Lessons in ecology - and life - on the Bay

Ten students at Salisbury University are completing today one of the most intense classes they've probably ever taken in college - but maybe one of the most enlightening, too.

For the past five weeks, the environmental studies majors and two instructors have been exploring the Chesapeake Bay, by land and water, from the Sassafras River to the Bay Bridge-Tunnel. They've paddled the Choptank and Nanticoke rivers, and seen firsthand the interplay between nature and humanity across the Delmarva Peninsula, from the condo canyons of Ocean City to disappearing islands like Hollands, Smith and Tangier.


The six-credit course is taught by Bay author and former Sun writer Tom Horton, and by Bill Nelson, a fellow instructor at Salisbury and a veteran outdoorsman. It wasn't just an extended camping trip - the intinerary covered the science and the social science of the bay watershed. And the students kept journals of what they experienced and learned, and had a final paper or presentation to give.

With their permission, Tom, a longtime friend, shared some of their entries. I'll quote a few snippets:

"I learned so much this week without opening a textbook or sitting at a desk," wrote Sarah Mattingly, who grew up on the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County, Tom informed me.

She said that she'd learned about barrier islands and the movement of sand in her Coastal Processes class at Salisbury, but the lessons didn't hit home until she and the others kayaked out to Cedar Island on the Virginia coast and found they couldn't paddle up to the buildings still standing off that eroding barrier island.

There were hands-on lessons in wildlife, too. "I got to see a petrified spider crab up close, not just a flat picture of one, got to hold periwinkles, see a baby piping plover and check out fiddler crabs and learn the purpose of their big claw," Sarah Mattingly noted.

Courtney Cohen gained a greater appreciation of trees, in part because of the shade provided by a giant walnut at aptly named Walnut Landing after a grueling 17-mile paddle in 90-degree heat.

"While the shade is a nice gift there was something more magnetic about trees this week," she added. The students heard from Joan Maloof, a just-retired Salisbury botany professor who shared her passion for trees. "She talked about the beauty value associated with these giants," Cohen wrote. adding "they give off an energy that cannot be measured."

The students spent some time in the traditional fishing communities on Smith and Tangier islands and learned from the islanders about the lives they lead there, and the daunting challenges to the continued existence of these historic places. Tangier in Virginia is losing 35 to 75 feet of land a year as the residents try to scrape together the money to build a seawall. On Smith, the threat is more cultural, as young people abandon the hard, uncertain life of fishing and seek work on the mainland. The island's population dwindles and ages.

"At what cost are humans impacting the environment, so much that we are causing thousands of people their homes, livelihood and community?" asked Alison Mattingly, Sarah's sister, in her journal. "Though we now have created an effort to restoring the Chesapeake Bay to better health, are we too late to restore and protect the culture and livelihood of those on Smith and Tangier Island?"

The experiential lessons the students learned may help shape future career choices for some. Sarah Mattingly was impressed by the passion and commitment of many of the people they met in their travels - artist, naturalist, scientist and fishermen alike.

"I don't want to end up being stuck in one job which may pay the bills, but doesn't make me happy or connect me to the natural world," she wrote in one entry. "Taking this class has really given me hope that I will be able to find a job that I love and have a passion and dedication for that will also benefit either the Delmarva waterways or another natural marvel around the world."

Tom writes that the school plans to offer the class every summer. Tent camping for days and lugging a portable toilet around may be more roughing it than some are used to. But from the excerpts I've read, the experiences and insights gained by such immersion in the natural world made it all worthwhile.

(Photos by Jason Rhodes for Salisbury University)