Driving on Contees Wharf Road in Anne Arundel County, MD, travelers are compelled to slow down the car and open up the windows.

Beginning about 10 miles south of Annapolis, where fringe development edges into more rural parts of the county, Contees Wharf Road is a staunch preserve of the bumps and ruts that better-groomed neighborhoods are quick to smooth out.

After a token stretch of pavement, dirt and gravel reign. Modern sights fade from view, and the landscape crawls closer to the car. Trees with sudden height and girth line the edge of the road with startling intimacy. Beyond, woods and fields drape over the rolling terrain.

An 18th century brick home watches the road, teasingly glimpsed from behind its own mature plantings. On a rise to the left, two skeletal brick chimneys reach skyward, marking the remnants of something much older.

But the old-time feel of Contees Wharf Road belies its destination: the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, where scientists are energetically focused on the future.

“Almost three-quarters of the world’s populations live in the coastal zone. Much of SERC’s research examines human impacts on these fragile ecosystems because it is there that the impact will be most pronounced in the 21 century,” said Mark Haddon, SERC’s director of education.

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, is host to a team of 16 senior scientists and more than 150 additional scientists, technicians and students who work at the cutting edge of environmental science.

Their studies focus on the many ways in which land use and global change are impacting coastal ecosystems. Nearly 3,000 acres of wetlands, forest, cropland and pasture serve as an outdoor laboratory, encompassing large portions of the Rhode River watershed and 12 miles of undeveloped shoreline.

“SERC presents a unique opportunity for developing very intense, long-term knowledge,” Haddon said. “We can study large landscapes and set up long-term monitoring stations for 50 years and more, without interruption.”

A steady flow of international scientists visit SERC for help with comparative studies, and the general public turns to SERC, too.

Karen McDonald, SERC’s director of outreach joined the staff last year in response to growing community interest in SERC programs, not just from school groups, but from adults—some retired, some science-minded and others just curious.

“The public wants to learn more about the environment,” McDonald said, “and we have a responsibility as researchers to educate and to disseminate what we’ve learned.”

As a result, SERC has boosted its public offerings with a slate that ranges from preschool nature lessons and student programs to lab tours, lecture nights and outdoor recreation.

“We call it the ‘Smithsonian in your backyard,’” McDonald said.

The aim is to offer people encounters with both modern environmental science and the lessons of the land that surrounds them.

The science is best experienced through events that feature direct interaction with researchers. Brown-bag lunches and evening lectures, which at times have drawn 70 to 100 people, usually feature a variety of guest speakers from within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Tours of labs and field sites bring the nuts and bolts of research into focus, and may be especially helpful for students considering future professions.

The annual SERC Open House, which takes place May 12 this year, is one of the best ways to do both. Visitors can see indoor and outdoor labs, while mixing with a number of researchers whose displays and activities help to unravel scientific intricacies. They can also enjoy boat tours of the Rhode River, climb the solar radiation tower for a majestic view of forest canopy, or join in a kayak race.

“It’s a day when research, culture and history all come together,” McDonald said.

Students have lots of options at SERC, ranging from preschool activities highlighting trees and wildlife, to plankton studies, crab dissections and seining for older children. Those who can’t visit SERC can request the mobile ecology lab or tune in for interactive, electronic field trips that are broadcast by satellite to schools across the nation.

SERC also provides more solitary options, like wandering on two hiking trails or paddling the Canoe & Kayak Trail on the Rhode River.

Haddon said these trails offer insights beyond those found in SERC studies.

“SERC comes into the picture here only after three-quarters of the way into its history,” Haddon said. “The trails give people access to several points in history, each in a different time frame.”

Robert Forrest, the last private owner of the land, bequeathed 365 acres of the property to the Smithsonian Institution in 1962. Forest had never married, and he had been hospitalized for some years before his death. He had no known ties to the Smithsonian.

“When they read the will, it was a total surprise,” Haddon said.

But Forrest’s gift left a legacy rich in history and opportunity.

The earliest artifacts found on the property show that Piscataway people camped here to draw on the Bay’s abundant supply of fish and game. Oyster shell middens, left behind by the Piscataway, are still visible at low tide.

By 1673, several colonists were farming along the Rhode River. Thomas Sparrow was among them. His 700 acres included the contemporary grounds of SERC and the plantation house whose remnant chimneys climb against the sky on Contees Wharf Road.

The house and a thriving tobacco plantation were still very much in existence when John Contee bought the land in 1823 and dubbed it the Java Farm. Contee, who served as a naval officer aboard the USS Constitution during the War of 1812, purchased the land using bounty money from the defeat of the HMS Java off the coast of Brazil.

“All of it was farmed, and all of it was tobacco,” Haddon said. “They were quite successful. It was very convenient to roll the hogs heads down to Contee’s Wharf, to move the tobacco to Baltimore and then England.”

Their success was dependent on many enslaved Africans. In 1840, there were 84 slaves at Java, a large number for the area. Almost half were children, who were put to work by the age of 10.

Over time, Contee’s land moved through the family and separated into the Java Farm and Contee Farm.

Forrest bought the Java Farm in 1915. He launched a dairy operation that did a strong business with the surrounding community and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Local residents, who helped Haddon compile a history of the farm, reported that Forrest was quite a character.

“He was very eccentric and mostly walked barefoot, even into banks,” Haddon said. “He knew how he wanted to run the farm and anyone who questioned him was basically fired on the spot. But he paid good wages.”

Leroy Moreland recalled delivering milk to the Annapolis Hospital and returning each time with a check in hand. Forrest tore up the checks because he wouldn’t take payment from the hospital.

No one knows what Forrest may have envisioned for the land at Java Farm when he bequeathed it to the Smithsonian in 1962. It had been untended for at least a decade, absorbed as an area of free reign by local residents. But three years after his death, the Smithsonian opened a research facility on the site, first known as the Chesapeake Bay Center for Field Biology and later the Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies. By 1983, it merged with the Smithsonian Radiation Biology Laboratory and took on its present name.

Since then, new buildings have appeared on the landscape—including a laboratory, research library, dormitory and education center—and some areas are still farmed for research purposes. But nature has reclaimed most of the land. Forrest once enjoyed a clear view of the river from his home and farm buildings; those acres are now completely covered by woods.

Sites and signs on the trails at SERC, especially the Java History Trail and the Canoe & Kayak Trail, retell key points in this history as visitors pass by.

“You can learn about how land has changed, how we as humans are manipulate the land, and the process of growth returning, even when the land is just left alone,” Haddon said. “And at the same time, you can learn about very current ecological issues.”

Many of those issues are directly related to the Bay, such as oyster and blue crab fisheries; the structure and benefits of streamside forests; and the ways in which nutrients are transported through a watershed.

Having direct control over such an expanse of wetlands, forests and fields has produced several of the world’s longest-running scientific studies. For 20 years, SERC scientists have led the world’s longest study of the ways in which plants respond to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which drives global warming. They have also generated unmatched records of acid rain and its chemical impacts in the mid-Atlantic region, and data on the increasing ultraviolet solar radiation that impacts the Earth.

Subjects like these might seem quite removed from the human history of land use at SERC, but Haddon sees them as one in the same.

“We have here a group of 150 scientists who are dedicated to understanding the process of how humans influence their environment,” Haddon said. “If it’s negative, we look for ways to correct it. If it’s positive, we look at how it can continue.”

Those planning to visit SERC should make the most of its offerings by exploring the options at www.serc.si.edu and checking in at the education center upon arrival. Be sure to lower the car’s windows on the way in.

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, including two hiking trails and a water trail, is open to the public 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free.

The Center offers a variety of programs for schools and scout and summer camp.

Before launching a canoe or kayak at the floating dock, visitors must register at the Reed Education Center. Pets, motorized boats and landing at sites other than the floating dock are not permitted.

Directions: From MD Route 2, turn east onto MD Route 214 (Central Avenue). Turn right onto MD 468 (Muddy Creek Road). In about 1 mile, turn left at the SERC sign onto Contees Wharf Road. Continue for 0.8 mile on gravel road to the SERC sign, then turn right onto the paved road and go through the SERC gate.

For information about the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, visit www.serc.si.edu or call 443-482-2200. For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.

Evening Lecture Series

Programs in the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s free Evening Lecture Series take place 6:30–8:30 p.m. and include refreshments and discussion. Topics include:

  • Mars Exploration Rovers: Geology on the Move: June 13.
  • Polar Bears in the Captivity and the Wild: July 18.
  • Giant Panda Management at the National Zoo: Aug 15.
  • Lessons from Native Ancestors: Enduring Relationships with a Changing Landscape: Sept. 19.
  • What is Driving the Rapid Expansion of the Invasive Plant Phragmites australis in the Chesapeake Bay? Oct. 17.
  • Agriculture, Biofuels & the Environment: Nov. 14.