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A conversation with writer and environmentalist, Tom Horton

On September 15, 2022, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County hosted a special guest lecturer in the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery. The lecture event, “Writing the Chesapeake,” was sponsored by the English Department’s Initiative in Ecocriticism, the Pedagogy Initiative and the UMBC Office of Sustainability, reflective of ongoing university efforts to introduce a green education to campus life and learning. Environmentalist and journalist Tom Horton was the man of the hour. 

Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and growing up close to the Chesapeake Bay, Horton’s life and work has been defined by his love for this country’s most impressive estuary. The Bay is his home, and as a writer, his passion. 

Horton is the nation’s leading environmentalist journalist on the Chesapeake Bay. Working for The Baltimore Sun from the early 1970s until 2006, Horton carved out space to be a voice on environmental issues, no easy undertaking in a journalism setting. Horton was sure, however, of the work he was doing for the Bay and continued to make room for the stories he covered. When Hurricane Agnes struck the Chesapeake Bay in June of 1972, Horton’s reporting on the devastation would dominate the front pages of The Sun.

Later on in his career, Horton’s work took him beyond the structure of a newspaper, to researching and writing several books and producing documentaries on the Bay. In one of his books, An Island Out of Time, Horton details the three years he and his family spent living on Smith Island, a marshy archipelago (a cluster of islands) located in the middle of the Chesapeake estuary. Horton writes about the people who have long lived isolated on Smith Island and in close relationship to the Bay. In his lecture on Thursday, he commented on this story, noting the “deep lessons to be learned through lives bound to water.” 

Environmental work, advocacy and activism are not considered easy work. In the lecture, Horton described encountering a sense of hopelessness among his audiences for some years of his work: feelings of despair associated with the noticeable damage of climate change and human impact on the Bay. In the gallery, Horton remarked, “If I have ever made a reader lose hope, I apologize.” 

While he noted the “duty of a writer not to gloss over the truth,” he also commented on the care with which he has approached his work on the Bay so as to not leave his readers drained by the environmental devastation on which he reports. 

When it comes to keeping himself hopeful, Horton has found you must keep yourself grounded in the day-to-day work, experiencing the restorative joys of interacting with an environment and its wonders. He concluded, “You can think your cosmic thoughts but the trash must go out, life must go on.”

Horton’s lifestyle as an environmentalist is inspiring. The way he is able to capture the essence of the Chesapeake through his lyrical writing and give it back to the “18 million people connected by responsibility for the Bay,” is important for the future of this estuary and country. 

Horton’s example left the need for reflection as the crowd dispersed from the gallery. In listening to him speak, I wished the conversation could reach the corners of our community here on campus. When I had the honor of sitting down with him the following morning for a continued conversation, I felt it an opportunity to do so.

The conversation began with some questions of my own. Recently having discovered the depths of my own sense of duty to my environment, I have been wondering for some time now how to best spread the notion of ‘living sustainably’ so that it becomes not a concept far-fetched or unattainable to most, but something deeply woven into us all. 

That is difficult in our modern age. How do we live and think sustainably when many of us have not grown up knowing our environments, but have rather lived so far removed from them? Horton, who is truly a part of the Bay, seemed the perfect one to ask.

Immediately, Horton spoke of Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, as a work focused on this very thought. Dillard, reporting on living with and observing a small creek near to her suburban household and lifestyle, didn’t “have to take to the far wilderness to reconnect.” Horton argues that if you are looking to connect, it requires finding only the smallest slice of nature. 

He talks of his teaching style at Salisbury University: “My classrooms are heavy on field trips because I could talk for years and not get the same point across as getting them out onto a stream or a river, and letting them observe and bond.” 

Horton mentions and praises Maryland’s Environmental Literacy Law that requires environmental literacy as a high school graduation requirement to encourage this very process.

In continuing to speak on the importance of meaningful interaction with our environments, Horton reflects on a story he wrote years ago detailing the teaching approach of a classroom at Greensboro Elementary School on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. 

The teacher of this class told Horton about a “natural wetlands next to the school where she had taken her students out day after day.” 

After such frequent visits, the students got to feel, “that marsh was theirs.” 

Horton continues, “One day, she was in the classroom and they [the students] see the school janitor running a lawnmower.” From the angle of the slope where the janitor was mowing outside of the classroom window, to the students “it looked like he was gonna go cut the marsh down.” 

In response to the thought, “the children got up and ran screaming out there across the yard after the lawnmower.” 

That’s the point Horton sees to “lots of unstructured time in the outdoors.” It gets us so connected to what is ours to connect with that we feel a duty to remain involved in its protection. 

In his own unstructured time, Horton kayaks on the Chesapeake. Because of the Chesapeake’s uniquely shallow waters, the kayak allows Horton to unlock “thousands and thousands of acres” that he can explore. 

I was assured, hearing Horton’s input, that widespread connection is possible and easy. The first step in being environmentally conscious is hidden under every stone and in the trickling of the tiniest of streams. The notion of sustainability is not out of reach as we think, it is there for the taking and molding into our own. 

After I spoke with Horton about how to best rediscover our environments and get involved in their protection, we got to the topic of  “victories” in the environmental line of work. 

This felt like a natural flow in continuing to think about sustainability. How do you keep yourself dedicated to an important fight when progress is difficult to measure and when victories are far and few between? Whether it’s the environment, or any cause to live your life in service of, Horton had a message. 

He says, “When you make your career in any of these worlds, in your lifetime you’re not going to achieve total victory and you may die thinking things have gone a little backwards.” He continues, “Look at the people who worked for the women’s vote and died decades or centuries before it happened, and civil rights and so on.”  

It is Horton’s belief that the secret to continuing the important work is to “build fun and joy and beauty into your job.” From first-hand experience, he knows that “if you just focus on the problems that are endless and bigger than you are you’ll burn out.”

Horton states that he would be unable to work as he has and still does, if he didn’t frequently return to Bay to enjoy what it has to offer. 

In conversation, it became clear that Horton’s work and beliefs as an environmentalist are interwoven with his identity as a writer. His journey as a writer, and the ways in which he has traveled between different styles and structures to continue his environmental work, hold additional value to the community here on campus. 

Whether you are a writer or an artist, or have never even thought to associate yourself with either one, it is worth hearing Horton’s story.

Horton’s passion for writing became clear to him when he took a creative writing class during his time as an undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University. He found it to be the only time in those four years of classes where he stood out from his classmates. 

Many of us, I’m certain, are still searching for the best way to express what we have to say. The undergraduate years can be a painful period of exploration. Drifting through different new spaces to find that spot that fits is an essential part of the process. 

Writing for Horton, has been about, “simply getting the confidence to try.” An idea which is harder said than done, and that was put to the test when he ventured away from journalism after over a decade of working at The Sun and found his way to literature. 

The structure of journalism, Horton describes, only allowed him to go so far in exploring his environmental interests. More than reporting on the news of environmental issues, Horton wanted to explore, “the motivations of the people who fight for the wetlands.”

He wanted to find a way to explore that deeper drive for action, and maybe even bring it out in his audiences. Even though he was well into a journalism career, Horton found he had more to say and would need an entirely different space to do so. 

In the period of his transition, Horton reached out to William Warner, author of the book, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay, and winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction for his work. Horton and Warner had an informal conversation over tuna fish sandwiches about Horton’s interest in moving away from journalism.

Warner instilled confidence in Horton that he had the ideas, and definitely the material, to tackle a book. Horton expresses gratitude for the words of a friend that helped move him along in his environmental writing, specifically to the non-fiction field.

From there, it was all about following his natural instinct and trusting the ability he had. As Horton describes, he headed into it knowing “you go with what you got, there are plenty of people more and less talented than me and we’re all making a living.” He also reflected frequently on the importance of “writing for yourself,” in the process.

He successfully transitioned into books in a time of financial pressure, after turning down several job opportunities in the 80s. In a period that required immediate self-reflection and decision, Horton put all his focus into working on a book and it transformed his career in the years to come. 

In a life dedicated to following his passions, Horton has much wisdom to share with the UMBC community. 

As a pioneer for environmental journalism, he navigated conversations that were seen as radical but pushed forward nonetheless, carving our space to share what he knew he had to. Living his life considerate of the power of language, and the ways in which we can best use it to express our ideas, has held its challenges and lessons for Horton. Having the confidence to try out new ideas within his work, Horton has learned how many different solutions there are available to us to see if we just take a look.

Drawing towards the end of our conversation, I wanted to bring it all back to the Bay. 

When asked to reflect on some of his favorite things about the Chesapeake, Horton dove into his love for his migrations. In an upcoming class he will be teaching this December, Horton will be taking his students out to see a spot where wild swans have just arrived from Alaska, having flown nearly 4,500 miles to get there. Horton and his students will visit the place where they finally settle down in the winter after their long journey, resting and soon enough preparing to make the journey all over again as they fly back home.