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Articles by Sandra Olivetti Martin

How Chesapeake Country turns winter from darkness into fun

This season of year, we count on divine intervention to brighten the sun, warm up the days and fertilize the earth. But to assure that the powers that be — the good hand of God or the harmony of the spheres — know we’re paying attention, we pile on human intervention.
    We fire up our lights to combat the darkness.
    We strike up the bands to both cheer ourselves and knock on heaven’s door.
    We feast, give gifts and play out stories that remind us of our good intentions.
    Our contrivances get pretty elaborate as, over the years, we refine them into traditions on which we come to depend.
    These are our winter pageants.
    This issue, Bay Weekly writers report on pageants to which they’re tied by sentiment or amazement.
    Jim Reiter, for one, acts out his love of theater in more ways than one. You know his Bay Weekly play reviews. You may not recognize him as an oft-disguised character — or behind-the-scenes director — in Colonial Players’ productions. This week, he tells you what it’s like to look out on the audience as a character in Colonial’s 35-year homegrown tradition, A Christmas Carol.
    Reporting on another theatrical tradition, staff writer Kathy Knotts tell how Twin Beach Players’ The Best Christmas Pageant Ever turned her doubting sons into theater lovers.
    Music inspires writer Louise Vest, who reports on the friendly competition between Annapolis’ two Messiah productions: those of the U.S. Naval Academy’s and the Annapolis Chorale’s.
    For the secret behind another musical phenomenon, how a 10-story-high Christmas tree bursts into song, read Victoria Clarkson on Riverdale Baptist Church’s Living Christmas Tree.
    For holiday gifts that give twice, Kathy Knotts directs you to the ALS Artisan Boutique, which may be the oldest show around featuring locally made gifts and which, in its 14 years, has raised more than $300,000 to fight ALS, all in memory of one of its victims, Nancy Wright.
    Of course we don’t leave out the lights, for they are the force field we set up to draw the sun back to our side. In Chesapeake Country’s enthusiastic wave of brightness, homes, boats, parks, gardens and whole towns glow in lights. In this issue you’ll read how five hotspots do it.
    We want to leave room for you. Write your own appreciation (100 to 300 words) for publication in one of our next issues: editor@bayweekly.com.
    For now, read with pleasure and book the date you’ll see, hear and delight in these spectacles first-hand.
    Remind yourself, as you enjoy them, that each sound and sight sprang from the imaginations, hands and voices of your Chesapeake neighbors, responding as we all do to the deep and ancient urgings to lighten winter’s long night.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com
Plus a life in stories: www.sandraolivettimartin.com

Santa down the chimney, pests at the door

To give Santa a friendly welcome, have your chimney swept before he slides down on Christmas Eve.
    Other seasonal visitors to your home are likely to evoke less hospitable greetings. For as the chill comes on, creatures come in. Mice, for example. And the creatures that like to eat mice.
    There’s not much you can do to keep out a determined mouse. Mice can squeeze through the smallest of openings, gaps you never imagined and will likely never find. They’ll be happily active in the warmth of your home and will likely set up housekeeping before you notice them. Even if one doesn’t run over your foot, there will be signs: chewed linens in tightly packed drawers and, alas, tiny mouse turds.
    How to get rid of them?
    If your cats are anything like mine, don’t depend on them. After no luck with live traps, we’ve had to resort to spring traps. The Bay Gardener advises baiting the trap with sunflower seeds attached with a drop of glue from a glue gun.
    Winged invaders are trying to get in, too.
    Stinkbugs are much reduced by cold winters since the memorable invasion of 2011, when they came by the thousands. They derive their name from the foul odor they release when squeezed. Mostly harmless — though they do bite — they are a determined nuisance.
    Box elder bugs are also out and wanting in this time of year. With red bodies and black wings, they’re a prettier bug than the stink bug. They get their name from their favorite food, the juices of the female box elder tree, which may be covered with the bugs in early summer. Now, they want warmth. But if they come in, they’ll most likely have given up the ghost before Santa’s arrival.

Spoiler alert: Don’t let the kids read this

Santa Claus is coming to town. Love him or hate him, he’s a fact.
    You’ll see him everywhere in the weeks ahead. If you shop at Westfield Annapolis Mall, you’ve been seeing him since the day after Veteran’s Day. With this issue, we acknowledge his inevitability. And we take a closer look at the man behind the snowy white beard.
    Santa is a man of many faces, writer Diana Dinsick tells us in this week’s feature story. Over many centuries, he’s traveled great distances — a speedy form of transportation is always part of his legend — changing with each destination to resemble the hopes and dreams of the people he visited.
    Woven into each culture’s bigger legend are our many personal stories of Santa. In looking back, I think maybe our Santa stories stay with us forever.
    My son was Santa deprived. That may account for a lot. For one thing, his children, now 15 and 16, are still believers. At least not deniers.
    “Do the kids still expect Santa?” I asked him as I contemplated my Christmas preparations.
    “They haven’t told me otherwise,” he said. “Which is pretty clever on their parts.”
    Indeed, for Santa and company are very generous to them.
    As Santa was to me.
    I was the only child of a very poor little girl, an immigrant daughter who truly found the proverbial lump of coal in her stocking. She and my father — who shared Santa’s build and liked to give gifts — did so well with their restaurant that Mother was able to give me, as she said, “everything I never had.” So Santa climbed down the chimney of our house with a very big bag of gifts.
    Yet from the chronology of photos of Sandra on Santa’s lap, I can tell that I was suspicious of that old man from the beginning. I loved the excitement of visiting Santa Land with my grandmother in our favorite department store, Famous Barr. I put out cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve. But I knew in my heart that my mother was behind all those gifts, and I must have wanted her to get the credit.
    I know what I was thinking when my son’s first Christmas came along. His father and I imagined ourselves conscientious new Catholics. We were so much smarter than our parents; certainly too smart to be tied to old traditions. So Santa Claus skipped our house (which didn’t have a chimney). Our son’s Christmas gifts were moderate, and all of them came from people who loved him.
    By the second child five years later, our house had a chimney and Santa Claus put us back on his route.    Many of our values had changed over those tumultuous years. But not all. I still wanted my children to connect the gifts they received to the labor and devotion of their parents. But I also wanted fun and fantasy, imagination and infinity of possibility in their lives.
    So we put out our shoes on St. Nicholas Day — or a few days later if I’d let December 6 get by me. We rushed to the tree on Christmas morning for a bigger load of presents from Santa Claus. If we could have claimed any Jewish traditions, we’d have celebrated Chanukah, too.
    As time goes by, I’ve even grown fond of pictures with Santa. I haven’t posed for any lately, but our dog Moe did. Both he and Santa were smiling.
    Once again, Santa Claus has come to town. Read his history, recounted by Diana Dinsick, to appreciate the generosity of his beginning, the scope of his influence and remember — if you can — how much he, and the reality of celestial flight by reindeer-drawn sled, once meant to you.


Calling All Cookie Bakers

    Bay Weekly’s Cookie Exchange is set for December 15. Now’s the time to send us your holiday cookie recipes and stories: editor@bayweekly.com.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com
Plus a life in stories: www.sandraolivettimartin.com

DNR considers protections from bowfishers

Like osprey, cownose rays have abandoned Chesapeake Country for warmer climates. But they’ll be back late spring, finning through our waters to eat, mate and give birth. Baby rays are born, not hatched like their marine cousins, the skates.
    Does their proliferation endanger the recovery of our native oyster, both in the wild and in aquaculture operations?
    That’s been their rep in recent years, for favorite ray foods are oysters and clams.
    “Bay watermen and oyster farmers contend the creatures are threatening their livelihoods,” Rona Kobell reports for the Bay Journal. “An oft-cited 2007 study in the prestigious journal Science said the Atlantic ray population had ballooned because of declines in sharks, their chief predators. In the Bay, hordes of rays were blamed for depleting Bay oysters.”
    How to control them?
    Rays aren’t a high prestige catch in the Chesapeake. Snagged on a line, they give anglers a good fight. But then what are you going to do with a ray? Neither ray nor skate does much as a food fish in America, though both are considered fine fare in France.
    Bowfishers, on the other hand, have made rays a prime target, with tournaments highly popular.
    So popular that, Kobell writes, “biologists have grown concerned about the impacts of such unlimited carnage, noting that rays produce one pup a year and are slow to mature.
    “In the spring of 2015, animal rights groups began filming the tournaments to publicize the slaughter of rays, attracting local television coverage. The groups also began to pressure the governors of both states to stop the tournaments.
    “Advocates for protecting rays gained support earlier this year, when a new study contradicted the 2007 one and found they are not to blame for declines in oyster populations.”
    Now the kite-shaped creatures may be getting a little love.
    “Maryland Department of Natural Resources last month notified fishing groups that it was considering declaring the cownose ray a species “in need of conservation” and setting some first-ever harvest limits to protect them,” Kobell writes. “Last week, DNR called — quietly — for public comment on whether to place a limited ban on the controversial staging of bowfishing tournaments to slaughter the rays.
    What will happen next? That’s a story in progress.

This bird is worth a trip to Easton

Winter anglers in Chesapeake Country, mergansers — common, red-breasted or hooded — are diving ducks that keep birdwatchers guessing as to where they’ll pop up after their last dive. They hunt in packs underwater, herding fish into their serrated bills.
    The hooded merganser that’s just moved onto the grounds of The Academy Art Museum in Easton is a bird of another kind. Standing 16 feet high, this bird will be doing no diving. But he will disappear as his sapling frame disintegrates in time and weather.
    The creation of Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein, artists who call themselves the Myth Makers, is deliberately “ephemeral” and will return to nature in three to five years. It was finished November 5, constructed in about a week with the help of volunteers.
    Based in Boston, the Myth Makers have worked throughout America and around the world, creating monumental Avian Avatars in locations as diverse as on Broadway and Muskegon, Michigan. The merganser’s creation and the indoor exhibition of the artists’ works is sponsored in Easton by the Maryland State Arts Council, Talbot County Arts Council and the Star-Democrat, plus individuals and local businesses.
    Figuratively, the artists say their merganser represents a proud monument to independent thinking and bravery, in the spirit of Eastern Shore native Frederick Douglass, who said, “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”
    The mergansers will be there for a while; the Myth Makers’ other art only through February 26: ­academyartmuseum.org.

Four generations later, returning to a home they’ve never known

See a monarch this time of year, and you’re seeing an insect with superpowers. Passing through Chesapeake Country is the migrating fourth generation of the distinctive butterfly whose orange wings are patterned like leaded glass. The great-great grandchildren of last spring’s migrating monarchs, these featherweights are repeating the 3,000-mile journey to Mexico, flying on instinct.
    Leaving Chesapeake Country, these long-distance fliers funnel through Point Lookout, Maryland’s southernmost tip, before hopping over the 11-mile-wide mouth of the Potomac River, says Calvert County naturalist Andy Brown. Over the weekend of October 22 and 23, Brown netted and tagged 100 or so there.
    Thence, they continue inexorably southward.
    Their fuel for the long flight is autumnal nectar from such plants as goldenrod and wild aster. As they won’t be laying eggs for many months, they have no need of the milkweed that sustains larval monarchs.
    Before these endurance fliers become parents, they’ll have migrated to Mexico, overwintered in the Oyamel fir tree forests of the state of Michoacan, and flown north again. Their children will be born on the northward migration that will take three generations to complete. 2017’s fourth generation, like this year’s, will pupate perhaps as far north as Canada, perhaps as close as our own yards — if their parents found milkweed there.
    Remember these monarchs. Plant milkweed in your garden next spring to help the age-old fragile cycle ­continue.

Three destinations to enjoy mild days while you can

At Halloween, we passed the halfway point, 45 days from past the autumnal equinox, 45 days until the winter solstice. Halloween, you’ll remember, shortens All Hallows Eve, the lead-in to All Saints Day and All Souls Day, feasts of remembrance and reverence for the dead, borrowed from Roman Catholic liturgy. These are the Days of the Dead, as they’re celebrated in Mexico.    
    Another old story tells us what we’re in store for: Persephone, daughter of fruitfulness, is stolen by Hades and held captive in the underworld, meaning her mother Demeter and all the northern hemisphere mourn until her spring escape.
    In Chesapeake Country, the news is not so bad. November usually begins as a gentle month, with temperatures often in the 60s till mid-month and seldom dropping to freezing. Trees are at their colorful best right now, and while this year’s color will not be full-blown, it’s not bad. Butterflies and bees still have flowers to feed on. At home, we’re still eating ripe tomatoes from our own plants. These late autumnal good days are fleeting, which is all the more reason to enjoy them while we can.
    Thus, Bay Weekly’s November 3 issue offers you excursions. I recommend them particularly as I’ve been on them all myself.
    For a hike, alone or with your dog, or a horseback ride, I suggest Biscoe Gray Heritage Farm, 198 acres of rolling terrain with lovely pastoral vistas. As this is a recently retired farm, most of the land is native grasses filled with birds and wildlife. Artful mowing of wide paths and meadows improves the views. You can see a long rolling road, named for its original use: rolling hogsheads of tobacco to the water to be loaded on boats for market. Hardwood forest of about a half-century’s growth trims the edges, including Battle Creek. Historic farm buildings still stand. Trails are marked on a map you can pick up at the unattended park, including the Cathole Trail, which takes you by the centuries-old native homesite you’ll read about in this week’s story Digging Back into Our History.
    This Calvert County Park is south of Prince Frederick and just south of Battle Creek Nature Education Center, another distinctive natural destination with a boardwalk through Chesapeake Country’s northernmost cypress swamp. There is no charge to visit Biscoe Gray Heritage Farm, but equestrian use requires a permit (410-535-5327); open dawn to dusk.
    At Biscoe Gray Heritage Farm, you’re only 20 minutes by car from Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, about which you’ll read in New at Calvert Marine Museum.
    That’s good reason to visit both in a day, especially if you’re coming from Anne Arundel County. If you’re ambitious, that is, for Calvert Marine Museum can fill a day on its own. The museum campus, a pretty spot with waterviews, is perfect for a picnic, reading, drawing or painting, if the day is fine. Outdoors is also where you’ll look for the playful otters in their pool. Inside this fascinating museum, you’ll see other live animals, including skates and rays; get close-up views of prehistoric life; and step back in maritime culture.
    You can’t bring your dog or horse, and admission is charged to the museum: 410-326-2042.
    For an Annapolis excursion, visit either campus of the expanded Annapolis Maritime Museum, about which you’ll read in A Giant Step into the Future. The museum proper, in Eastport, offers an Annapolis view of maritime history and a lovely waterfront space to be outdoors on a good day, to fish, read, draw or simply enjoy the feel of the place. Across Back Creek — three miles by car though Eastport and down Forest Drive — the museum’s new campus, the Ellen Moyer Nature Park, offers retreat from the city into 12 acres of mostly untamed nature, where you can explore or launch your paddle craft. Free admission on both sides of the creek: www.amaritime.org.
    Enjoy the spots now, and you may want to come back in winter for very different experiences.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com
Plus a life in stories: www.sandraolivettimartin.com

Like coffee, Bay stewardship may be an acquired taste

Percolate is a big word in Chesapeake futures.
    Hereabouts, the same word once synonymous with how America made its coffee describes the best way for water from heaven, rainwater, and its gushing next stage, stormwater, to make its way back to our watershed. My mother’s percolator kept the brew cycling through the grinds, making coffee more watchable than drinkable as it spouted against the little glass top cap. In our watershed, drip coffee makes a better metaphor but not so particular a word.
    The comparison is that passing through the natural or constructed equivalent of grinds — rocks, roots and earth — water leaves its impurities behind, while if it rushed directly into sewers and waterways, stormwater would be a heady brew flavored with pollutants and sediment. Even apparently pure rainwater carries a load of exhaust pipe pollutants from vehicles and power plants.
    So neither drip nor percolate gets it quite right, for we want coffee water to pick up the flavor of its grinds while we mean for stormwater to leave its additives behind.
    Managing our stormwater so it percolates its deposits out is one of the top ways at work in cleaning up the Bay. Watch water running downhill during any torrent, and it seems like a pretty smart idea. But it’s a bumpy road between thought and action. After half a dozen years, Maryland’s stormwater management plan just can’t keep out of the news. Gov. Larry Hogan lives on Chesapeake Bay when he’s not in Government House, and there too he’s not far uphill from our defining natural resource. Yet just days ago he approved county stormwater management plans that substitute who-knows-what funding in place of the despised Rain Tax — which of course it really isn’t.
    Half of Maryland voters, according to a 2015 survey by the Clean Water, Healthy Families coalition, incorrectly believe that people will be taxed when it rains. Many voters are not sure, leaving only 29 percent who know they will not be taxed when it rains.
    Tax is one of those words to which our collective allergy has worsened since Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s early 21st century bright idea that became the related Flush Tax. Year by year, we seem to have transferred much of the hatred Americans used to feel for communism, Nazism or fascism to our own government.
    That antagonism roiled a meeting I went to last month. It was a small gathering on Anne Arundel County’s plan to assess the Herring Bay watershed. Stormwater management money would be percolating way down to those little streams. The grumbling started when the presenters explained that this benefit was the drip down from President Barack Obama’s 2009 Executive Order putting the Bay on a pollution-reduction diet. Total Daily Maximum Loads of pollutants would set the Bay’s pollution calorie limits. Stormwater management plans help achieve one standard of reduction.
    Like storms, farms are another pollution-producer due for reduction. Money is percolating our way to help achieve those reductions, as well. Almost half a million dollars to accelerate conservation in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is up for grants in November for Maryland farmers to better manage farm animal wastes.
    One local farm, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm in Prince George’s County, has become the first farm in the state to adopt best management practices for achieving farm Total Daily Maximum Load goals ahead of schedule. By achieving Agricultural Certainty certification, Clagett Farm gains a 10-year exemption from new environmental laws and regulations. That, I suppose, makes sense if it’s ahead of the law.
    This is how percolation works. It involves us all, touches us all, rewards us all in this great work of cleaning up the Bay.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com
Plus a life in stories: www.sandraolivettimartin.com

It takes a lot of preying to make so big a bug

In summer’s abundance, praying mantises grow like corn.
    Emerging in spring warmth from their tan, papery egg masses, they are tiny, pale-green nymphs. By autumn, after several exoskeleton sheddings and many good meals, the tan, winged adults can be six or seven inches long.
    The habit of folding their long forearms gives the species the name praying mantis. They might better be called preying for they use those arms to grasp food, mostly other insects. Thus they’re good bugs for your garden. Their predation can include male mantises that, useless after mating, may be turned into food by the females making eggs for next year’s generation.
    Like corn, mantises mostly wait for their food to come to them, as they are ambush predators. With two protruding compound eyes and three small simple eyes, they see well. All the better as their flexible necks enable them to rotate their heads, almost 180 degrees in some species. Most of the members of the plentiful order are camouflage artists, with our praying mantises copying twigs. The unsuspecting bug that comes too close to this twig becomes dinner, held in those praying arms for devouring.
    Also like corn, mantises are ­annuals, productive for one season but doomed by cold weather.
    Corn has been harvested in most of our fields. But mantises are around a while longer.

A little cause for hope and a lot of good eating

Oysters have been around a long time, in the vicinity of 500 million years.
    Arriving somehow in the Chesapeake, which came into being only 35 million years ago, oysters made themselves at home. In the prehistoric broth, temperatures were moderate, oxygen abundant and food plentiful for the filter-feeders. In synergism over the eons, thriving oysters both kept the Bay clean and made welcoming reef homes for many species seeking shelter and prey. For immobile creatures, oysters got a lot done.
    Longtime Baltimore Sun food writer Rob Kasper paints a vivid picture. “Up it came from the bottom of the Bay dripping mud and with all of these creatures on it, and when the captain popped it open, I was a little ascared,” the native Midwesterner says of his first encounter — aboard a skipjack — with a raw oyster.
    Reefs grew so enormous that Captain John Smith and the Europeans who followed him in big ships had to navigate around them.
    Oysters put Chesapeake Bay on America’s map.
    “They’re historic, they’re part of our tradition, wars have been fought over them,” says John Shields, whose family ran a seafood packing plant on Tilghman Island.
    In the bivalve’s heyday when as many as 17 million bushels were dredged from the Bay from October to April, refrigerated railway cars chugged them across the country to delight inlanders at least as far west as the Mississippi.
    Even in 2016 — with harvests of wild Bay oysters collapsed to a high of 400,000 bushels — Crassostrea virginica remains a talisman of bounty — and good eating.
    Shields, Kasper and I saw the vitality of that tradition last weekend at the U.S. Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County, conceived by Rotary Club of Lexington Park a half-century ago and still going strong. (Read more in this week’s feature, How to Cook a Prize-Winning Oyster.) You might have shared the spirit last Sunday at Captain Avery Museum’s Oyster Festival.    
    Oyster festivals, roasts and dinners are favorite autumnal events in Chesapeake Country. On Sunday October 29, you can get into oysters at Calvert Marine Museum’s Aww … Shucks Oyster Social or St. Michael’s Oysterfest at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. On Saturday November 5, Deale Volunteer Fire Department takes its turn, serving all the oysters you can eat — on the half shell, steamed, fried, frittered and stewed.
    Despite all the celebration, oysters have been near to becoming just a memory in our Chesapeake, down to one percent of their historic range. Not so many years ago, in this very century, both Maryland and Virginia came close to giving up on Crassostrea virginica and repopulating its home waters with an Asian import. Surely that was the low point. In the last decade, both Chesapeake states have invested heavily and seriously in wild oyster recovery.
    Will it work?
    Oysters are adaptable survivors. They have “developed a wide variety of genes and proteins to help them deal not only with changes of temperature and differences in the salinity of the water, but also with their exposure to heavy metals … and the various harmful bacteria” to which filter-feeders are constantly exposed, Kristian Sjøgren explained in a 2012 article reporting that their complex genome had been mapped.
    Yet they can’t get up and go, so they are tremendously vulnerable to environmental influences, from low oxygen to imported diseases to the heat of such summers as this one.
    Thus the rise of aquaculture means an alternate future — for oyster culture, oyster eaters, the oyster economy … even the Bay, as aquacultured oysters are busy filterers even though they do not form reefs.
    “With oyster farming, I’m enjoying seeing a resurgence in how we enjoy Chesapeake oysters and how they’re sold, here and across the U.S.,” says Shields, cookbook author, PBS cooking show host and proprietor of Gertrude’s Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
    A little good oyster news is worth savoring. That’s what you’ll find, along with savory oyster recipes, in this issue.


Speaking of Food …
    Send us your holiday cookie recipes and stories now for Bay Weekly’s Cookie Exchange, out on December 15: editor@bayweekly.com.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com
Plus a life in stories: www.sandraolivettimartin.com