Dock of the Bay

Volume VII Number 31
August 5-11, 1999

  • The Farmer Who Prayed for Drought - and Won
  • Jazzed up, Banneker-Douglass Beats The Blues
  • In Season: Rufous-sided Towhee and Blackberry Vine
  • Life in Our Little Bay Ponds: Neither Birthday Nor Anniversary Keep a Staunch Citizen Home
  • Salvation at Hand for Bay Oysters?
  • Way Downstream ...

  • The Farmer Who Prayed for Drought -- and Won

    photo by Mary Catherine Ball Despite the drought, Dr. Abdul-Baki will harvest a full crop of green-mulched Silver Queen.

    It's not only we withering on the vine. In the hot, dry summer of the last year of the second millennium ad, corn - if kernels form at all - is dry enough to pop in the fields.

    Except in Aref Abdul-Baki's garden.

    In sunny, hot fields just outside the Beltway at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Center, the good doctor - a Lebanon-born, Illinois-educated farm researcher - grows thriving corn.

    The drought is so bad that 17 of Maryland's 23 counties - including Prince George's, where Abdul-Baki's garden grows - have been declared drought disasters. For the 12 months ending June 30, precipitation totaled just 27.32 inches, just 65 percent of normal. Not in 30 years has Maryland been so dry. For the year ending July 31, the District of Columbia was even drier. With 24.13 inches of rain, Washington was its driest since the Dust Bowl years of 1930-1931.

    A drought like that is just what Dr. Abdul-Baki ordered.

    "Researchers," he explains, "need to challenge their concept. The best time to challenge our concept is during a severe drought."

    The concept Abdul-Baki prayed to challenge is the crown jewel of his life's work: green mulch. Read on, for while those words may not mean much to you, there's a great deal they can do for you. And for Chesapeake Bay.

    Abdul-Baki's concept is that you get the best crops by feeding the soil, not the plant. Instead of fertilizing with chemical nitrogen - as farmers have done since the Green Revolution of the 1960s - he plants his cash crop into a freshly mowed fertilizing-crop rich in natural nitrogen. Hairy vetch and crimson clover are what he likes best. Year after year, he's proved that a fall crop of vetch or clover makes the best seed bed money can buy. For tomatoes. For egg plants. For cantaloupes. For green beans. For sweet peppers. And now for corn.

    "The cover crop is providing nutrients for the corn and the mulch keeps the soil moist. The roots grow up at the top of the soil, run along the top, and feed off of the mulch," said Abdul-Baki of his green-mulched corn.

    But after six months inspiring the date growers in Coachella Valley, California - the nation's hottest agricultural region, where the temperature has been measured at 136 degrees - in his Green Mulch Revolution, Abdul-Baki prayed for another test of his Maryland corn. He prayed for drought.

    "Will the soil really hold more moisture in stressful conditions?" he wondered.

    To test his concept, Abdul-Baki planted other plots the way today's farmers conventionally do, in bare fields with lots of chemical fertilizer and herbicide.

    "The only difference," he explained scientifically, "is the cover crop. We used the same fertilizer, seed variety, seeding rate and date of seeding. And the same amount of water. We irrigated twice during the season because we had almost no rain."

    That was in early June. Now the drought has done its worst and Abdul-Baki has his answer.

    "I do not expect less than a full crop from my green-mulched fields. I do not expect any effect of drought on it, while next to it in the conventional plot, we will not get any yield at all," said he.

    "The difference is the ability of the system to capture and hold water, and that is due to the organic matter content of the soil, which we built up using a cover crop. That soil was able to hold more water than more expensive conventional systems.

    "The little bit of water that was fine for the mulched corn was not adequate at all for the conventional system. That soil had much lower capacity to hold water and all the extra water ran off."

    Abdul-Baki's thriving corn can show us not only how to withstand drought but also how to just about eliminate two main farm sources of pollution to Chesapeake Bay: nitrogen and erosion. Both culprits wash from bare or plastic-covered fields into nearby waterways and, through the Chesapeake watershed, to the Bay.

    You won't find any leakage from Abdul-Baki's garden. "We have prevented the nutrients from going to the water table, recycled the nutrients and returned them to the plants," says he.

    As the Bay prospers, so do Abdul-Baki's plants, protected from drought.

    Which has Abdul-Baki smiling like a trainer whose horse has just won the Preakness.

    "When you want to buy a $5 million racehorse, you don't go to the stable and watch the horse eating. You go and see the horse in the race itself. This is the horse in the race. This is the most stressful condition and the sweet corn is performing well," he says.

    So far, about one percent of growers nationally have bet their fortunes on Abdul-Baki's horse. That's fine, says he, for farmers are slow to change. Now, after the great drought of 1999, he's got better odds for the future. Which is, he'll remind you, your future, the Bay's future, a hungry world's future.

    -SOM w/Mary Catherine Ball

    Jazzed up, Banneker-Douglass Beats The Blues

    photo by Brittanie Oakley Jazz sounds fill the air and jazz art covered the walls at a recent exhibit opening, "Why Jazz?" at Banneker-Douglass Museum.

    With Why Jazz?, Banneker-Douglass Museum, Maryland's troubled repository of African American culture, hopes to beat the blues.

    The sounds and sights of jazz syncopated the opening reception last week. The notes of the Narsha Meekins Project floated through the hall as the crowd buzzed over pictures and paintings of famous jazz musicians, jazzy abstracts and sculptures. Each artist in the exhibit explores the connection between music and creativity and explains this connection with their work and in their own words.

    "In Jazz you hear what a person is thinking and feeling," explained artist Anthony H. Brown, a painter, who exhibited "The Cello Player."

    "It is emotional. It somehow grabs you inside. When I listen to jazz I feel the emotion, the storytelling, the rhythms. I hear a tonal color in jazz that inspires me," Brown said.

    The works of Why Jazz? were collected by guest curator Roberta McLeod, the director of the Howard University Blackburn University Center and the founder and director of the Blackburn Center Gallery.

    "Why do we document jazz? Why do we paint jazz? Why Jazz? Each artist answers the question," said McLeod. "Jazz is one of the only truly American art forms. It is a gift African Americans gave to America. The reason we ask Why Jazz? is because the Banneker-Douglass is a historical and a teaching museum. We want the question to excite visitors and in the end we want the visitors to answer the question themselves."

    Exploding with color, emotion and music even when the hallways of the museum are quiet, Why Jazz? is an interactive exhibit, enticing each visitor to recognize the influence of jazz on us individually and on our collective experience.

    But for Banneker-Douglass, Why Jazz? is more than its sounds and sights.

    "Why Jazz? is part of an effort to establish more exhibits that create an immediate impact, that brighten the museum," explained Carrol H. Hynson Jr., chairman of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture which oversees the museum.

    "Every four or five months we hope to have a new exhibit that will bring new visitors and excite past visitors. This is the start of an aggressive effort," Hynson said.

    While Why Jazz? fills the foreground, behind the scenes the Commission is searching for a new executive director to replace Rosalind Savage, who was fired earlier this year. The unexpected firing of directors is becoming something of a pattern for the museum that, despite its rich collections, can't seem to get ahead. Only two years earlier, to the outrage of the largely African American Banneker-Douglass Museum Foundation and Friends of Banneker-Douglass, director Ronald Sharps was fired, abruptly and without explanation.

    "We are finishing our search for a full-time curator," said Hynson.

    Why Jazz? runs at Banneker-Douglass Museum until October 30.

    -Christopher Heagy

    In Season
    Rufous-sided Towhee and Blackberry Vine

    by Gary Pendleton

    Rufous-sided towhee, what a wonderful, old fashioned sounding name! Never mind that the American Ornithological Union recently decided, for reasons we won't go into here, to change the name to the more prosaic Eastern towhee.

    Male towhees are a striking combination of reddish brown - or rufous - and white. Females are similarly patterned, but where males are black, females are a rufousy brown, making them better able to blend into their surroundings above the ground.

    This handsome bird makes its living scratching, with both feet, for insects in the leaf litter. Blackberry thickets make ideal habitat for towhees to feed and seek shelter. Their steady, rhythmic scratching is nearly as reliable an auditory clue to their presence as the birds' distinctive, ringing song, which birders describe as sounding like 'drink your tea.'

    As with many song birds, the vocalizations of towhees break down into two categories: songs and calls. Songs are used by males to establish territory and attract a mate. (Though the females of some species, such as cardinals, are also known to sing.) Calls are used by both sexes for a variety of purposes such as alarm and communication between adults and young.

    The name towhee comes from the sounds of the birds' two-syllable call, with the accent on the second syllable. But what may sound like 'towhee' to you, might sound like 'chewink' to a New Englander, and in some regions chewink is the bird's colloquial name.

    Whatever you call them, these attractive birds are present year 'round on the coastal plain of Maryland.

    Life in Our Little Bay Ponds
    Neither Birthday Nor Anniversary Keep a Staunch Citizen Home

    The dedication of the citizen activists of Southern Anne Arundel County is legendary. Still, the legend was redefined last week by Bill Papian, president of Shady Side Peninsula Association.

    Driven by friend Herb Stockton, the octogenarian set out about 5:30 in the evening of July 27 for an Anne Arundel County Liquor Board hearing commencing around 6:30pm.

    "We were interested in the Moose Lodge's request for a liquor license in Shady Side," recalls Papian.

    "With interest high on both sides - 15 or 20 against and 30 or 35 for - we were the largest body in attendance. So several other matters were heard ahead of us. It was nearing 11 by the time the Moose question came up."

    Both sides had attorneys, and presentations continued on from the night of the 27th into the early morning of the 28th.

    "It was certainly fatiguing," noted Papian, "but both sides stayed on."

    As con countered pro, Papian's 83rd birthday slipped away. When, about 1am, the board ruled against the Moose, he'd aged a year.

    Fearing disaster on Rt. 468 - what Papian describes as "a narrow and dangerous road through residential neighborhoods with no shoulders, ditches instead" - he had opposed the Moose's renewed license request. Yet victory brought him little joy. "It's a lose-lose situation, because now there's antagonism between the lodge and its neighbors," said Papian.

    Nor much joy to Papian's wife, for when Papian returned, he'd missed most of his 33rd wedding anniversary.

    "I married LaVerne, who is now co-president and treasurer of the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society, on July 27 1950, my 50th birthday," said the apparently absent-minded former professor. "We got married on my birthday so I wouldn't forget my anniversary."

    Still, dedication did not deprive the Papians of all celebration.

    "We had ice cream and cake with my daughter Lisa, son-in-law Trond and grandson Michael and sons Dan and John - the latter in from St. Louis - on the previous Sunday," said he.


    Salvation at Hand for Bay Oysters?

    Seeding oyster beds for the future: Students from Southern and South River high schools helped in the fall of 1997 to restore oyster habitat with oyster seed financed at New Bay Times' Birthday-Bivalve Bash.

    Everyone agreed there was a problem; now, they've agreed on the solution.

    When the subject is Chesapeake Bay oysters - that mouth-watering and water-filtering bivalve - almost everyone has an opinion. Slurped and savored for two centuries and ravaged by overfishing for nearly as long, Chesapeake Bay's definitive resource has in recent years been further diminished by disease.

    Now, scientists from three states - Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina - believe they have the answer to dwindling stocks and deteriorating water conditions. In a report just released, scientists announced consensus on a strategy to restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster.

    The way to bring oysters back, the scientists have agreed, is to restore 10 percent of historically productive oyster bottom areas, or bars, as oyster reefs. The newly restored reefs would be "set aside in perpetuity" as sanctuaries. That means forever, which is a long time whether you're an oyster or an oyster lover.

    The theory behind the recovery plan is that more oysters in the Bay will help "restore water quality and help sustain a commercial oyster fishery." It's a concept that worked a few centuries back before humans upset the balance, and a Bay full of oysters kept the water clean.

    Explain the scientists: "Oysters improve water quality because they consume phytoplankton and help improve light penetration critical for aquatic plants. Oyster reefs support a diverse underwater community that provides shelter and food for crabs and fish, increasing habitat for many important species in the Bay. Restored, reefs will be three dimensional, rising vertically above the bottom to outpace sedimentation, create a habitat for other organisms and provide protection from predators."

    To provide protection from human predators, recommendations include community awareness for protection of sanctuaries.

    Maybe the scientists from Maryland and Virginia remember the old Beatles' song "hands across the water, hands across the sea." That's what they've done by reaching for a solution between two states that fought oyster wars several times down through history.

    "For the first time, we have a technical consensus across state lines," said Dr. Donald Boesch of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in official-speak.

    Because of salinity differences and other local considerations, the proposal is a combination of what works best in both states, says Boesch.

    With everyone on board, oysters and oyster eating may both be on the rebound.

    For more information on the Oyster Restoration Strategy, visit the web at

    -M.L. Faunce

    Way Downstream ...

    In Pennsylvania, the drought has dropped streams and creeks to their lowest levels in 30 years, many of them with as little as 10 percent of their normal flows, the U.S. Geological Survey reports ...

    In Washington, the National Association of Home Builders has ceased its drive to repeal the 1992 law that restricts the size of toilets sold in the U.S., a statute that critics say amounts to government in our bathrooms. "We just want a toilet that works," a spokeswoman said ...

    From Martha's Vineyard comes an environmental take on why JFK Jr. died: the wafting air pollution and exhaust fumes from as far away as Ohio that muddied up the sky and caused him to lose it. Said University of Miami atmospheric chemist Joseph Prospero: "I believe that high concentrations of visibility-reducing aerosols were the cause of the crash" ...

    In California, the Navy declared after a round of tests that its new sonar system to detect enemy submarines does not endanger marine life exposed to the loud pulses. The "pings" in the system, as loud as 215 decibels, come from 18 "bathtub-sized" speakers, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Greenpeace disagrees with the results of the Navy's tests ...

    Our Creature Feature this week comes from Holly Springs, Miss., where they had a party last week for a plant they call the "leafy monster." At the 11th Annual Kudzu Festival, people paid homage to the invasive species that has overgrown parts of the South, including portions of Calvert and Southern Anne Arundel counties. Said festival-goer Johnny Pollard: "It takes over everything. You know it's in control so you might as well bow down to it."

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    Volume VII Number 31
    August 5-11, 1999
    New Bay Times

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