Tom Wisner has studied for a doctorate in ecology, recorded several CDs and painted the Chesapeake Bay, but the 74-year-old poet, singer and storyteller from Calvert County says he's just a man of the river.
"I'm-a Chesapeake born. I'm-a Chesapeake free," he sang recently, strumming a worn guitar to accompany himself onstage. His white beard bobbed steadily as his audience of 200 or so, mostly senior citizens, softly tapped their feet or swayed in what became a soft rhythmic ripple at the Richard R. Clark Senior Center in La Plata.
The performance at the end of August began Wisner's new program "The Year of the River," which aims to bring children and seniors together to talk about the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent and Potomac rivers. Wisner said he is trying to give others a personal connection to the bay and to encourage a dialogue among the generations.
"I want the elders to speak to the children and the children to speak back," Wisner said. "I believe that elders carry wisdom; it's just a matter of tapping it."
After he sang at the senior center in Charles County, Wisner lobbied for volunteers to talk with elementary school children about the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. He hopes to publish the dialogue next year at the end of the program, which is sponsored by the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative.
For Wisner, the effort is not unusual -- he has spent much of his life singing about the Chesapeake and trying to bring people closer to the bay and other Maryland waterways. Wisner -- sometimes call the "Bard of the Chesapeake" -- sings at schools and senior centers, briefs government officials in song with his guitar and runs a local radio show. He said he has slowed a bit with age and health problems, but he still tries to get away once a week from the old Lusby tobacco farm he calls home.
He believes art and music can bring "folks" to the bay in a way that science cannot. He said people need to love the bay before it can be saved from pollution and overpopulation.
"My life is about this question," he said. "If we can learn about the Earth as a scientist does, why can't we learn about the Earth as an artist does?"
Wisner has partnered with Sara E. Leeland, a retired St. Mary's College philosophy professor, to direct Chestory, the Center for the Chesapeake Story, which brings together artists, musicians and others to protect the Chesapeake and tell its story.
"He's a total rarity," Leeland said of Wisner. "He is someone who is very familiar with the science of the bay, but he also sees it from an artist's viewpoint."
For eight years in the 1980s, Wisner taught a course about the bay at the University of Maryland at College Park. He took students to sites on the bay to help them understand its cultural history, he said.
"I want you to find something to fall in love with," he recalled telling his students. They responded with papers about blue herons, lighthouses, geese and seahorses, he said.
Wisner grew up in the District and Prince George's County but spent his summers on the waterways of Southern Maryland and along the James River, where his mother was raised. He remembers his mother as always laughing and smiling -- she could coax any animal into her arms, he said.
"She caused this boy to fall in love with the makings of creation," he said, closing his eyes as he thought back -- then noting that she had a little help from a turtle. Wisner said he loves turtles to this day because he first saw consciousness that was not human in a turtle's eyes.
When he graduated from Suitland High School in 1950, he volunteered to serve in the military during the Korean War to please his father, who was in the Army, he said. After he came back in 1954, he went to a series of colleges on the GI Bill and graduated from Hartwick College in New York, he said. He taught high school biology for several years, then studied for a doctorate in ecology, and left without completing the degree to come back to Southern Maryland to work for the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, he said.
"I came back to research swan migration," Wisner said, "the fact that they fly thousands and thousands of miles to resurrect their lives." He chose the swan as the symbol for "The Year of the River" and has built, with the help of friends, a floating swan model 12 feet long and 8 feet tall.
Wisner is a mixture of contradictions: He supports population control, and yet he is the father of five children.
"Here I am an advocate of lower population and look at what I've done," he said, his body shaking with a chuckle.
His children taught him simplicity and wisdom, he said -- the very same wisdom he wants children to impart to the seniors in "The Year of the River." He remembers sitting outside one night with his son, then 6, and asking him about frogs' chirps, "What's that sound?"
"That's night," Wisner remembered Michael saying. "That's the sound of night."
Wisner left Southern Maryland when his "dearest" daughter Kimberley, then a student at the University of Maryland, was killed by a truck in 1979. He went west to Nevada. "I went looking trying to rediscover myself," he said.
But there, he learned that he was part of the Chesapeake and its waterway. "I realized I had a relationship with the river," he said.
He came back to teach courses about the Chesapeake and to sing and paint the bay to help people understand its meaning. Now, he hopes "The Year of the River" will help the younger generation appreciate the importance of the bay.
But as he gets older, he worries that the bay will never be saved by a society he calls "autistic."
"We've been so mindless about the Earth," he said, adding that people should be more content to just go outside to listen to the animals and the Earth.
"It's absolutely essential, silence," he said. "Listening to the woodlands."