Volume XI, Issue 33 ~ August 14-20, 2003

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<Dock of the Bay>
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<Bay Reflections>
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Dock of the Bay

State Reptile Feels the Ax
Maryland’s money-saving recipe makes soup of terrapins

Just a few days after her job was abolished at Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, Marguerite Whilden and her terrapins set out on their own — with a little help from her friends, son and “turtle lackey” Angus and longtime volunteer Tom Newquist.

The 50-year-old Whilden was one of eight Natural Resources employees who lost their jobs to the Board of Public Works decree carrying out Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s decision last month to cut $208 million in state spending.

After 30 years with the Department of Natural Resources, Whilden was told that her Fisheries Service assignment is now deemed “non-mission critical.” Yet the Department is mandated to conserve fishery species and habitat, she’s quick to remind, and the Northern diamondback terrapin she conserves is not only fished commercially but also distinguised. It’s the Maryland State Reptile.

Whilden conceived Terrapin Station in 1998 as part of a project to reach out to bring people into discussion of the “full range of fisheries management issues.”

The diamondback, “an esoteric little creature that spread the fame of the Chesapeake Bay around the world, is the heart of the Fisheries Service Conservation and Stewardship programs,” according to DNR’s website.

Now, Whilden is hearing that her job was “just” outreach and education, which is a fine thing she says — though “I always avoided that emphasis.” She says her goal is to conserve and inspire stewardship, encouraging public support and involvement in conservation. By introducing people to creatures, she hoped wildlife would “get into their psyches.”

The diamondback terrapin is particularly suited to such psychic burrowing. Whilden calls it the buffalo of the Bay, explaining that, like the buffalo, the turtle is an icon of nature and historic abundance. And like the buffalo, today the terrapin needs protection to survive.

Terrapin flesh was savored by Native American Algonquians, who are said to have given the reptile its name. It was also eaten copiously by colonists. The once-abundant reptile was overharvested in Maryland as early as 1900.

Not so long ago, terrapin conservation was riding high. Former Gov. Parris Glendening first set up a Governor’s task force “to ensure the survival of the state reptile” and then announced a long term of conservation and habitat restoration. The University of Maryland agreed to donate to terrapin research a portion of proceeds from its Fear the Turtle mascot merchandizing campaign.

To Whilden’s delight, she says, schoolchildren proved they, too, could be good stewards. They collected turtle eggs that would otherwise be lost to predation and, in classrooms across the state, incubated eggs and nurtured and monitored hatchlings. The students easily wooed state delegates by bringing their turtles to the State House in Annapolis.

Virginia Clagett, later named to the Terrapin Conservation Task Force, was one of those delegates.

“Why do we want to lessen up on this terrapin rescue? It just doesn’t make sense. The terrapin is Maryland’s icon, and Marguerite Whilden has been the guiding light and a major, major force in pulling all the sides together and keeping this program going forward,” said Clagett of the firing.

Whilden also took students to visit Ehrlich, who was then a congressman. “We were treated like royalty,” she says. “I can’t imagine he’s taken leave of his senses now.”

Maybe the problem is that terrapin conservation was a favorite program of Glendening. Maryland’s first diamondback terrapin nesting sanctuary on public lands near Crisfield was named for the former governor.

Since the change of administration last January, Natural Resouces has ignored the recommendations of the Governor’s Terrapin Task Force, Whilden says.

Still, Whilden, who calls herself “a lifelong Republican,” says she “has no idea where this comes from.

“I support the governor,” she says. “But I do think this was a dumb decision. I think they’re setting the governor up as careless, and I don’t think he is.”

Indeed, she adds, “If I were given an opportunity, I’d keep the governor better advised.”

Now, on her first day as a private-sector terrapin conservationist, Whilden introduces her two fine specimens as Kendel and Bob.

— M.L. Faunce

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Rebecca T. Ruark Is Some Dame
This old boat a National Historic Landmark

The Rebecca T. Ruark, grand dame of the Chesapeake Bay’s skipjack fleet, is now a National Historic Landmark. The new distinction eclipses her 1985 addition to the National Register of Historic Places.

“National historic landmarks are our country’s most important places that illustrate our American story,” said Secretary of the Interior Gale North in announcing the elevation of Rebecca T. Ruark and 16 other properties around the nation. The designation is the highest national recognition accorded to historic properties.

Built in 1886, the Rebecca T. Ruark has plied the choppy waters of the Chesapeake longer than any other working skipjack afloat. For most of her 117-year history, her deck was awash with oysters. Those were the days when oysters were so thick in the Bay they could clean the massive estuary in a few days. Now, her decks mostly carry daysailers combining their historic tourism with the pleasure of cruising the Bay and Choptank River out of Tilghman Island on the Eastern shore.

Landmark status couldn’t come at a better time for owner-Captain Wade Murphy, a fifth-generation Bay captain. Weeks of rain this spring and summer have dampened his eco-tourism enterprise.

“This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to the Rebecca, because if something happens to me, I know the boat will always be alive because it will be eligible for grants. The boat is going to live as long as the Washington Monument because of this designation,” proclaimed the exuberant captain.

It costs Murphy $10,000 to $12,000 a year to maintain the skipjack, which he’s more than once “spent his life savings and mortgaged everything he owned to save.”

The National Landmark designation has been in the works for four years, and Murphy credits Ralph Eshelman, the original director of Calvert Marine Museum, for shepherding the application. Eshelman worked with former first lady Frances Glendening on the Task Force to Study the Preservation and Enhancement of Maryland’s Heritage Resources.

The Rebecca T. Ruark was built by Moses Geohegan on Taylor Island a dozen miles south of Tilghman. She must have been Captain Ruark’s second boat, for Murphy says the tradition was to name the first boat after the man of the house and the second after his wife.

Since Murphy bought the Rebecca in 1984, he and she have shared good times and lean in life on the water. By his own sheer determination, he brought the Rebecca back to life after a near-fatal sinking in 1999. After the skipjack’s recovery and restoration, Murphy received U.S. Coast Guard certification to carry 49 passengers aboard the historic Rebecca. Murphy treats his guests to nautical tales and ecology lessons and a taste of the Bay: oysters dredged as a demonstration of the bounty of days gone by.

In Murphy’s lifetime he says he’s seen oysters so plentiful that dredgers would catch their limit of 300 bushels in an hour. Those days are long gone, he says.

Now, as the Rebecca T. Ruark sails into her third century, maritime history buffs, families and tourists can climb aboard and hear about the glory days as told by Captain Wade.

“I think a lot of people will come and ride on it just to be on a National Historical Landmark,” he says.

Two-hour sailings seven days a week in summer, usually at 11am, 1pm and 3pm with a sunset cruise at 6pm. Walk on or make reservations. Also available for private charter. Dogwood Harbor, Tilghman Island: 410/829-3976.

— M.L. Faunce

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At Chesapeake Arts Center,
Local Playwrights Shoot for the Stars
Mike Field Aims True with Return of Albion

A paying audience isn’t necessary for artists to create great art, but it sure helps. Each year for 22 years, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival has given local writers a shot at winning fans and fame by staging 10 original plays each summer in Chesapeake Country.

Of this year’s 10, the curtains just fell on Mike Field’s For the Return of Albion, which draws on the life of 17th-century British playwright Ben Jonson and reminds us how easily art can be drowned out by the pizzazz of special effects or the censorship of political whims.

Like the other festival entries, Albion had a short but inspired moment on stage. A team of 10 actors brought Field’s play to life on the Studio Stage at the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts over a seven-performance stint. Given the energy and intensity of the production, the play deserved a longer run.

Field’s play opens the hearts and minds of great artists. In the play, we see poet Ben Jonson struggle against powerful politicians who sacrifice his play for political ends. Just as Jonson struggles against the “colors and lights” onstage that distract from his words, contemporary playwrights have to compete with TV and movies for our attention.

The rich cadence of the play’s language, the excellence of all 10 actors and the beautiful costuming made for a dazzling performance. Field’s words combined with Noel Schively’s direction to give the play the deeply aged voice that suits the 17th-century London setting.

Acting was superb. In addition to directing, Schively starred as the frustrated Ben Jonson. Roy Hammond played Jonson’s bumbling partner and set designer, Inigo Jones, with whom Jonson is constantly at odds. Acting out an age-old argument of meaning versus amusement, Jonson championed the value of subtle truths offered by words while Jones favored the simple entertainment of lighting displays that bring to mind the special effects of many modern movies.

Jerry Gietka played the Venitian ambassador who is the audience’s guide through a thick background plot. Based on the historical Spanish Marriage affair in the early 1600s, this complex storyline was carried by a range of hilarious caricatures of court creatures. Robert Teachout and Laurel Burgraf were perfect as over-the-top caricatures of the Spanish and French ambassadors. Randy Dalmas was a cunning Duke of Buckingham, and Edward Alsedek was wonderful as the stuttering Charles Prince of Wales. Superb costuming by Jeannie Dalmas completed the effect.

There are parallels between the play’s themes and reality for playwrights.

By the end of the play, the poet has been defeated, his play cancelled after being caught in the middle of a court disagreement. But Ben Jonson vows he will keep writing. The muses have him and he has muses. It’s a message that Fields and the local company of playwrights understand. Art is alive in Chesapeake Country.

Plays in the 22nd annual festival continue thru September 7 at Fell’s Point Corner, The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre and Goucher College. Maryland playwrights present and past should plan ahead now to submit unstaged plays for next year’s competition. Learn more about this year’s dates and next year’s competition at www.baltplayfest.org.

— Eric Smith

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Do You Believe in Magic?
Maryland’s little horse that could alive and racing

The Little Engine that Could has gained a place in our hearts by overcoming obstacle after obstacle to achieve success. The thoroughbred racehorse Magic Weisner looks like Chesapeake Country’s little engine that could.

Who thought the little gelding from Laurel could come close to winning the 2002 Preakness Stakes? Magic triumphed not by winning — he came in second — but by sprinting his way to glory, showing us what the horse next door could be.

Magic Weisner scored a first of another sort later that year by becoming the first race horse in Maryland stricken with the West Nile virus, which nearly ended his life. Like the little engine that could, Magic fought the disease.

“He is really improving now every day. I feel great about his return to the races,” said owner-trainer Nancy Alberts three weeks after her horse was diagnosed last September.

Return he did, 10 months after catching the West Nile bug. Entered for the sixth race at Laurel Park on July 24, Magic Weisner was a popular favorite, with odds as low as 6-5. With people in the grandstand cheering for him, he began his comeback to the form that made him a Maryland sporting namesake.

But the magic wasn’t there. He finished last, a little over 20 lengths behind the winner. He completed the seven furlongs course, but he struggled from the start.

“His hindquarters are still bothering him. He’s a little weak right now,” said Magic’s jockey’s Ryan Fogelsonger after the race.

“If he doesn’t come back the way he was, he’s still a true hero,” added Fogelsonger.

In the late 1930s, a horse named Seabiscuit became a hero for winning against all odds. In small size and big heart, Magic Weisner resembles that famous horse, the subject of a book and movie out now.

Comparisons to Seabiscuit, a horse that helped people believe that anything is possible, give hope that Magic Weisner can return to form after his bout with West Nile virus.

Both horses’ greatest races — to date for Magic — were on the same track, Pimlico Race Course, 64 years apart. They both took on horses who were favored and whose names were very similar — War Admiral in 1938 and War Emblem in 2002.

‘Biscuit’ recovered from a ruptured tendon in his left foreleg. Muscle atrophy from the virus still plagues Magic. Weeks after his comeback race, Alberts hadn’t counted him out. She told Bay Weekly she was “waiting till September to see if his muscles got stronger.”

Who knows what’s down the stretch? As the sign outside Nancy Albert’s office says, “Believe in the Magic.”

— James Clemenko

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Way Downstream …

On the Eastern Shore, the water was so wretched last week that officials closed Betterton Beach in Kent County to protect swimmers. Before the closing, people reported rashes and blistering from toxic algae that has sprouted as a result of runoff from fertilizers and farm waste water…

In Kentucky, a recent fire at the Jim Beam plant did more damage than disappoint bourbon drinkers. Those 800,000 gallons of high-proof spirits that escaped during the fire killed nearly all the fish in the creek across the street; now a huge fish kill downstream in Salt River has been reported. Drum, buffalo, sunfish, sauger and the prehistoric paddlefish are among the victims…

In Wyoming, conservationists are upset that Vice President Dick Cheney is landing his helicopter on Nature Conservancy land normally off-limits to aircraft. A Secret Service spokesman told the Associated Press that it was “for security purposes"…

Our Creature Feature comes from Europe, where that punishing heat wave we’ve been reading about is taking its toll on birds and fish. Thousands of eels floated up dead in the Rhine River, and chickens are keeling over, too. The temperature hit 113 in Spain this week, and the water temperature in the Mediterranean Sea reached a bath-like 88 degrees.

But not all creatures are troubled. Reuters reports that butterflies have bred three times this summer instead of once, and bears at the Madrid Zoo are being given huge blocks of ice to lick, with fruit frozen inside.

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Last updated August 14, 2003 @ 1:17am