Bay Journal

Tom Wisner, his love of Chesapeake, will carry on in his songs

  • By Tom Horton on May 01, 2010
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Tom Wisner 1930-2010  (Dave Harp)

My friend Tom Wisner chose a fine April afternoon to slip from his hospice bed in southern Maryland. Redbud and shadbush were abloom and the last of winter's tundra swans were pulling out for Alaskan nesting grounds. Rockfish swelling with roe and milt were thrusting up tributary rivers; blue crabs down in Virginia were rising from the mud. Ospreys were nest building and young eagles learning to fish. A good time to be alive, Tom might have said, looking back, chuckling.

Forty years of performing for a living, celebrating the Bay region in story and song, and four CDs, including the anthem "Chesapeake Born," had earned him the title "Bard of the Chesapeake." Some just called him "The Wiz."

Forced to categorize Wisner-an impossibility-many would say "musician." But I came to see him more as a marvelous instrument, "played" by the Chesapeake itself. He immersed himself in the elemental cultures of the region, the fishermen, Native Americans, farmers and ecologists; closely observed the crabs and turtles, herons and minnows; and worked all of this into unique impressions of the land and waters, expressed through his art, which was his life. It sounds presumptuous to talk of a human "speaking" for nature, but surely Wisner did bear witness for the Bay and its critters.

"We're here to learn," he said near the end of the lung cancer that took him shortly before age 80. I'd asked if he could capsulize what it had all been about. Here to learn. And all he learned, he taught.

He was the most multitalented person I've known. Singing, writing, drawing, painting, sculpting, dancing, storytelling; he could have aspired to professional acclaim in most any of these. But Wisner chose to bring everything he had to bear on education.

During the 1960s, he became the first environmental educator of the Chesapeake, hired by the late Dr. L. Eugene Cronin, director of Maryland's marine science laboratories. The laboratories, founded in the 1920s, were the "mind" of the Bay, Cronin told Wisner, but they needed a "heart" to reach the public with the importance of understanding and protecting the estuary.

Cronin would also say, observing the personal and financial vicissitudes that kept Wisner always close to starving artist mode: "Tom will save the Bay, but who will save Tom?"

Many people offered Wisner support through the years, no one more than one of the Chesapeake's top scientists, Dr. Walter Boynton, who met Wisner in the 1960s when they shared a dorm room at the Chesapeake Bay Laboratory in Solomons, MD. "I can't say whether he was just learning to play the guitar then, but it sure sounded like it," Boynton recalled recently.

He and his wife, Mary Ellen, would house Wisner in their basement during the toughest times. Walter, recent winner of the prestigious Odum Award in ecology, hauled his trash and cut his grass in recent times. Mary Ellen was there when death came on Good Friday.

What you got in return, Boynton once said, was inspiration: "Most people talking about the Bay are talking to your head...Wiz reached right in under your sternum and grabbed you by the heart."

Wisner's kinship with Bay researchers came naturally. Beneath the "Bay is our mother" lingo and the flowing locks and white beard that caused one kid to wonder if he was related to Santa Claus, there was a trained scientist, a high school chemistry teacher who once pursued a Ph.D. at Cornell.

During a stint with the Air Force in Korea, Wisner worked with a state-of-the-art gunnery guidance system that led to a big bucks offer from Hughes Aircraft after the war, which he turned down.

It is part of the enduring power of his lyrics that their poetry is underlain by a deep grasp of science. "Chesapeake Born," written in 1974, renders in a few graceful phrases the interaction of watersheds feeding rivers which then mix with ocean waters-subjects that fill books on the workings of estuaries like the Chesapeake:

She's the mother of the waters
And people of this land
Forty river children
Reach to take her by the hand

And flow through Maryland,
And Virginia to the sea
She's Atlantic born, Atlantic bound and free

In the 1980s, Wisner taught a Chesapeake humanities course of his own design through the University of Maryland's University College. He wrote and illustrated his own 270-page text solely for that course. It won him an outstanding teacher award from the university in 1987.

Most of all, Wisner loved working with children. He was a regular for many years at Hollywood Elementary, a public school in southern Maryland where principal Kathy Glaser and her teachers created a curriculum that taught the traditional subjects, but was based on the Chesapeake Bay (copying a story on rockfish when teaching writing, for example). Wisner would teach the kids about crabs-not just their biology and importance to the Bay, but how they moved, even how they felt. He would sing this wry twist on the traditional crab feast:

I wonder if some people ever wonder what it's like
To be thrown into a kettle, have the lid slammed on tight
You wander in the darkness, you can't find your way around
You're destined to become the tastiest treat in town
When you're steamed alive, oh yeah...

Wisner read widely and was intrigued with the power of myths. He had felt for a long time that "the John Smith discovery myth that Mother Nature had just set this table for Europeans to come and help themselves" had prevailed too long.

With Bernie Fowler, a charismatic southern Maryland political leader, he began an annual mass wade-in on the Patuxent River. It was built around Bernie's memory of the days half a century before, when he could wade in to net crabs and look down and see his toes, nearly 6 feet down in the clear, grassy waters. The aim was to give birth to a new myth of clear water, rebirth, respect for nature, a baptism. Wisner wrote a poem to that effect, which ends:

And somewhere in the future,
That day is coming sure,
We'll look and see our feet again;
Could we ask for more?

'Cause I ask you what's the profit
If we gain these worldly things
And fouled the air and water
And all the life that brings?

The wade-in more than two decades later has become a huge event and has spread to other rivers. Wisner was aware, though, that celebrations of the environment can become window dressing, glossing over the lack of real progress in restoring places like the Chesapeake.

When I was finishing "Bay Country," a collection of Chesapeake essays, he mailed me a simple graph that he said I ought to end the book with. It showed "Bay fisheries and culture" in decline on one axis, as "books celebrating Bay fisheries and culture" rose along the other axis. I still get more comments about that graph than the rest of the book.

As for the wade-in, the event is doing way better than the river. Wisner was toying with changing the ending of his poem:

... Now the politicians strut and posture
waxing ever eloquent
'Til they became the story
And we wondered where the river went

He never finished it, consumed with completing his final CD, "Follow on the Water." Released in January, it contains some of Wisner's best work. Indeed, though his body was failing, his songwriting powers seemed to be flourishing. Pages of unfinished lyrics were left lying around his cottage near Lusby after he entered Calvert County's Hospice House.

One, "Who Prays for the Fishes," began:
Are you governed OF, BY and FOR fishes
Free to worship whomever you choose?
Do the laws your legislators have written
Insure that the fish never lose?

He did finish a lovely song in consultation with another performer, Martin O'Malley. It is a tribute to the Maryland 400, Revolutionary War troops who held the line against overwhelming odds to protect George Washington. The governor, who often mentions the heroic defenders in his campaign speeches, became fast friends with Wisner in the last few years: [Wisner was] "one of the most creative, refreshing, passionate and deeply spiritual men I have ever known," O'Malley said at a memorial service.

Wisner's favorite song, he said, might be "Carry Me!" which sprang from his childhood acquaintance with the scruffy little creek where he played in southeast District of Columbia in the 1930s. It was alive with shiners, rosy side dace, turtles, crayfish and amphibians, all pollution-tolerant species. It was "a magical place, and how to encourage that magic in children, so divorced from nature today, is something I've struggled with my whole life. You can Google streams and turtles, but Google does not foster contemplation and learning like seeing a turtle in a creek."

Wisner said that little creek, paved over now by development, became a touchstone; whatever in society fosters lively, free-flowing streams is good, and what harms them is not.

"Carry Me!" goes in part:
One day 'round a shady bend
I became the water's friend
And we promised we would carry to the end...

And so they did.

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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.

Read more articles by Tom Horton

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