The Sassafras River, mid-May. Tulip poplars and black locusts in full and fragrant blossom. Local watermen offloading tons of catfish as hungry ospreys, eagles and herons soar close.
The little landing here on Turners Creek, just off the Sassafras in the Upper Chesapeake Bay, has been in constant human use for thousands of years — Tockwogh Indians for most of that time, then Colonial tobacco trade, a granary, a tannery, shipbuilding, oystering.
And since 2009, there’s been a new chapter. A mud-spattered old Toyota pickup rolls down to the creek and a wiry, grizzled man hops out and begins unloading ropes, nets, boots, bait and canoe paddles.
The Kent County 8th-graders arriving soon to fulfill Maryland’s environmental literacy mandate will know the old guy simply as Wayne, little caring that their guide this morning was a nine-term member of Congress or Marine platoon leader seriously wounded in Vietnam.
Wayne Gilchrest “built” the spectacular classroom here — some 2-square-miles of forests and fields and high bluffs commanding a view of the Chesapeake for miles. As a Republican Congressman representing Maryland’s 1st District, which includes the whole Eastern Shore, he convinced state officials to buy the land, protect it from development and gravel mining.
I met Wayne on a Monday, knowing that at 75, in his 13th year of hands-on environmental education trips for thousands of school kids since leaving Congress, he was retiring. His week had begun on Sunday, offering 26 parents and kids who are struggling with homelessness a chance to fish the creek and hike the bluffs — a program he began early in his congressional career.
I’d once proposed a piece on Wayne to Audubon magazine, and Roger Cohn, an editor there, turned it down. Years later Roger, who now runs the Yale 360 environmental website, said he’d made a mistake: “but at the time the guy you were describing just seemed too good to be true.”
Indeed, when Wayne first entered politics, the Baltimore Sun drew comparisons to Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about a small-town citizen who gets elected to fight corruption.
And, during 18 years on Capitol Hill, Wayne never changed, never became a professional politician. I did not always agree with his votes, like initially supporting war in Iraq; but it seemed to me there was never an issue he had not thoroughly examined from all sides, or a decision that wasn’t based on the facts and what he felt best for the people.
When he lost in 2009 to the far more conservative Andy Harris, it was called “a loss to the Congress and to the sort of comity that we try to create here” — that from Rep. Steny Hoyer, another Marylander and now the second-ranking Democrat in Congress.
As his own party shifted right, Gilchrest became a RINO (Republican in name only). He broke ranks over endangered species, wetlands protections, statehood for the District of Columbia, handgun laws and other issues.
He would say things like: “economic growth doesn’t apply anymore if you want to have a good economy 100 years from now.” Most economists and many environmental groups still haven’t caught up to that.
A short canoe paddle with today’s 8th-graders brings us to a little beach at the base of a cliff, shaded by a stalwart chestnut oak growing impossibly sideways, straight out of the eroding cliff face. We hike uphill where, perched at socially distant intervals along a massive old log, “class” begins with a minute of silence, closed eyes, just listening to the sounds of warblers and woodpeckers and the breeze off the water.
We are “Earthlings,” Wayne begins. Scratch up some soil, he tells them. Hold it, feel it, smell it. “Everything you have, everything you ever had, all you will ever have, derives from the soil. … from the sun that feeds it the energy to grow green plants, from the rain that nourishes their roots.”
We discuss the wonder of natural systems that remove carbon dioxide, release oxygen and produce food. “Protect these,” he said, “emulate them in our agriculture, follow nature’s principles.”
It’s over too soon, this marvelous little Sassafras sermon, teaching stuff that the Tockwogh knew in their bones.
Over lunch later, I reminisced with Wayne about the time a farmer asked him if he understood the wetlands protections he was supporting were “back door land-use control.”
“Absolutely,” Wayne told the farmer.
He reminded me of his tough campaign in the 1990s against Democrat Tom McMillan, a former NBA star, when I told Wayne that as a journalist I could not endorse him. “But,” I said, “I make it a rule never to vote for anyone taller than me.” (I’m 6-foot-5, and big Tom was a good 6-foot-10).
I remembered a press conference where Wayne was trying to sell another ahead-of-his-time idea, a “conservation corridor” the length of the Delmarva Peninsula.
“I want a black bear to be able to walk from Wilmington to Cape Charles,” he said. (Congress enacted, but never funded that project — now expired but revived lately as a proposed Delmarva Oasis.)
Wayne said he might never have run for Congress if a bad fall from a packhorse in the Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho hadn’t brought him and his family back to Kent County for medical treatment.
And now that he’s retiring, what’s his next act?
“Oh, I might just go back west, looking for Bigfoot.”
“You don’t believe that Bigfoot stuff, do you?” I asked.
“Oh, no. But fun, huh?”
Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University.