Vol. 9, No. 28
July 12-18, 2001
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Apperciation: Joseph Mackins, Bay Scientist, 1946-2001
by Kent Mountford

Few people meet life with more enthusiasm than Joe Macknis. He loved life, enjoyed his health and, as a college guy, loved girls - until Susan Elbert came along to become his wife. With equal passion and commitment, he loved nature.

Joe’s commitment to the environment was shaped in his early years in Pennsylvania coal mining country. Coal mining is a hard business, hard on the men and women who work in the mines and hard on the land, leaving scars that indelibly mark soil and forest and poison streams in the Chesapeake Basin.

A bright, energetic kid, Joe found summer work for a chemical company in New Jersey. “In the organic dyes part of the business,” Joe once said, “from day to day the color of a guy’s urine would change radically, depending on the part of the plant he handled chemicals in.”

The military gave Joe his education and a way out. He eventually earned two masters degrees, one in environmental policy.

So equipped, he joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when it was a bright new idea, in work that linked policy with science: investigating the decline of Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary.

Several years ago, Joe became one in the sequence of Bay Program monitoring coordinators charged with sustaining what is still the world’s most comprehensive long-term estuarine data archive. About 1997, as he struggled with mandated “refinements” of the monitoring system, he called close friends into his office and announced that he had cancer and was commencing the battle to fight it.

Joe did not associate his environmental history or employment stress with his colon cancer. “Just luck, I think,” was his comment.

An intensely masculine guy, he sought hugs from all of us at work during his treatment and recovery, and we were glad to share our energy with him, entering what his former boss, Bill Matuszeski, called “Joe’s remarkable circle of light.”

Joe’s eventual remission was amazing, and he resumed his normal ebullient tennis games, biked to work and swam in the Bay each week from early spring to fall. On New Year’s Day 2000, on a New Jersey Shore holiday, Joe plunged into the ocean to inaugurate the new Millennium.

Yet his cancer had reoccurred, spread to chest and organs where even strenuous treatment, and Joe’s application of indomitable spirit and spirituality, could not conquer it. Still, he continued to work hard for EPA, part time and eventually from a computer at home. His legacy of hard work, loyalty and perseverance inspires all of us who plan for the Bay’s future.

As I look back over 20 years with Joe, one bright moment demands retelling. A decade ago, frustrated by bureaucracy, Joe and I walked out to the dramatic cliff of ancient rock which rises almost 200 feet above York River. We wanted to experience, for a few moments, the real Chesapeake.

The sky above was clear and the sun behind us bright, but the entire river valley was filled to the brim with dense fog. There was only white, all the way to the opposite rim nearly a mile distant. As we reached the very edge of this high outcrop, in an instant our own shadows appeared greatly elongated and slowly undulating across the mist streaming down this massive gorge on light air.

With the sun directly at our backs, a rainbow halo appeared reflected from the billions of water droplets surrounding us. We could raise our arms like wings, swinging them through a circular arc like the famous illustration by Leonardo DaVinci, reaching toward the colored perimeter of rainbow.

We discussed how aboriginal peoples, encountering such phenomena, might have believed such imagery a manifestation and message from the Great Spirit, taking it as a sign of special power or favor. We were scientists, of course, and understood exactly what had happened, but it was still immensely moving.

In a few moments, the mist evaporated across the entire gorge, vanishing to reveal the blue river, tracked with cats’ paws of morning wind and furrowed by the wakes of two boats bound upstream from the Chesapeake.

Joe Macknis is there now. He died at home Sunday, July 1.

- Dr. Kent Mountford, former Chesapeake Bay Program senior scientist, writes about the Bay and environmental history from St. Leonard Creek in Southern Maryland.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly