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Remembering the bard of the bay

Chesapeake born and bound to thee

'deed I am, I'm Chesapeake free

Chesapeake born, Chesapeake Bay bred

And when I'm gone, Chesapeake dead!

"Chesapeake Born," Tom Wisner

With the death this month of Tom Wisner, the colorful Chesapeake Bay folk singer, poet and storyteller whose work captured the spirit and beauty of the bay from Havre de Grace to Point Lookout, the nation's largest estuary lost one of its foremost advocates.

At a recent gathering recalling Wisner's life at King's Landing Park in Calvert County, whose education center was named for him, eulogist Gov. Martin O'Malley spoke of his friendship with "The Bay Bard."

"He was one of the most creative, refreshing, passionate and deeply spiritual men I have ever known," O'Malley recalled in his remarks.

Wisner, who was 79, died on Good Friday after battling lung cancer for several years.

Referring to the day of Wisner's death, O'Malley said, "He had a love and deep understanding of symbols and their importance to our shared humanity and our kinship with nature and the Creator; of the significance of offering and sacrifice, and the power of the circle.

"In fact, in one of the last songs he wrote — a song about the Maryland 400 — he spoke about how ‘we'll all ignite that fire from the center of our circle.' And here we are as he wanted: seated in a circle to celebrate the gift of his life."

It seems that Wisner was born with river and bay water in his veins.

He was born and raised in Washington, the son of a career soldier, along the banks of the Anacostia River. He often accompanied his father on fishing trips to the Potomac River.

"I'd watch that old water churning with my dad and that's when I fell in love with it," Wisner told the Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1985 profile, and recalled visiting his mother's family who lived near the James River in Virginia.

"There was always a lot of singing on my Uncle Luther's front porch," he said. "I never had enough of it."

After serving in the Korean War in the Air Force, Wisner attended college, earning a bachelor's degree from Hartwick College, and then did graduate work in ecology, studying migration patterns of swans and geese at Cornell University.

Bored by the constraints of academic work and developing an interest in art, Wisner said in the Sunday Sun Magazine interview that one day he "just turned around and walked out."

He was 30 with a wife and two children.

He briefly returned to Maryland and then headed West when he found work as a ranger naturalist at Sequoia National Park.

Returning to Maryland after a few years, Wisner taught biology and chemistry at Leonardtown High School and then joined the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons Island, where he was a conservation education specialist.

Divorced in the 1960s, Wisner taught himself guitar, and after two weeks, wrote his first song. He gave up dressing in suits, let his hair and beard grow, and quit his job at the lab.

For a time, he lived in New Mexico, trying to build a new life and working writing songs, but the dramatic beauty of his new home couldn't compete with the scenery of the old, and the siren call of Tidewater Maryland was something he surrendered to one day.

"I kept hearing the words ‘Susquehanna, Wicomico, South, Severn, Magothy, Back,' " Wisner said in the interview.

He was now determined to use his scientific knowledge and passion for music to tell the story of the bay, its people, and especially his beloved Patuxent River, of which he wrote in a song:

"Hey there wild river,

Teach me to flow,

Tell me your poems,

‘n all the songs you know."

For the past 40 years, Wisner criss-crossed the state, singing to both young and old of his deep affection for the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers that flow into it.

His recorded albums, "Chesapeake Born," "Equilibrium" and "We've Got to Come Full Circle," are part of the National Smithsonian Folkways collection. His last CD, "Follow on the Water," was released in January.

Wisner's music was also featured in the National Geographic Society's 1986 documentary "Chesapeake Borne," and in 2002, he was the recipient of the World Folk Music Association's John Denver Award.

Twenty years ago, Wisner founded the annual Patuxent Wade In to check in on the health of the river and was a co-founder of ChesStory, better known as the Center for the Chesapeake Story that is located at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons.

Wisner lived in a rented farmhouse in Southern Maryland near his beloved Patuxent River.

"Wisner's friends are everywhere in the cluttered house. Drums, keyboards, guitars, banjos, rattles, all crammed in among bones, skulls and shells, fossil ear bones of whales and giant sharks' teeth he's picked up from the nearby Calvert Cliffs," wrote former Baltimore Sun environmental columnist Tom Horton in a profile published last year in Washingtonian Magazine.

"Amid Bay art and maps that paper the walls is a series of exquisite pen and ink drawings Wisner has done of his ‘elemental people.' Country people, watermen, captains; he's devoted decades to collecting their stories, a rich trove that's housed at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons," Horton wrote.

"As a pure musician, I was blown away with his riffs, lyrics and outstanding poetry. It was so inspiring," Horton said in a telephone interview the other day. "And when it came to the bay, Tom always said, ‘The bay is your mother. Treat it like it was your mother.' "

Horton said that O'Malley became a fan of Wisner's and invited him for several musical evenings that were held in the governor's residence.

In his remarks at the memorial gathering, O'Malley quoted Wisner's words: "I want to clearly make the point that I am deeply invested in what I have been invested in all my life; and it is because of that circle of elders that's with me at all times. And you know, you've got them, too; and it is a wonderful thing to acknowledge."

Horton said the other day that Wisner's ashes will be spread on Virginia's Massanutten Mountain.

"Several rivers rise there and flow from the foothills of the Blue Ridge to the bay," Horton said. "And Tom always had a feeling for that area, and so that's where we're taking him."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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