It was the first-run film with the sequel, all in one.
Seven distinguished scientists, “the old gurus,” gathered to share their experience and advice with a couple dozen aspiring student scientists from universities in the watershed — the “young Turks.”
Call it Chesapeake Bay: the First Generation. And Chesapeake Bay: the Next Generation.
The “old gurus” were the early leaders of Chesapeake science — those who made some of the fundamental discoveries that shape today’s understanding of the nation’s largest estuary which, in turn, led to today’s restoration effort.
The “Across the Generations Dialogue,” which took place Nov. 20-21 at Washington College in Chestertown, MD, was aimed at giving the young generation a perspective from these early leaders.
It was sponsored by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Bay Program and the Chesapeake Research Consortium and will be the subject of a future Sea Grant video.
But the early days of research — when much of the Chesapeake was a blank slate, in terms of understanding — was not necessarily a golden era, the young scientists learned, as many scientists acknowledged frustrations along the way.
Early in his career, James Coulter, who went on to became Maryland’s first secretary of the Department of Natural Re-sources, was charged with developing comprehensive plans for river basins. He developed sophisticated models of how rivers worked to aid decision making.
One day, he went to a meeting and was told models were not what was wanted. “What we need,” he was told, “is a bunch of lawyers in here to figure out what’s wrong and move ahead and prosecute.”
Likewise, when William Hargis Jr. began his work at the old Virginia Fisheries Laboratory, he took seriously the notion that scientists should advise decision makers on their policies. He began showing up at committee meetings unexpected. Finally, he was told in so many words, “When we want you, we’ll call you.”
Hargis went on to convert the laboratory into a major research institution — the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. But, Hargis said, the key question remains on the table: whether or not science will play an important role in the future of the Chesapeake Bay. Over the years,while we have found that science is important and can accomplish a lot of things, most people are not scientists — and they’re the ones in power, generally.”
Persistence was a theme stressed by many of the scientists. “You’re not likely to win on the first go around,” said Gordon “Reds” Wolman, the former chair of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, where he was known as one of the nation’s leading experts on river channel processes. “It’s the sticking to it that makes the difference.”
Grace Brush, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, said it had been difficult to persuade people — even when it became evident that something was “not quite right” with the Bay — to support research to examine sediment cores from the bottom of the Bay to see how it had changed over time.
Ultimately, she was able to get the funding, and the core samples provided scientists — and the public — with a whole new perspective on the Bay. While it has undergone change for thousands of years, Brush said, the cores showed it “never changed as rapidly as what happened after European settlement — so what happens in the watershed is very important.”
Donald Pritchard, former director of Johns Hopkins’ Chesapeake Bay Institute, said Brush’s work showed how the introduction of European-style agriculture led to increased erosion and began the degradation of the Bay. “That was a turning point,” he said. “That was the time we began the real downhill progress in the Bay.”
Pritchard’s work is famous because he was the first to describe the circulation pattern of the Chesapeake — and other estuaries. The way salt and fresh water mixes in estuaries is the key to their productivity.
Eugene Cronin called Pritchard’s description of the Bay’s circulation the “greatest single change” in people’s understanding of the Bay.
Cronin, the former director of the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory who did landmark research on many Bay species including the blue crab, said it was remarkable to him how — with new knowledge — the boundaries of what we consider to be the Bay “keep growing and growing and growing and there is no end.”
He started looking at a small section of the Patuxent River, then the larger Bay, and later realized that the rivers, and the people on the watershed ultimately affected the resource. “There are still components we are yet to uncover,” he said. For example, Cronin noted, roughly half of the water in the Bay comes from the ocean, but the ocean’s influence on the Bay is still largely unstudied.
How people think about the Bay — and what affects it — continues to evolve.
Wolman said one of the “paradigm shifts” in the Bay was the realization that so much of the nitrogen entering the Chesapeake — estimated to be roughly 25 percent — comes from the air. “That represents an evolution in our thinking,” he said. Pollution concerns were focused first on discharge pipes, then runoff from the land. Now, he said, air pollution from hundreds of miles away is found to be important — something that further complicates the political and public actions needed.
Several scientists pointed to the 1983 conference which drew more than 700 people and spawned the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement — signed by the governors of the Bay states, the EPA administrator, the District of Columbia mayor and the chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission — as another critical turning point.
“Out of that came the tremendous burst of political enthusiasm for doing what was necessary for the Chesapeake Bay,” said John Gottschalk, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “That event marked the awakening of those responsible for making political decisions that the Bay was a significant part of our heritage that needed to be taken care of. There wasn’t a politician for the next two years who did anything that was contrary to the best interest of the Bay.”
That event reflected a change in attitudes, brought in large part from the scientific work that proceeded, about how the public viewed the Chesapeake, its watershed and the environment as a whole.
“At the start of the ’50s, to get a group of you together to talk about the type of things that we’re talking about would have been impossible,” Coulter said.
One student asked if there ever had been a “Golden Age” of Chesapeake research.
“That’s up to you,” replied John Costlow, former director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, NC, a colleague of many Bay scientists, who served as moderator of the dialogue. “The best is yet to come.”
At the end of the day, each of the students was presented with a flask of water drawn from the middle of the Chesapeake. Costlow instructed the students to return in 35 years “which is not that far from now.”
At that time, he said, the students would be the “old gurus” and it would be their job to pass the flasks, and what they have learned, on to a new generation of “young Turks,” symbolically keeping the stream of knowledge flowing through time.
This note accompanied the flasks given to the young scientists:
This flask is a symbol for your generation which lies ahead, given by ours which lies largely behind. May you enter your custodianship with the hope and enthusiasm which we have maintained in our time.This flask contains water from the Chesapeake, water at 15.1 parts per thousand salinity, taken halfway between the Bay’s confluence with the Susquehanna and its conjoining with the sea: taken in darkness, sparkling with luminescent dinoflagellates. This water was taken up under the last of the Leonid meteorites which will return only when your careers have long matured, and ours are but finished memories. This flask contains not only water, but sand and tiny quartz pebbles, reduced from rock of the piedmont by the action of wind, water and ice over many millennia. Each contains a bit of oyster shell, some from a Native American archaeological site dating from before European contact, some from one of the estuary’s ancient oyster reefs, both once the source of sustenance for many. Each contains a still more ancient fossil shark’s tooth, from the Miocene or Eocene eras, millions of years before the Bay as we know it was created. Accepting it creates, for you, responsibility for this wonderful resource. Take this symbol and remember the conversations we have had. Take seriously the future of this greatest of America’s bays. May you, in your time, pass on the custodianship of a Chesapeake much restored to vitality and, may you do so with hope and enthusiasm undiminished.