Issue: July 2011
Horton at Large: July, Sept., Nov.

by Tom Horton 

July: A Man of Many Stories

Morning in Solomons harbor broke "cold enough to make your blood hum," and snow was still falling when Tom Wisner came to board a skipjack and learn what dredging for oysters was about. It was January 6, 1972, and the Chesapeake skipjack fleet was still a vibrant community, captains still able to catch their 150-bushel limits under sail.

Wisner, who died this April, was just beginning his legendary career as a Bay singer-songwriter, poet, storyteller and educator. He got an eyeful that winter day nearly four decades ago, a demonstration of skill and daring that to my knowledge would never be repeated. It's all recorded on Follow On The Water, Wisner's last CD, released this spring. "The Docking of the City of Crisfield," is a rich story, recounted by a master teller, a tribute to the City's skipper, Deal Islander Art Daniels (now 89 and still sailing), and to the historic dredgeboat fleet.

Tom puts you there that winter morning, feet crunching in the snow as he crossed the frozen decks of the Caleb Jones, Lorraine Rose, Lady Katie and Rebecca T. Ruark--all rafted together. When he reached the City of Crisfield in the dark and cold, the cabin door flung open and he was beckoned below into light and warmth and the smells of bacon frying and pancakes browning. After prayers and breakfast, they shoveled off the deck and fired up the little pushboat. Once out of the harbor, sails up, the City of Crisfield rode a brisk westerly up the Bay to dredge Persimmon Bar.

Wisner not only describes the monotonous, numb-fingered labor of dredging, hauling and culling, dredging, hauling and culling, but also recites the poetry of oystermens' names for the Bay bottom--Chinese Muds, Norman's Fine Eyes, Hollaga Snooze, each oyster "rock" with its own personality for those dredgers who knew them intimately. On the way back in, loaded with oysters and running under the Calvert Cliffs, Art Daniels stood at the helm, humming hymns, as was his habit. Wisner, standing next to him, said "I've heard some of the old time Eastern Shore captains could put a dredge boat right to the dock under sail."

"Might be true," Daniels replied, and resumed humming, gaze fixed on Drum Point at the mouth of the Patuxent River.

Wisner, for all his love of and songs about the Bay and its watermen, was never much of a boat person. He told me he had no idea of the enormity of the challenge he had thrown at the skipper's feet. It was, he said, "like telling [the driver of] an 18-wheeler going 65 to make an immediate U-turn and slide it into a parking space."

Minutes passed. Daniels quietly told his crew to get ready to drop the jib, to stand by on the main sheet, and to coil the bow line for throwing to a man on the dock. "Do not miss," he told bowman Elmer Jones. The captain stood slightly crouched, one hand tensed to spin the wheel, peering under the boom that held the mainsail to port as the skipjack bore down on Solomons before a southeast breeze. At such times, Wisner says, "they say a captain has the whole universe in the palm of his hand."

The other skipjacks saw what was coming and stayed back. Residents of Solomons saw it coming too and jockeyed for position at the docks. Some, after the best view of all, climbed aboard the Orca, a barge that jutted out into the water right where the City of Crisfield would have to come about . . . or crash trying.

When Daniels finally spun the wheel, his bowsprit raked so close across the edge of the Orca that the crowd, as one, sucked in its stomach. The boat was now parallel to the dock but moving fast, last dock post coming up. Elmer Jones hurled his coiled line toward a man waiting to secure it, thereby quenching the City's forward speed. He missed. 

In silence, all watched as the rope slithered into the water. By then Art Daniels was "running toward the bow, like an old rooster stepping, putting one foot far out as he could, pulling himself forward, lunging. He gathered the rope and in the same motion fired it into the dock man's chest." This time he caught it and wrapped it around a piling. With a groan the skipjack shuddered to a halt and the crowd applauded.

Striding back toward the stern, Art Daniels turned to Wisner: "How's that for docking one of 'em, Tom?"

September: Will O' the Wind

The wind. Chariot of the weather, investing mere air with the richest of personalities, it is a force that rules the Chesapeake in ways beyond what most sailors know. It now appears that long-term patterns of wind-direction, some lasting for decades, may at least partly explain a long running mystery: why low oxygen dead zones in the Bay have worsened since the 1980s, even as their principal cause, nutrients like nitrogen, have been reduced.

New research cited in the May issue of the Chesapeake Bay Program's Bay Journal links the mystery to what it calls the NAO (North Atlantic Oscillation), a dominant and long-term fluctuation in atmospheric pressure between Iceland and the Azores. The NAO since the early 1980s has been in a phase that promotes increased westerly winds on the Bay. This in turn has meant less mixing of oxygen-rich surface waters with the Bay's deeper waters that are prone to poor oxygen conditions.

Though it's too early to say definitively, scientists caution, there is some evidence that the NAO may be shifting to promote more southerly winds on the Bay, causing better mixing of shallow and deep waters and offsetting the oxygen-robbing effect of polluting nutrients entering the estuary. 

The overriding importance of wind comes as no surprise to those who study the Bay. In recent decades scientists have shown how wind goes a long way toward explaining the gyrations of blue crab abundance from year to year. Because they are oceanic critters in their genes, baby crabs need full strength ocean salinity after hatching. Accordingly, they are spawned on ebb tides near the Bay's mouth, insuring they are carried to sea. They must depend on prevailing and often capricious winds to blow them back into the system.

The Army Corps of Engineers learned an expensive lesson about the importance of wind. Inability to replicate the forces of wind was one of the primary reasons for the failure of the huge, seven-acre concrete model of the Bay that the Corps built on Kent Island in the 1970s. The model's computer-driven pumps could simulate tide and current in every square foot of water from Norfolk to Havre de Grace; but in fact they did not simulate very well how water actually moved in the Bay. A major reason was that most of the time the wind, which the model could not replicate, drives Bay circulation as much or more than the lunar tides. Indeed, winds can routinely increase or decrease by 10 to 20 percent the volume of water in the estuary--and as much as 30 percent in gale or hurricane conditions.

Another long-term weather pattern that has an impact on nutrient pollution is annual rainfall. With 40-odd significant rivers feeding into the estuary, rainfall can vary by three to four times the amount of pollution that enters the Bay, depending on whether it's a wet or dry year. For around 15 years during the 1950s and 1960s, rainfall and runoff to the Bay was below average every single year; it was followed by the 1970s, the wettest decade in history, including Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, probably a 200-year storm.

From the NAO to Agnes, this raises the question: If nature is so dominant, are we placing too much importance and blame on human impact on the Bay? Perhaps when our numbers were far fewer the answer might have been a qualified "yes." But with 17 million of us in the watershed, adding close to 2 million more each decade, developing open spaces at a rate that has been growing even faster than population . . . the answer is an unqualified "hell, no."

We've clearly overfished blue crabs in recent years, no matter which way the winds were prevailing from; and there's ample evidence from sediment analyses that the Bay had few or no dead zones before we humans arrived in large numbers--even though the NAO must have flipped and flopped many, many times.

As for wet decades like the 1970s and storms like Agnes, they pulled the trigger on a gun we had been loading with nutrients: farm fertilization up threefold since the 1950s; filling of wetlands and clearing of forests along the Bay's edges; laying down vast amounts of pavement; overfishing oysters, which filter out pollutants. Indeed, if we are so lucky as to get a shift in the NAO, it would mean more bang for the buck, more improvement in water quality for each pound of pollution removed--a good argument to redouble efforts while the wind is at our backs.

November: The Com Question

It was a bitter pill to swallow last year when Jenny and I had to give up on our four-stroke outboard, an expensive Honda with less than 200 hours on it. The engine's carburetors simply couldn't handle the gunk build-up caused by ethanol--the gasoline additive that is now legally required in all but a few counties around the Bay.

I was doubly griped because of the source of the ethanol, which is a far bigger and less recognized problem than the ubiquitous gasoline additive itself. I speak of corn. It's a pretty sight to see it growing across Chesapeake region farms; and to watch each fall as combines shell it into brassy, gold mountains of grain. And corn-based ethanol is certainly safer than what it replaced--MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a gas additive that is now banned as a suspected carcinogen.

But those who work with water quality around the Bay and coastal waters worldwide know the dark side of corn all too well. As we currently grow it, corn is horribly polluting. To realize the high yielding potential of modern corn hybrids, growers must supply it with lots of nitrogen fertilizers. Even when farmers are careful to apply only what their crop needs, corn can utilize only about half the applied nitrogen--even less in drought conditions. The rest ends up in ground-water, where substantial amounts eventually seep into the Chesapeake Bay. 

In the Bay, nitrogen grows excessive algae, which decomposes and sucks life-giving oxygen from the water. It also clouds the water, shading out vital light from underwater grasses that provide habitat for a variety of aquatic life. The two million or so acres of corn grown across the Chesapeake's six-state watershed is a major reason agriculture remains the single largest source of water pollution for the Bay. The story's the same with the Gulf of Mexico. Its oxygen-deprived "dead zone" is the size of New Jersey some years, courtesy of the nitrogen that washes down the Mississippi from the midwest, which grows the bulk of the nation's 85 to 90 million acres of corn.

Soaring demand for corn to supply government-subsidized ethanol plants a few years ago caused Bay region farmers to convert about 200,000 acres of land from mostly low-polluting uses, like hay and pasture, to additional corn acreage, adding millions of pounds of pollution to the Bay. While ethanol demand has since slumped and corn acreage decreased slightly, ethanol is here to stay, taking a quarter of the U.S. corn crop, a force for keeping more land in corn.

You could hardly have concocted a worse response than corn-based ethanol to start weaning the U.S. from dependence on petroleum (ethanol is usually 10 percent of the fuel in your tank nowa-days). Making the additive from corn is so energy intensive that we get, at best, about 25 percent more energy from a gallon than the energy it takes to produce it. And a gallon of ethanol powers a car about two-thirds as far as a gallon of pure gasoline.

It is considerably more efficient to refine ethanol from sugarcane, which is grown across the southern U.S.; but for that crop the federal subsidies favor sugar, not ethanol, so cane growers are not inclined to get into the fuel business. 

A byproduct of making corn ethanol called distillers grain is now being fed widely to dairy cows in the Chesapeake region. This makes their manure, already a pollution problem, even more potent (higher in phosphorus, which, like nitrogen, stimulates algal growth in the water).

We need to phase out subsidies for making ethanol from corn, and step up research on how to make it from other, less polluting plants like switchgrass. Even more important, we can start right now growing corn and other common row crops like soybeans in less polluting ways. A proven solution is to follow the fall harvest with winter "cover crops"--grains like oats and rye, grown solely to suck up the excess nitrogen before it runs into waterways. Maryland farmers, with financial assistance from state taxpayers, are putting large acreages in winter cover crops. Virginia and Pennsylvania are doing far less, as are midwestern farm states.

Meanwhile, back on the boat, we've been doing okay with ethanol in our new outboard, a Mercury direct-injection two-stroke. But don't let anyone tell you this is a good route to energy independence. Corn, the way we grow most of it now, only looks green.