state governments as engineering problems standing in the path of business expansion,” Wennersten writes.

George Washington envisioned a canal that would connect the James River with the Kanawha River, thence to the Ohio. Virginian Charles Mercer dreamed of a canal that would join the Chesapeake to the Gulf of Mexico. Would a canal transform the ecology and hydraulics of the Bay? That was outside this visionary box.

“Early ‘wise use’ conservation efforts did exist. Colonials passed laws placing some limits on the taking of fish and the damming of streams,” Wennersten writes. “In 1720, Maryland Law called for dykes along rivers so erosion from plantations wouldn’t silt up the waterways and impede commerce.”

But efforts at protection were often overwhelmed by habits of exploitation or by marching armies who blew up dykes and canals. Baltimore didn’t think about a centralized sewage system until late in the 19th century. Drainage systems emitted raw sewage into Rock Creek and the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Add pesticides like arsenic in farming country and mining wastes in the upper reaches of the Potomac to the wastes produced by industrialization, and the extreme pressure of human activities on life in the Chesapeake was well underway by the late 19th century.

From crises, heroes are born. The Bay’s hero was Dr. Reginald V. Truitt, whose gift was to see the Bay as a great chain of being. In the 1920s, he began to study the ecological problems of the Bay. “In 1919 most of the oysters harvested were going to the canneries and thence shipped overseas to food-starved postwar Europe,” Truitt told Wennersten. The Bay was being “worked to death.”

At the then-new Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at Solomons Island, Truitt led an effort to renew the shellfish industry. Replanting oysters and returning oyster shell to renew the watery beds — projects still in favor today — got underway in the 1920s.

The Enemy Is Us
Sitting in the living room of his Capitol Hill townhouse, Wennersten sums up the issue: “Humans always transform their environment. The idea of a pristine environment is a myth. But in the past, human despoliation of the environment was limited by the population. In the 21st century, we have exponential growth in population.

“Listen to the sound of four million toilets flushing,” Wennersten says to amplify his point. “That’s Maryland’s population. If you multiply that by three flushes a day, you get 12 million flushes. Almost all of that water [with varying levels of treatment] finds its way into the Bay.”

Just as illustrative is the impact of population growth and automobiles in the Bay region. Not only are there chemicals that go from auto and truck exhaust into the atmosphere and come down with the rain. “There’s a simple thing, tapping your brakes,” says Wennersten. “You shave off copper onto the pavement, and it washes into the water.

“Chesapeake has a fatal beauty,” Wennersten muses. “It attracts. It’s adjacent to so many metropolitan areas.”

The habit of going for growth is the 21st century equivalent of the colonial admonition to grow tobacco. When 53,000 acres of land are developed each year in Chesapeake Country, it’s the equivalent of one acre being built or cemented over every 10 minutes. Imagine a pulsing drumbeat echoing six times an hour to mark just how fast the change is happening.

Radical Change
If he wasn’t a radical thinker before the book, Wennersten is now. “The real salvation of the Chesapeake Bay can only take place if Americans are willing to accept a reduction in their standard of living, he says. “Instead of four cars per family, one car. Instead of five TVs in a home, one TV. It’s our lifestyle that determines the impact we make.”

He favors user-fees as one way to cut habits that obviously pollute the Bay. Put a user-fee on lawn fertilizer, which will end up in the waters, he advises “Thenpeople will say, ‘well, why do I need to fertilize the lawn anyway!’”

He also dreams a bit. “If the president of the United States made a wisecrack about SUVS, people might stop buying them,” he says. “When people begin to realize that their lifestyle — including hours in traffic gridlock — is ruining both their mental and physical health, that will help.

“One way to raise consciousness about environmental issues is by going to schools and using poetry and art to talk about things,” he muses. In politics, he advises that “we need to educate the staffers, because a senator will know what his senior staff knows.”

Wennersten walks at least a good part of his talk. Retired from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, he lives in a lovely but modest townhouse where he and his wife can walk to lunch, to a book store, to the subway and the Library of Congress. He wrote a book on bicycling (25 Bicycle Tours on Delmarva) to help the get-out-of-the-car movement. He continues to write short articles to get the appeal for sustainable change out there.

We Cannot Claim Innocence
The love of watery edges that drew early colonists still draws ever more and more people to Chesapeake Country. The exploitative hunger that eats, eats, eats at the ecological health of the Bay region is alive and kicking. “We cannot claim innocence,” says Wennersten in the last line of his book.

Can the creative energy that once drove dreams of canals and ships filled with tobacco shift toward a new dream? Can we figure out how to live in this incredible water place while attending to its creativity as well as our own?

It will take a lot of directed energy to make that happen. If you care about the Bay (or don’t know why you should care), reading Wennersten’s book will help you build a stronger will to act. You’ll see what’s happened, and how very, very deep is the pattern of blind exploitation. That may light a fire in your heart. All over Bay country, you can find companions working to change our human habits.

John Wennersten’s The Chesapeake: An Environmental History was published in hardcover in 2001 by the Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society: $30.

About the Author:
Sara Ebenreck, a former philosophy teacher at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is project director for Chestory: The Center for the Chesapeake Story.


© COPYRIGHT 2003 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated May 29, 2003 @ 1:43am