As crickets trilled in the autumn chill, I guided Nimble into the shadowed cove below Old Spout Farm, named for the artesian spring that has burbled there for hundreds of years.
The curved sandy shore was also the site of Sollers Wharf, where steamers such as the Anne Arundel were vital links with the outside for this once-isolated community.
On the bottom of the St. Leonard Creek, one can still find empty milk bottles from Annapolis dairies discarded by ships' galley workers. Lumps of anthracite coal in the estuarine muds were also thrown over as steamers of the Weems Line's boilers were fired up to depart for the next river landing.
Only stumps of the pier's pilings remain. They were close-driven to handle the weight of heavy farm wagons and laden Model-A Ford trucks bringing produce or taking off merchandise.
The once-thriving oyster house at the foot of Sollers Wharf has collapsed. All that remains are twisted pipes and the old cast-iron canning boiler, still poking through the brush. Oyster cans, once brightly labeled, are rusted beyond recognition.
Tom Wisner-folksinger, poet, writer and artist-pulled up adjacent the old general store. It was probably the original Sollers post office in 1905 and likely should be on the register of historic places. Yet, there are proposals afoot to raze it and put up a recreation center for wealthy neighbors.
We had decided to sail this day because weather can be dicey in fall, and this morning augured to be a fine one, with only scattered clouds to dim warming autumn sunshine.
I welcomed Wisner aboard. He brought his guitar with him in its old battered case. It would not have survived in Nimble's active cockpit under sail, so I toted it to safety below. Tom is a big man, and arthritic knees slowed his steps as he walked down the dock, but he came aboard easily, without his cane, in spite of the knees.
"It's good," he said, "to be on the water again!"
We sailed out of St. Leonard Creek over cannonballs buried on the floor of the Patuxent, where they have lain since the 1814 battles between a British expeditionary fleet and American Commodore Joshua Barney. An inland portion of that conflict had recently been re-enacted on the bluffs and fields just to starboard.
The warbled call of a loon migrating south for winter echoed from the banks before the bird dove into the water, searching of its next meal. Tom smiled; loons are special to him.
Wisner, who was born near Virginia's James River, had traveled a long road to be here. He reminisced that after marrying his wife, Joanne, in 1955, he had gone to Cornell University. For his master's degree, he did research on the seed genetics of the plant, beggar-ticks, Bidens bipinnata. Wisner held up his fingers to demonstrate the two little hooks characteristic of this seed's "Velcro-like" hitchhiking attachments. This was confining research for a man who wanted, for his Ph.D., to study something expansive, like the migration of Canada geese.
While he waited for a spot to open up in the doctoral program at Cornell, his father died, a defining passage for many men. Stifled by academia, he became depressed and, it was time, he reasoned, to look at a landscape with fewer people and fewer rules. Wisner took a job with the National Park Service in California's Sierra Nevada Range. In high country near Mount Whitney, he said, "They gave me all the air I needed."
Wisner returned east in the 1960s to become a science teacher and department head at Chopticon High School in Morganza, MD. While there, he was offered the opportunity in 1965 to start a public education/community relations program under Dr. Eugene Cronin at Maryland's Natural Resources Institute on the Patuxent River at Solomons Island.
Wisner described Cronin as one of his true mentors, who protected his eclectic style of weaving music, poetry and art with science instruction. He waxed lyrical when talking about seining with a bunch of students in rich, eelgrass beds-full of life-directly in front of the laboratory buildings. These underwater meadows, once a hallmark of the Chesapeake's bounty, have long since died away, along with the abundant oyster harvests that Wisner witnessed
Meanwhile, he sailed with several of the legendary oyster dredging skipjack captains of the day: Wade Murphy and Art Daniels. These years figure prominently in Wisner's stories, poems and ballads. Wisner's son Mark later worked aboard one of these "drudge boats," and became a musician himself; he still fishes commercially in Alaska.
Introducing youth to the science of Chesapeake Bay was part of Tom Wisner's job. In the early 1970s, he had the idea of getting a Bay-built boat to take kids out for an experience on the water.
As this idea formed, he brought in Reid Haslam, then-sailing master of folk singer Pete Segar's Hudson river sloop, Clearwater. Reid was prevented from becoming a full captain, because he had lost an eye and the Coast Guard wouldn't certify him.
That was when I first met Wisner. My yawl CEMBA was a meeting place for Reid, Wisner and a bunch of young people from the lab, who gathered in the cockpit for an evening of the Chesapeake folk songs emerging from Wisner's pen.
I learned "Dredgin' is my Drudgery" that night, and its strains still come to me when scudding downwind in chill autumn weather.
"When the summer sun is restin',
and the crabs are settlin' down
Trees are turnin' rusty
And the marsh is burned to brown..."
Wisner even bought a classic small boat, Geda, envisioning eager children hanging over the rail to watch a dredge come aboard. He was not thinking about insurance, liability and release forms. The university did, though, and would not allow his idea to bear fruit. Wisner and I struck a bargain and Geda became mine. Geda now resides at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD.
When Cronin left the university, the shelter he had offered Wisner's talents and creativity was gone. Wisner spoke his mind. The new, unsympathetic administration replied by ending his program.
He went on to write and perform scores of songs, and cut record albums for labels like Folkways. He later released CDs, including "Made of Water." Wisner said that there is another CD in the offing.
After we anchored in Island Creek, off the Patuxent, I handed Wisner his guitar. The body of this old instrument is deeply etched where the musician's hand has struck or picked chords over the many years he's own and loved it.
Wisner related a tale told him by Northern Virginia Capt. Watt Herbert about a sudden March gale in 1919. The heavy-laden schooner J.R. Morphy was struggling to sail up the Potomac toward Kettle Bottom Shoals. Wisner moved seamlessly into a ballad on the fate of the ship and its crew.
After he finished, I handed him the navigation chart for that reach of the Potomac and we traced the J.R. Morphy's route, which way the wind had shrieked down on it and about where the ship had rolled its rail under in a gust and been lost. Nearby, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration symbol for a submerged wreck is present on the chart. Whether this mark is the old J.R. Morphy or not, we didn't know.
Just downstream from our anchorage, was the little boatyard where former Maryland Sen. Bernie Fowler had run a livery with rental skiffs in the 1950s. He'd struggled with the dense grasses that fouled boat propellers when his customers came home. Fowler could live with that because in his spare time he could wade out with a crab net chest deep, still see his white sneakers and net abundant crabs on the bottom, which thrived among those grasses.
Fowler, who was born in a tiny house at Broome Island, just across a narrow isthmus from where we were at anchor, watched the river decline, much as Wisner had during his tenure as a spokesman for the Chesapeake.
Fowler often recounted his lifelong memory about his wading for crabs, prompting Wisner to pen the humorous yet poignant poem, "Bernie's Measure" in 1983. The verse suggests that people should regularly wade into the Patuxent to see how deep their own sneakers can be seen in this stressed estuary.
The poem was published in The (Baltimore) Sun a couple of years later and reprinted in writer Tom Horton's Burroughs Medal book, "Bay Country," in 1987.
This, Wisner said, was the perfect foil to get Senator Fowler to actually recreate the wade in, as a ritual event. He told Fowler: "Now you have to wade in yourself."
Fowler allowed that might be a good idea, and a tradition was born. The first wade-in took place in 1988 and it has been celebrated annually on the second Sunday of June. While the wade-in has largely become a political affair, there are still ordinary citizens who come with hope for the river. The event, Wisner said, is an example of how "the art, poetry and music have influenced action on behalf of the river. I don't want, or need any credit for it."
As we hoisted anchor and sailed out of Island Creek, Wisner looked into the sun, up past Broomes Island and the beach where Fowler wades every year. We could just make out the entrance to Coles Creek against the far shore of the river, the slight inflection of the tree line and its subtle shading in the haze. "I built a house there for my family," he said, wistfully of the home he no longer owns. "Loved it and the place."
Ghosting downstream toward home, the guitar came out again and Wisner played a new song: "I'm of This River," which will be on his next CD. As I listened, my hand on Nimble's tiller, the sun shone on Wisner's face and across forest and farmland of the tidal Patuxent, which we share as homeland. As we hauled up against the pier at Old Spout, Wisner, while debarking, smiled and said, "Kent, that loon alone made this whole day worthwhile!"
One of Wisner's defining experiences occurred as he returned from service during the Korean War, a slow trip aboard troop ship, Daniel Sultan. On their arrival at the West Coast port where they would debark, he and his fellow soldiers lined the ship's rail, eager to be free once more-to live down their combat experiences and become civilians again.
The ship lay to the quay, though, and no one was being let off. Wisner looked down to see why and saw one of the gangways open with an honor guard on each side. Out from the ship were borne the flag-draped coffins of 52 comrades. He never forgot that, and to some extent, he has honored those boys over the nearly six decades since through his commitment to life, stewardship of nature and advocacy for love and peace in this world.
Wisner and I are older now. We've known and shared respect for each other across three dozen years. People our age talk and joke more easily about death, and I liked Tom's approach as he reflected on those 52 coffins long ago on the West Coast: "I'm not afraid to die. I came from the Earth, I love the Earth and I can go back to it!"
Just not yet, Tom.
A couple days after we sailed, Wisner was off to perform songs of the Civil War era down at the mouth of the Potomac on the site of the Confederate Prison Camp at Point Lookout.