RECENT NEWS ITEM:
The National Park Service gave its highest award to a ranger who developed a computer program to help children "interact" with the Chesapeake Bay.
Though it was innovative and no doubt deserving of the honor, it made me wonder:
Is there anything worth learning about the outdoors anymore that one cannot experience indoors?
With the world increasingly cabled, satellited, 'netted, IMAX'd and CD'd into homes and workplaces, all of nature seems electronically available.
Except for mud. I cannot sing its praises enough.
Mud cannot be transmitted through computer. Placed on a CD, it would bog things down.
Mud, bless its quaggy, slimy soul, is the very essence of the Chesapeake Bay, whose 9,000-mile shore edge and hundreds of thousands of acres of shallow water practically guarantee that one will "interact" with it.
All one has to do is to get out there, progue the edges, muck the marshes, stalk the shallows -- "mudlarking," they call it in certain bay communities.
I have read that arctic people have about two dozen words for the qualities of snow. Similarly, desert denizens are said to have an extensive vocabulary about camels.
All kinds of mud
Anyone aspiring to full citizenship of an estuary such as the Chesapeake should have just as rich and refined an appreciation for mud.
There is mud that sucks and mud that slurps; also mud that thuds.
There is mud all soupy, just turning to mud from the bacterial breakdown of organic matter from the marsh. And there is mud so old and dense, you could quarry it and bake it into bricks.
There is mud deep and unconsolidated enough to swallow you whole -- smooth and oily, fine and spreadable as finger paints, squishing between toes and fingers like petroleum jelly.
There is mud firm enough to support your traverse of a creek mouth, until just about midway across, when it sucks at you like a thing alive, forcing a decision -- your life or your hip boots.
Mud comes in many shades, from jet black to rusty red. An area of bay bottom off the Western Shore has long been known to watermen as "Chinese muds" for its distinctive yellowish tints.
Mud can be oozy, gritty, cindery, shelly, peaty, stinky
I could go on, but I don't want to muddy my point about one of mud's great, overlooked qualities: its educational value.
Mary Piotrowski, a naturalist who works with dozens of schools across Maryland, bestowed some of her highest praise on Hollywood Elementary in Southern Maryland, renowned nationally for its success with environmental education:
The students "have permission to go outdoors fall, spring and winter."
"They have permission to get dirty."
I relate to that, big-time. For three years, I helped manage education centers on marsh islands for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
With thousands of school kids, we experienced those islands from a hundred different points of view.
We stalked the grass flats like great blue herons, canoed by starlight, netted for soft crabs, tonged for oysters.
Also, we identified snails in the marsh, hid to watch terrapins bury their eggs in the beaches. We used satellite photos to place our dabs of marsh in the greater context of the bay's 64,000-square-mile drainage, downstream of about 15 million people.
At the conclusion of such trips, I would go around the circle of kids and ask their most indelible impressions.
They ranged from "No pizza for three days" to "My life is changed forever." But one memory usually predominated.
Mud. We all got muddy.
Mud and muddiness was the common denominator, the literal bottom line. It exemplified that essential shallowness and marshiness that makes the bay the bay.
The vast beds of submerged vegetation that, until recently, covered a half-million acres or more of bay bottom exist for one reason: The bay's bottom is very close to its top, and enough light can penetrate the skinny Chesapeake waters to allow grass to grow.
From that shallowness, from those grasses, flows habitat for waterfowl and the Chesapeake's great waterfowling tradition; also growing places for oysters; and the unique, shallow-draft designs of oystermens' skipjacks and workboats.
Productive yet vulnerable
The bay's productivity, and its vulnerability to overfertilization from sewage and farm runoff, result from its shallowness -- as do its legions of wading birds and its huge production of soft-shell crabs, and whole communities that get their livelihoods from harvesting the softies.
All of this, and much more, we can understand and recall, starting with getting out there and getting muddy.
Plenty of room is available for electronics and hands-in-the-muck education in the desperate race to move the bay watershed's citizenry toward peaceable coexistence with nature.
The award-winning computer program, "National Park Links to the Chesapeake Bay," asks children to make decisions about managing public lands in terms of bay water quality. Maintaining historical accuracy on park lands is not always consistent with maintaining water quality, users find out.
So, plugging in can be good. But the greater challenge, by far, remains getting everyone of us routinely, gloriously muddy.
Pub Date: 1/08/99