A New Year’s Vision for Our Old Bay
Bay bard, poet and philosopher Tom Wisner guides the way
by Carrie Madren, Bay Weekly Senior Staff Writer
Surrounded by turtle-shell xylophones, bells, rainsticks, tambourines, guitars, banjos and a keyboard, Bay bard, poet and philosopher Tom Wisner weaves songs. For those songs, he’s known throughout Chesapeake Country and beyond. In 2002, the Chesapeake Bard was honored with the World Folk Music Association’s John Denver award.
At 76, Wisner says that his spirit is more alive than ever.
In his 100-plus-year-old house off Sollers Wharf Road in southern Calvert County which he says he rents “by the skin of my teeth each month” all is wonderfully still. The forest and field around Sollers House, where he lives and works, are quiet and still, like some ancient holy land.
Chesapeake Bay is Wisner’s holy hand.
Becoming attuned to the Earth through music, lyrics, rhythms, listening and watching has been Wisner’s life work.
His is not a vision shared throughout the land. In
the 1960s, he says, people were interested in Bay waters and would fill a room if you called a meeting about rivers. Call such a meeting now, and you’d get a few old, environmental die-hards at best. Citizens are too busy on the runaway train of commuting lives.
Stopping that train of apathy, Wisner says, starts with changing our minds. Wisner’s plea for us to change our view of the Bay valuing the Bay in itself rather than as simply a resource to be used means making changes big and small.
Just as Native Americans looked to elders for advice, as the New Year unfolds, we’ve asked a Chesapeake sage to stand in as father time.
Connecting with the Bay
Around his neck, Wisner used to wear a shark’s tooth millions of years old. He’s replaced it with an equally ancient shell fossil.
“I’m like this guy,” he says, holding up the shell. “I have more in common with a primary consumer than a carnivore.” Wisner’s not a full-fledged vegetarian; it’s the creature-spirit he identifies with.
He’s a fighter, but his character is more persistent than aggressive. More patiently observing than restless.
His is the character of an artist, deepened by a lifetime of learning and teaching the Bay’s waters.
For five decades, Wisner has been writing songs, making music, painting, photographing, teaching and learning. He’s sung the Bay at classrooms at campfires, on radio and on the Today Show.
That lifetime of work for Chesapeake began in the 1960s at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. He reported to Chesapeake Country citizens and the world what the lab was doing to study and help the rivers.
Wisner found his audience disinterested in nitty-gritty science or ecological detail. People as opposed to scientists couldn’t connect with scientific reports about algae or microscopic organisms, he concluded.
“People are interested in mystical, thematic, empowering aspects,” he says. The Chesapeake’s lore, history and value in everyday life are more easily taken to heart.
“The artist in me responded. I began to look at what art has to do with learning about the Earth,” says Wisner, who looks a little like Santa Claus, but with a white ponytail in the back and red suspenders instead of a red suit. “I’ve worked with children through puppetry, painting and art, trying to find my own aesthetic responses to what I know about the planet.”
Wisner started the first environmental education program in the Chesapeake region for young students at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. He chose children because their open minds make fertile ground for nurturing ecology-friendly feelings.
Wisner has learned the rhythms of the land and waters so deeply that those rhythms echo in his own life.
Through art, plays and songs about its science, Wisner taught the Bay to students from elementary school to college. Among his longest tenures of Earth teaching, Wisner has regularly brought Chesapeake art, songs and stories to Hollywood Elementary School in St. Mary’s County.
In the 1980s, he taught college students at the University of Maryland University College. His course, Life In and Around the Chesapeake Bay, a humanities elective, blended Chesapeake studies, economics, science, art and story. Wisner wrote a textbook to complement the course, and he took students around Chesapeake Bay to meet people like Captain Watt Herbert, who, says Wisner, was a “wonderful, charismatic old man” who told the students what it was like making a living on the water. Each class led students to a new Bay place.
That college course was just one lesson he taught on Chesapeake Country.
Other informal courses are songs he’s sung to countless audiences and on albums, most recently, Made of Water.
“His songs opened a new way of identifying with the Chesapeake. ‘Chesapeake Born’ opens a feeling of rootedness in Bay water culture,” says fellow artist and writer Sara Leeland. With Wisner, Leeland founded Chestory, the Center for the Chesapeake Story, a group of Chesapeake artists, scientists and citizens who use art, song and story to connect with the Bay.
“‘Wild River’,” she says, “teaches us how to learn from the rivers: not just of the Chesapeake, but of the world.”
Hey there, wild river teach me to flow!
Tell me your poems and all the songs that you know.
Touch me and wash me, and let me lie down
By the peace of your waters at night on the ground.
Wisner also collaborated with former Sen. Bernie Fowler to create the Patuxent River Wade-In.
In 1988, Wisner wrote a song to kick off the second Sunday in June wade-in that’s now a tradition throughout the watershed. His song, ‘Bernie Fowler Day: A Guide to Wading in the Southern Maryland Waters,’ set the tone and spirit for the wade-in, defining it as a community of people communing in the water, the region’s lifeblood.
You just wade out in the river,
Give it all you got
Right up to your chest.
And then you pick your spot.
Next you take your peepers
And cast them slowly down
On the day we see our feet again
There’ll be celebration in this town.
The wade-in is a legacy that he hopes to see become more diverse and spiritual in the future. He envisions smaller and more numerous wade-ins around the Bay, where neighbors can gather together.
It’s that spiritual essence that the artist in him reveres.
The Art of Change
Singers, painters, poets, writers and sculptors are forces of change, powered by their worldly connection.
Artists like himself, Wisner says, make things happen.
“Looking back, I know that I have an ongoing lyrical response to region,” he says. “The way I can deepen my connection to the Earth around me and my fellow beings is through the lyrical and the aesthetic.”
“Science provides a vital understanding of Bay dynamics,” she says. “But songs and art bring our inner spirits to the Bay and encourage living in a consciousness of that larger life of which we are just one part.”
Wisner has learned the rhythms of the land and waters so deeply that those rhythms echo in his own life.
“I am the Bay; so are you,” he says. “Whatever affect I feel and know in myself, she’s feeling. She has feelings and responses. I experience high stress, and so does she.”
For Wisner maybe for you, too stress comes from having to drive out on the busy highway. Peace comes from sitting in silence on the front porch of his Sollers Wharf Road house. For Wisner, peace flows into joy, overflowing into his lyrics and songs.
When he’s feeling good or when he wants to make a point he can’t help singing a line or two.
His songs, lyrics and rhythms are how he thinks, how he knows the world, how he shares his knowledge, how he inspires, how he works for change.
“These songs, poems, exchanges between myself and folks have really filled my life up,” the Chesapeake artist says. “I’ve made a good living not making money.”
Lesson One from the Bay sage: Absorbing art into our routines enriches our lives and strengthens our Earth connection. We, too, can make a good living by opening our eyes to our surroundings.
Change Moves from the Inside Out
Learn to shift your perception of community and place, Wisner advises, and you’ll discover riches all around.
To move to that richer, more peaceful place, we simply turn the kaleidoscope of how we view the Earth and its systems.
“Our paradigms are so use-oriented,” Wisner says. “Children in our schools are not taught that a tree is a being. They’re taught that it’s there to cut down and to make a house out of.”
On the other hand, he says, when Native Americans cut a tree down to make a house, they would give up tobacco and give gratitude to the tree for what it sacrificed.
“I think we build ourselves and our very material world into our children,” Wisner says. Kids see their parents’ apathy to the Earth and their greed for expensive goods. Kids see parents driving huge SUVs, living in McMansions with little regard for Earth-centered values.
The way we live and our unconscious values and belief systems shows up in every aspect of the culture we create. Even the songs we create reflect our societal values.
There are over 600 songs written about whales, Wisner reports, but only one song that has empathy for the whale.
“That’s one example of how our folk music is about us,” Wisner says.
Just as parents tell their kids you are what you eat, Wisner believes we are what we listen to.
“You’d better watch the songs you sing; they’re going to make you who you are,” he quotes from a song he wrote for the graduation of a friend’s daughter.
Listening is another way to come into Earth harmony. But to hear, we’ve got to quiet down.
The Earth speaks to us, Wisner says, but not in our language. We have to pay attention to “where does the sun rise, the positioning of the sun, and the passing of the sun. We must be open to reading that kind of language.”
How exactly do we tune our ears to Earth?
“With the seasons more than any other way,” says Wisner, who observes two Celtic seasons, the light and the dark. “The fact that the trees are bare,” he says, “that’s a voice.”
To illustrate dialogue with nature, Wisner holds up a photo of his son, Michael, taken three decades ago. About eye level, the child of six or seven holds up a box turtle that swims mid-air.
“Here’s a conversation between a boy and a box turtle,” Wisner says of the picture. “I think all boys have a conversation with a turtle at some point. In this picture, the turtle’s saying Michael, when you grow up, I want you to make pots.” Michael now is a potter in the Southwest.
“To look in the eye of that turtle,” he says, “if you’re open to the conversation, you can realize that that is another soul, another entity in community with you.”
Remaking our World
Long a lone voice, Wisner now finds ample company to sing praise to the waterways.
Centering your values on Earth doesn’t have to mean selling the house and moving to a farm. Spending time in community and nature helps us develop a sense of place, to value and respect.
To start, you don’t have to walk alone. Find inspiration in others. Wisner suggests finding icons to model yourself and your life after. His own icons are author Tom Berry, the Earth scholar and cultural historian whose book Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community came out in fall 2006. Another is Crazy Horse, the Oglala Sioux leader who defied white rule to preserve Lakota traditions. John Muir, preservationist, writer and founder of the Sierra Club, valued nature for its own sake and inspired Wisner to do the same.
Other mentors he finds in nature include the oak, the box turtle, the blue crab and the rabbit. A poster across from his studio desk shows a close-up of a blue crab, two claws and eyes peering out.
“The blue crab is a magnificent animal, and I’ve learned a lot from that animal,” he says. “At some point in my life’s journey, I asked the blue crab a simple question: Tell me about God! It has reported back and its answer has awakened my imagination, teaching me about atonement (at-one-ment). It teaches me that I am not alone here. I am one subject within a great community of subjects to be revered.
“I asked the turtle Tell me about God! and it ambled off into the woodland all alone on its own … self reliant … self sufficient … and ancient as the flow of human blood in the human veins of the known rivers of Langston Hughes.
“Ultimately, I believe it is love that they teach. They teach us humility and gratitude in showing us about a way to love. Thus revere each subject in the great community of life that makes up the creation.
“We have this need of a mentor and of an icon,” he continues, because they inspire us to live out the wise messages they preach.
As well as icons, a second guide is mantras, words or phrases repeated to inspire thinking or acting.
“I think it’s important for a human being to have mantras. It fulfills something in life for you,” Wisner says. “We artists build a mantra and bring it into life.” His own favorite mantra comes from favorite author Tom Berry, who Wisner calls a sage.
The Universe is not a collection of objects to be exploited, it is a community of subjects to be revered, Wisner quotes Berry. Wisner repeats his daily mantra not only to himself but also to everyone he speaks with. When performing or speaking to an audience, he asks the group to repeat it out loud with him.
“Our culture believes that the river is just an object lying there that we can exploit, to take the crabs and fish from, though hopefully some folks begin to say let’s have some legislation to help it out, because it’s there for us. It’s not,” he says. “It’s a community of subjects to be revered.” The two ways of thinking objects and subjects are very different, Wisner says.
Revering nature teaches us to trade destructive actions for ways that treat the land and waterways sustainably.
Wisner’s third force for change is sharing.
“All I do is model with the children my presence, that elder presence,” he says. “All we really have to give to each other,” he says, “is our presence.”
Mindful of all the harm we’ve done to the Bay, Wisner still sees hope. He finds hope in his interactions with people. Hope in people who reach for solutions and alternatives. Hope from neighbors working to preserve the culture and sacredness of the Bay. He says he finds hope in Bay Weekly.
Hope also comes from projects like his radio show Chesapeake Country on WRYR 97.5fm radio (see below for programming information). Out of Deale, the low-power community-based station operated by South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development broadcasts on local issues of the environment and smart growth, local news, music and entertainment.
Fueled by hope, this elder has plotted a three-part vision for our future. His proposals are radical, but Wisner’s not one to stay inside the box.
First, he says, we need an amendment to the federal Constitution that makes clean water a right for all places.
“If there had been such an amendment,” Wisner writes in an essay, “I could have spent my life in the work to fulfill the mandate instead of wasted energies endlessly trying to inspire the creation of legislation” for needed change.
For now, Wisner’s plan for clean water as an inalienable, constitutional right remains a dream. Nobody we’ve elected to Congress stands on such a platform yet.
Second, he says, we need a Department of Peace that receives equal funding as the Department of Defense, to come up with peaceful solutions to the world’s ailments.
If such a department had existed, he says, he could have spent four youthful years constructively instead of making war in Korea.
“We could create effective alternative responses to international crises,” Wisner says, instead of violence. Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2004, had a proposal for a Department of Peace. Wisner would support such a bill.
Third, Wisner dreams of a connection between the science of ecology and economics.
“The -ology folks have been looking at the patterns of energies that sustain Earth. The -nomics faction has focused solely on human kind,” Wisner says. “Only a few scientists study the economic patterns that are bringing us to the brink of global despair.”
Wisner’s trio of dreams show how, when we change how we think, we change the world.
To make changes like these that seem farfetched to our short-term, use-it-all-up way of thinking we have to start seeing Earth in a new light.
To get there, our Bay bard calls a good stand-up comedian the next artist we need.
“We need to laugh at ourselves and the outrageous quality of our existence,” he says. “I wish there was a Seinfeld of the Bay to help us be more aware of how we’re living.”
Our Chesapeake comedian would illuminate the ridiculous ways we treat the Earth, Wisner says. We’d also get a healthy dose of laughter that would do us all good.
Until we get the needed nudge of caustic laughter, the wise advice of Tom Wisner may be our best guide to getting right with Earth and Bay.
Want to know more? Reach Wisner at email@example.com. Read more of his work on www.Chestory.org. Hear his radio show Chesapeake Country on WRYR 98.7 lp fm from 7pm to 9pm every Saturday and noon to 2pm on Sunday; Chesapeake Country also streams on the web continually at www.WRYR.org; button on the air.