Unforgettable gifts from nature


In the autumn is best, when the cool nights provoke boils of fog from the James River where it runs shallow through the heart of Richmond.

Then, just before dawn, he likes to get comfortable with a thermos of coffee, seated on a rock in the river's bed, says Ralph White, manager of the urban James River Park.

The sun perfuses the mists with a cold, red glow, and wild ducks strike a cacophony that swells and swells, until the first rays of light appear -- then silence; and then the whirring of waterfowl rocketing into the bright morning air.

At such times, he says, "I feel like Mickey Mouse in that classic scene from 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' where every direction he turns, his power causes great, grand things to happen."

I chanced on White doing this column, which is about the gifts of nature that are all around us. For the price of a phone call, I got more than I bargained for.

It is so often just that way with nature. Invest a little time and attention, and you may get a lifetime memory.

The luckiest people are the ones who can take joy in what the natural world offers every day, said state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad at a recent tribute for his environmental efforts.

He remembered the spring when, returning to Annapolis from a hectic day in Washington, D.C., in traffic on U.S. 50, he looked up and saw a mature bald eagle, sun blazing on its white head, soaring above the South River.

"I wanted to shout to people going by at 70 miles an hour: Stop! Look!"

As a legislator, Winegrad also specialized in child abuse issues, and thinks there are connections between the breakdown in human family and community and our disconnection from the greater community of nature.

This week I asked several bay dwellers to share their more memorable gifts from the nature we often relegate to background noise.

* Wayne T. Gilchrest, Maryland's 1st District congressman, and maybe the Republican Party's best bet to guide it back to a sound environmental policy, had this to say:

"People may think I'm crazy, but early some mornings, if it's quiet enough, I can hear the sunlight sparkling off the bay, and it seems to be in harmony with the honking of the geese. I believe there's a mystery to life, a closeness to nature that's as old as our race."

* Steele Phillips, a farmer on the Nanticoke River near where it enters the bay: "There was a day in October, years ago. I was fishing in Hooper Strait, and the water as far as we could see

began to churn with breaking rockfish, and the sun was setting, and just as it got to the tops of the trees on the Western Shore, a flight of geese came right across it.

"I have often wished I had a painting of that, because I've never seen the like again."

Capturing the whole scene

* John Page Williams, author of "Exploring the Chesapeake in Small Boats" and "Chesapeake Almanac": "This fall, I rounded a bend of the Rappahannock River, heading east, sun behind me. The water was smooth. Suddenly, I was staring down a four-mile corridor of flaming oranges and reds, maples and gums; and above them, sandstone cliffs were glowing white.

"I was stunned. I've wished since I had a photograph of it, but I don't think a camera could have captured the electricity of the whole scene."

* Dan Boone, one of Maryland's most gifted young naturalists and an expert on old-growth forests: "I've seen some of the world's most spectacular natural places, but

the most inspirational thing to me is still the bluebird nesting boxes my brother and I put up and tended when we were growing up in Western Maryland. Bluebirds have become fairly common again there now.

"Aldo Leopold wrote that the highest form of recreation is the one that consumes the least. We all take from nature, even

bird-watchers. We seldom give something back."

* Nick Carter, a biologist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, who's poked into every nook and cranny of the bay's watershed: "Of all I've seen and done, probably most satisfying has been watching 15 acres of land where I moved 28 years ago revert from a cornfield to a forest -- seeing the moles softening up the ground; gums and pine come in and reach 40 to 50 feet; and beech and oak in the understory. All you have to do is quit mowing."

* Marjorie Adkins, the woman behind the toll-free number at the Chesapeake Regional Information Service (CRIS): "On

Thanksgiving Day, a southeast wind had blown all the water out of the Tred Avon River, and Marcy Judd, one of our staff, noticed the bills of a few oysters sticking out of the mud. After some digging, we found three dozen nice ones and roasted them for dinner."

Prettiest fishing

* Larry Simns, president, Maryland Watermen's Association: "It was the prettiest fishing I ever did -- shad in the spring in the upper bay. We'd lay seven, eight boxes

[nearly two miles] of net, across the bay, and it would hang from big corks on the surface, painted different colors. Sometimes there were 25 to 30 boats doing that.

"You'd lay it late in the day, to drift all night. On a calm, sunset evening, running back along those long rows of corks, beginning to bob as the shad hit the mesh, that was something. Sometimes by morning the nets had snagged each other, and those colored corks were pulled together in a shape just like a rose blooming -- but we didn't think that was so pretty."

The manatee, the whale

* John Barth, the novelist: "Chesapeake 1994: the Year of the Manatee [in the Chester River] and the whale [lower Susquehanna River]. Some years ago I published a novel whose plot turns on the sighting of Chessie, the fabled shallow-draft sea monster. We now have welcome evidence that truth can be, if not stranger than fiction, more ecologically encouraging.

"Next year, giant sturgeons! Maybe even oysters!"

* Maurice "Doc" Goddard, resident of the Susquehanna, the bay's biggest tributary,and Pennsylvania's top conservation official for a quarter century: "I've seen the river around Harrisburg come from badly polluted in the 1960s, to able to hatch black flies in the '70s -- a nuisance, but a sign of better water. Then in the 1980s it began to hatch mayflies, indicators of good water."

* Wayne Klockner, director of the Maryland chapter of the Nature Conservancy: "I don't even have to think about my most absolutely indelible impression. It was 1975. I'd just come to Maryland and I discovered that long, winding road to Elliott Island in lower Dorchester County.

"To every horizon there was nothing but marsh, with occasional pine islands. I consider it one of the East's last great wildernesses. Later, I found it was one of the best places to explore at night for the rare, nocturnal black rail."

* Dr. Torrey C. Brown, Maryland's secretary of natural resources: "I think the most incredible thing about the bay is it never stays the same. The wind, the temperature, the time of day; the sun and clouds reflecting on the water and the marsh. It's unending variety, every moment; like watching a fire, but better."

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