- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

By John R. Wennersten
Maryland Historical Society, $30, 255 pages

Closely reasoned, clearly written, strongly felt, this history of our great inland sea steers clear of environmental hysteria and commercial partisanship, and tells the long story of man's toll on such fruitful waters.
From the Garden of Eden on, man's nature has been that of a user and extractor, a creature who takes what nature offers and then takes more, and then glares amazed and angry when there is no more.
Likewise, the story of the Chesapeake is brutally simple, says John R. Wennersten. In "The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography," he writes, "The basic problems of the Chesapeake are political in nature, and scientists have often been too prone to act as if politics and ecological research inhabit different spheres of the region. Everyone knows what the bay's ecological problems are too many people and too much pollution."
In spite of years of study and hundreds of thousands of pages of reports, no clear and feasible plan has been developed to effect the restoration of the mid-Atlantic's greatest waterway. Though there have been gains in water clarity, there is now more sea grass, there are now more beloved rockfish and higher oxygen levels, the overall outlook is grim because of three apparantly unstoppable forces suburban sprawl, intensified agriculture, and urban pollution.
The greatest irony, of course, is that the very people who profess the greatest love for the Chesapeake upper middle-class homeowners, boaters, sports people and the like are potent destroyers of its remaining unspoiled areas with their relentless search for accessible waterfront, and their desire to live in "the land of pleasant living."
The giant sports utility vehicle, stranded in traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on a weekend, sporting a "Save The Bay" bumper sticker is an apt symbol of this mental disconnect. Ironic too, is the fate of the much eulogized "watermen" of the bay, who participated in their own downfall by ruthless exploitation, all the while blaming those who have tried to limit their "rights" to harvest fish, oysters and clams.
But Mr. Wennersten does not blame only the urban and suburban residents of the Bay. Historically, he points out, it was ever thus. From the time of Capt. John Smith's ecstatic description of the bay as a kind of estuarine paradise on earth, the people on its shores rugged and much admired fishing, farming and shipping types have been doing their best to soil the waters and rip from them every saleable creature and thing.
Even before the European arrived with machinery and gunpowder and tobacco, the indigenous Indians were busy at the same extractive occupation. "The Chesapeake Bay Country was always a manipulated environment," Mr. Wennersten writes, "Indians gave their name to the region, fired its forest, carved their agricultural systems and harvested the fishery … to see Indians as sound ecologists and precursors of the modern environmental movement is to long for what never was."
Much of his study is historical, a careful tracing of the principal actors on this great damp stage, from Indian tribesmen to settlers, planters, city builders, farmers, fishermen, engineers, suburbanites, enviornmentalists.
This history is lovingly told, particularly in the long section on the oyster fishery, that central nugget of Maryland's romantic story. But here we learn that in the early 1800s the oysters of the Chesapeake were so thick upon the bay floor as to be a menace to navigation, and so big that they often had to be cut in half after shelling, to be eaten, so cheap that they became a staple food for plantation slaves.
But it's also told how the devouring oyster fleet moved steadily south along the American seaboard, its center first near Boston, then to Cape Cod and Narragansett Bay, then Long Island, and finally Baltimore and Virginia. The oyster business is Mr. Wennerstren's center for the bay's long drama, well chosen for its human interest, its "oyster wars" between jurisdictions and between piratical fishermen and local lawmen, and its perfect fit with the larger theme of exploitation.
Mr. Wennersten persuasively argues that the tragedy of the Chesapeake's degredation is almost without solution, because like the similarly despoiled great plains, it belongs to no one, it is a great "commons," accessible to anyone with the energy to mine it. As the Grand Banks, the sperm whale, the giant redwood, it is doomed never to return to its first abundance.
What is to come after? If we are courageous enough to admit that nothing can be done to return the bay to its pristine state without polluting cities, without farmers dumping thousands of pounds of nitrogenous chemicals on their fields, without second home and suburban developments using up the water table, the forest and the shore, what then?
An effective program for the future, the author argues, would be to stop growth now. That would mean ending development, stabilizing agriculture, improving urban pollution factors. It would mean, he admits, a retreat from the American way of doing things, a reversal of course for "a society dominated by mechanistic and commercial systems of value."
Though Mr. Wennersten sides with the ecologists who hope to reverse the tide, he sees the conservationists as divided and often unrealistic, and unable so far to influence public opinion widely enough to make people see the connection between their own actions and lifestyles and the bay's fate. More change is needed.
Such a change would require all forces which control the Chesapeake watershed politicans, farmers, landowners, scientists, developers and on down the long list to agree on a course of action which would cost them all something, and some of them a great deal. Mr. Wennersten understands the unliklihood of this consummation, but wants to stand as one who gave adequate warning, who studied the past and learned. He has written his book, and as he puts it: "We will know at least how it came to pass. We cannot claim innocence."

Duncan C. Spencer is a writer in Washington.

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