The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press.
At icy dawn, the city remains gentled in night’s deepest repose. Walking past slumbering bungalows and a shuttered gas station, through deserted streets, across empty railroad tracks and along the edge of a sleepy forest– I traverse a dark, noiseless mile to the frosted footbridge at Bladensburg Waterfront Park.
Upriver, near the confluence of the Anacostia’s northwest and northeast branches, hundreds of Canada geese huddle together, raising a dark feathered shield against winter’s white knife and its unusually sharp edge this January morning. Last night an angry north wind descended on the watershed, driving temperatures to a low of minus 11 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 20 degrees below normal.
Today’s river landscape testifies to the hard hand of that north wind. At low tide a rigid silt sandbar covers the west side of the riverbed, and a half-inch of ice caps most of the remaining water surface. Downstream, the river departs to the southwest through a luminous white forest, gleaming toward the heart of Washington D.C.
I stand at river’s edge in Bladensburg, Maryland, once one of the busiest shipping ports in North America, a nucleus for trans-Atlantic trade in tobacco cultivated by the hands of enslaved Africans. This soul-weighty cargo succored a fledgling British colony and fueled an American revolution, all while sending a webwork of moral and ecological fissures spidering through the foundation of a young nation.
The thought sends a tremulous chill through my bones, though the Bladensburg waterfront before me bears little witness to this tortuous historical fault line. A few memorials to the War of 1812 are all that’s left as direct physical reference to what happened here, and day-to-day this humble space exists as a much-loved nexus for people and the Anacostia River. But in the silted shallow riverbed and bare-turf landscape, the river remembers.
On a slow stroll along the park’s riverside walk, I step out onto a floating pier, where I encounter a single Canada goose asleep on the cold wooden platform. I stop, wondering why he is separated from the larger flock and surprised that he has not been roused by my presence. Inching a few feet closer I observe that the morning frost, which has settled on the river landscape, its trees, riverbank, and pier, has also laid a glittering glaze over the goose himself, whose head is locked tightly in the thick down of his back. When I approach within a few feet of the bird, he still does not stir. I reach out, tentatively, and lightly touch a tail feather, preparing myself mentally to be scared witless when the goose awakens.
The feather crunches beneath my finger–the goose remains utterly still. Here is a sleep my winged friend will not be waking from.
Leaving the bird to his eternal rest, I make my way to the bank on the opposite side of the river. Ring-billed gulls have gathered on the western shore, tapping their beaks softly against the thin crust of ice covering the mud flats, searching for soft-bodied creatures in the warmer earth below. Gulls are argumentative, pushy birds by nature, but today they are solemn and respectful of each other, and barely bother to look up when I approach. In this deep cold, there exists a momentary truce. We are all too busy surviving the deficit of light and warmth to meddle in each other’s affairs. There is too much to lose in January.
We all, each Anacostia and Earth resident in our own way, have strategies for surviving the deprivation moon. And in this month of scarcity and dark vulnerability, we each harden our creaturely resolve and lean, as ever, toward a universal prime directive– what Aldo Leopold called, “freedom from want and fear.” It is a desire never attained in life, not really, but ever sought-after for all who move about on this planet, whether they are rooted to the earth and reaching toward the sun, or walking, flying, or swimming in search of life’s next pressing need. This elusive prize fuels our action and existence, from humble subsistence to greedy conquest. How a creature or community pursues this fundamental freedom, will ultimately define it.
Leopold’s anxious ambassador for this universal endeavor was a meadow mouse, gleefully building his snow tunnels and food storage rooms, gathering his brittle brown grasses, all in the safe obscurity of winter’s white cloak on the Sand County land.
“The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack,” Leopold wrote.
For mouse, unlike goose and gull, a long harsh winter offers rest, a relative reprieve from the ever-keen eyes of winged predators. It is here, under the deprivation moon, he has a frosty window on a world free from fear and want. For this clever mouse, snow is a building material and shroud for protected transportation pathways out of the eyesight of raptors, and for storage rooms to house a larder of grass for a well-fed winter mouse. The hawk, whose great advantage of speed and vision is stymied by the snow, will hold on over hungry months, awaiting a warm spell or the spring thaw, when mouse pathways are generously revealed, and another winter has passed into spring–a season of increasing freedom from fear and want.
My Anacostia gulls, if they live through this trying winter, will surely experience a similar spring euphoria, and will undoubtedly squawk and caw about their spring fortune loudly and often. I anticipate shaking my head and rolling my eyes at their brash boasterisms sometime in a near warmer future, but in truth, they will then have earned bragging rights. Though they themselves are not modest, gull, like hawk and mouse, seek a modest fortune, nothing more than freedom from hunger, and a sheltering space insulated from the icy grasp of death. They harbor no desires for superfluous luxury, their pursuit is simple–they want only a chance at life in all its luminous elemental dimensions.
Today, that pursuit demands determination, discomfort, and an efficient stillness. Gulls keep their wings tucked tight, voices quiet, and heads down.
I do the same, substituting arms for wings, and leave them to their winter misery.
On normal days, even in winter, attempting to walk out onto the silted shallows of the Anacostia would be treacherous. Many have died in the urban sludge that has accumulated on the Anacostia bottom over the past four centuries of America’s pursuit of freedom from fear and want. Our proclivity to hound every manner of superfluity led to the felling of ancient forests, silting of the river and elevation of the historic riverbed some 40 feet–bringing an end to the bustling port of Bladensburg. It is now almost beyond imagining that ocean-going ships once docked at this spot on the river.
I test the earth of river bottom and find it icy-firm, a rare opportunity to experience a moment within the arterial wall of the Anacostia. We are all, always, within the body of a river. Every upland and lowland inch of the watershed plays a part in the river system, from my own backyard, to the headwaters at Sandy Spring in Olney, Maryland, to the smallest trickling capillary entering into the Watts Branch. But here, upon this artery at river-heart is where it all comes together.
On any given day the Anacostia, like all rivers, is ever new. It is the same water course, but eternally changing and ever changed, reinvented by moods of wind and weather, the magnetic pull of the moon on its waters, the restless angle of sun’s illumination, and the wingbeats, splashes, and songs of its wild inhabitants.
I stand in the middle of a unique moment flowing together with an infinity of distinct river moments–there is a timeless surge of power here that jolts the senses and urges me forward.
Cautiously I test each step before I take it, and when the river begins to give beneath my weight, I go no further. By this point I am nearly standing in the middle of the Anacostia and can view the sculpted work that winter wind and restless tides have made of the river. The deep freeze that came in the night during a higher tide capped the river in thick ice, but when the tide began to go out and the air began to warm, rigid sheets of Anacostia began to buckle and break apart, like a river-puzzle–each piece now set aglow at the edges by the subdued light of a far-distant sun.
The fractured ice gives new voice to the Anacostia, a grumbling, groaning river-resentment as tide and current jostle the river’s assemblage of broken ice sheets. But the real river drama must have happened sometime in the dark early morning hours, when shifting tide and climbing temperatures pried the largest pieces apart. This thunderous cracking, for a massive volume of water must have be something to hear–a soundtrack echoing the epic ecological dynamism that over so many eons of fire, ice, water, and wind–of continents colliding and seas ever-rising, ever-falling–created and continues to recreate this river watershed.
Somewhere in the earth beneath my feet there lies a record of the grand incomprehensible ages of river life. Somewhere, running deep beneath the riverbed, back through time beyond reckoning, it leads down to a primal era where river life radiates in its purest form, from some ancient infernal source, through a billion years of rock, clay, sand, and silt. Down 50 feet, 100, 500, 1000–there lie the hallowed earthen halls of river memory.