This is the 92nd “Past is Prologue,” and appears 10 years after the column first appeared on the cover of the March 1997 issue. Karl Blankenship later asked me if I was interested in doing it on a regular basis and the feature was launched in August 1997.
In retrospect, the column’s name probably should have been “Past as Prologue.” While past certainly is prologue, this column has strived to illustrate that the past forms a model or guide on which present and future rest. With this understanding, the present task of making change happen becomes much more urgent. The inertia of all the abuses we have heaped upon the Chesapeake and our wasteful lifestyles make this extraordinarily difficult. Despite my 43 years of working for a better environment, it sometimes seems that my greatest contribution was documenting the downward slide.
Initially, Blankenship was worried that my stock of ideas might run dry. I even had this suspicion myself! Around 2000, he asked about this in a circumspect manner and I informed him that I had 38 column folders in a drawer, in various stages of disarray. This drawer now contains 55 folders, some of which have been years in the assembly and are still wanting. Others are no more than a sheet of paper with cryptic notes.
One folder, whose subject passed away in 2006, has insufficient detail to make a column. I simply delayed too long getting together to plumb the mind of this unique, now deceased old friend.
In reflecting on my path from ecologist to historian, I have to go very far back in my Chesapeake tenure.
Unbeknownst to me, the beginning occurred in June 1973, when I was a young scientist and new Ph.D. working at the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Benedict Laboratory on the Patuxent River. I was enthralled with the Chesapeake, and was in the early stages of learning how the Bay worked. Tropical Storm Agnes had swept over the Chesapeake’s vast watershed a year earlier and the Bay had staggered under its inundation of water, sediment and contaminants.
Republican Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias was visiting all of the laboratories around the Bay, intent on understanding the Chesapeake’s problems. At the time, most people were convinced that these problems and their solution would rest on the shoulders of industrial polluters and the chemical industry. He asked me pointed questions—some of which I could not easily answer—and at the end of his visit he thanked me and said, “You’ll be hearing back from us.”
His comeback to the Bay community was stunning: the multiyear $27 million EPA study of the Chesapeake, which led to the creation of the Bay Program.
During that time, through a succession of jobs, I learned a great deal more about the Bay. I was working for a company in Rockville, MD, when I attended a Potomac River symposium in 1979. There, I met James McDermott, then director of Environmental Services for the District of Columbia, who asked me to apply for a job with his agency .
During my job interview, I was interrogated by District officials who were priming me for testimony before an administrative hearing that would bolster what they believed was a sufficient policy for sewage treatment at Blue Plains, the Chesapeake basin’s largest wastewater plant.
At that point, I was already familiar with the work of Chris D’Elia at the University of Maryland, and Jim Sanders at the Benedict Lab, which found that nitrogen pollution was the principal source of eutrophication in the estuary. EPA policy at that time, though, only controlled phosphorus, which research suggested was responsible for algae blooms and oxygen sags in freshwater rivers downstream from major wastewater facilities.
George Stryker, a tough, no-nonsense engineer who ran the plant, nailed me hard on one point during the interview. “Mountford, If you had to choose which nutrient to remove—phosphorus or nitrogen—which would it be?”
“Why,” I responded immediately, “I’d choose both because…”
“Thank you,” Stryker said, “we don’t want him testifying.”
I thought that was the end of it, but McDermott still hired me and I was stationed at Blue Plains.
(It was called Blue Plains because of the color of the river mists that hung over the grassy meadows. My friend, paleontologist and historian Ralph Eshelman, used to play ball where the plant now stands. Like many shopping malls and developments today, the place is named after that which it destroyed forever.)
My office was on the waterfront, adjacent to a primary sewage clarifier. Each winter, ring-billed gulls migrate from northern habitats and settle in at Blue Plains. From my window, I watched them ride on the slowly rotating skimmer arm that circled each primary tank, removing solids and unmentionable items. The birds would pick through what was accumulating and were quite vocal about finding a treasure!
One of my jobs after November 1981 was project officer and chairman of an ad hoc modeling group that developed an early version of an estuarine eutrophication model, a primitive forerunner of today’s Chesapeake models.
We discussed what baseline should be used as a comparison with current conditions and various potential nutrient reduction scenarios.
I said, “Let’s run it like the river was in John Smith’s time.”
Disbelief followed. One Blue Plains official said that “There’s no chance that we can meet goals like that. Why mislead the public?
A Maryland Department of Natural Resources official said: “The Potomac’s already a healthy river. It’s natural for abundant algae to be growing, and why shouldn’t summer visibility in the water be 6 inches?”
Others simply said that we had no idea of what the river was even like in those distant times, and could never return to them in any event.
So I, the plankton ecologist became a historian. I had no credentials, but I began to read very carefully, the accounts of John Smith and other chroniclers of the 17th century Chesapeake. After a time, I’d developed what I thought was a perfectly clear concept of the Bay in 1607, which I viewed as the year of English contact.
On September 17, 1982, I gave a talk to the modelers and their staffs on water clarity, using slides I’d taken all over the Bay and watershed. The audience was quite surprised to see the differences in water clarity at various chlorophyll levels.
It was finally agreed that we would run a model scenario for the “pristine condition.” It really wasn’t, of course, because at that time, not a lot was known about nonpoint source contributions, atmospheric deposition, septic wastes, sediment water interactions, the role of bacteria carbon and pycnocline effects. Still, the modeled river was vastly different from anything seen in the 20th century.
Mike Sullivan, then a modeler at the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments, called me one morning and said that chlorophyll levels in the scenario were running 5–15 micrograms per liter; while contemporary values were more like 300 µgl. Dense plankton blooms were so thick that concentrations couldn’t even be measured with current techniques. These were later were analyzed at 3,000 µgl, 200 times the pre-European condition! This work continued, as did my learning.
In spring 1983, I was invited as an observer to a conference at St. Mary’s College of Maryland that had been funded by the National Science Foundation. The University of Maryland’s Victor Kennedy, a participant at the conference, later invited me to contribute to his chapter in a multidisciplinary ecological history of the Chesapeake. (The book, “Discovering the Chesapeake,” long delayed in publication—was finally published in 2001 by Johns Hopkins Press.)
I was irrevocably hooked on the value of this for interpreting the present and guiding the future.
My limited talk on water clarity metamorphosed into a state of the Chesapeake Bay report for 1607. I spoke about the “10 Most Common Misconceptions About the Early Bay and Its Discovery.” They were:
- The Bay was pristine and un-impacted at the founding of Jamestown. False! Native Americans had lived here since the Bay was formed at the end of the last ice age. (That date has been pushed back to more than 16,000 years B.C.) They had already caused many changes in the land by burning forest underbrush to clear fields and drive game. Over thousands of years, this created a partly managed landscape.
- Capt. John Smith sailed his ships into the Bay in April, 1607. False! He was confined on suspicion of mutiny during the voyage and likely saw land here for the first time in chains. He was not admitted to the colony’s council until June 1607.
- Native Americans harvested only what they needed so there was always plenty of game. False! Some contemporaries believe that without Native Americans, the game population on the Western Shore River necks would have been much greater because they hunted very hard, taking the eggs from bird nests and killing both pregnant deer and their fawns. Game, less heavily hunted in the interior was, indeed, more abundant.
- Seventeenth century tobacco agriculture ruined the Chesapeake. False! This low disturbance, hand-tilled crop spent the soil but did not deeply disrupt the biological infrastructure. Forests quickly re-grew on abandoned fields. Fields repeatedly plowed for grain in the 18th century began the massive, irreparable loss of soil into the Bay. Today’s rivers and streams are full of “legacy sediments” (as they’re called today), which are repeatedly disturbed, perpetuating the problem.
- Hurricane Agnes had recently hit the Bay extremely hard and some believed that floods in the early 17th century must have been just as bad as modern ones. False! Smith (admittedly in a dry year) maintained that the spring freshet raised the James River about 8 feet at the fall line. Subsequent floods in the Colonial period and later, as land clearing and impervious paving increased, have raised these floods 30 feet and more through downtown Richmond. The Susquehanna was devastated in 1972, and badly hurt in 2006 as well.
- Low dissolved oxygen in deep water has always been a characteristic of the mainstem Chesapeake Bay. False! The chemistry and biology in cores drawn from the deep Bay floor show that some periods in ancient times had low oxygen, but the period after settlement was not one of them. Low dissolved oxygen is a product of our abuses to the Bay.
- Fish were incredibly abundant at the time of European settlement. We don’t know. Many species of fish—notably shads and herrings—were abundant. But the settlers were unskilled at fishing for them and other species. In fact, the settlers nearly starved. Later, as nutrients began flowing out of disturbed forests and off farmland, the Bay may have even had increased fish populations for a while.
- Fish were so abundant that Smith’s crew in 1608 could catch them in a frying pan. False! I believe he was amid a school of menhaden which swim densely packed and when that frying pan was dipped they instantly scattered. Humans wouldn’t have enjoyed eating menhaden anyway. Today, though, it is the Chesapeake’s largest single species catch, and is perhaps endangered by overfishing.
- Jellyfish were not a problem in the 17th century Chesapeake. Well, as they didn’t swim (or bathe), nobody bothered to write anything. The first account takes place in the mid-18th century Rappahannock, where a laborer from Annapolis went out onto the flats, became entangled in a great mass of sea nettles and drowned.
- At least you don’t have to worry about sharks in the Chesapeake. Possibly false! There’s a very plausible Catholic church record from the 1640s where a “sinful swimmer’s” thigh was torn away in a single bite and “the wretch was hurried from among the living.” University of Maryland biologist Dr. Eugenie Clark had told one of my assistants several years previous to my talk that “If we didn’t have a jellyfish problem in the Chesapeake [there would be more swimmers and] we’d have a shark problem.”
For years after, people would tell me I should publish these points. There, I’ve done it.
Emboldened, I helped National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration colleagues James P. Thomas and Rosemary Monahan put together a symposium, Ecological Change Through History, with some of the best minds in the field speaking. The proceedings became a dedicated issue of the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences in 1986.
My lectures and thousands of 35 mm slides thus began to have a life of their own, and environmental history loomed larger on my resume.
My ideas, of course, were learned on the shoulders of others before me, and traveled widely in many venues: Rhode Island, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Williamsburg to such audiences as the American Fisheries Society, American Public Works Association and Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
I once lectured on the state of the Bay to a couple hundred Virginia educators. The audience loved it.
Afterward, though, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, Becky Norton Dunlop, came up and gave me two books by extremely conservative apologists for industry and development, suggesting that I read them. I knew a sensitive chord had been struck.
Working, as biologist Jeremy Jackson said “in deep time,” I was on ground where anybody who had known the true answers had been dead three centuries! It was a long struggle thereafter, which led to my radical views on environmental recovery and an increasing skepticism about the future of the Chesapeake.
In 2000-2001, two symposia took place under the sponsorship of Dr. John Toll, then president of Washington College. A number of leading Chesapeake scientists and political figures from the past generation spoke and shared their recollections and insights with a group of young people headed for careers in like disciplines.
The loss of the brilliant oceanographer and Bay modeler Don Pritchard, the man who in a real sense “invented” our concept of the two-layer circulation in estuaries, underscored my struggle to bring history into modern management.
These were virtually the last public discussions given by Pritchard and crustacean biologist, visionary and Chesapeake guru L. Eugene Cronin.
My readers are well aware that I’ve long since realized how little I know with certainty about the estuary’s past, but I learn more all the time as anthropologists, archaeologists, archivists, biologists, botanists climatologists, geologists, meteorologists, microscopists, oceanographers, palynologists, physicists and Native American scholars peel away the mists of history before my wondering eyes.