The Deprivation Moon

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.

Gull flying over the Anacostia River in winter.

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.

 

***

 

You can buy a copy of River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia at your local bookstore, online booksellers like Amazon, and you can get a signed copy in my online bookstore.

Anacostia River Web Series Launches Today

River of Resilience story map commemorates the Year of the Anacostia by exploring the history and restoration of a national river watershed.

Over the past four centuries the Anacostia River has been given many names: the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, the other national river, the dirtiest river in the nation, the forgotten river. But for millennia uncounted prior to European arrival, for every creature that lived within the watershed, this river was simply everything.

How does a river transform from essential to forgotten in a span of 400 years?

This question is one of many addressed in River of Resilience, a nine-chapter web story structured as a journey from the headwaters of the Anacostia in Sandy Spring, Maryland, to the confluence of the river with the Potomac in Washington DC. River of Resilience is a story of time and place, a visually-rich geographic narrative of a wounded but irrepressible watershed, a story of those who are working to heal this river community, and an entreaty to join them.

The project features the writing and photography of Krista Schlyer, a senior fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers, and author of the forthcoming book River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, due out fall 2018 from Texas A&M University Press.

TrashinRiver

The River of Resilience web story was created in partnership with Esri, creator of ArcGIS, using their story map platform Cascade, and data-driven maps created by the Esri story maps team. The project was funded by the District Department of Energy and Environment in collaboration with the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.

River of Resilience launches today, April 3, 2018, with new chapters released each week through May 29, 2018.

Join the Anacostia River journey here.

 

River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia

Incorporating seven years of photography and research, River of Redemption portrays life along the Anacostia River, a Washington, DC, waterway rich in history and biodiversity that nonetheless lingered for years in obscurity and neglect in our nation’s capital.

Inspired by Aldo Leopold’s classic book, A Sand County Almanac, Krista Schlyer evokes a consciousness of time and place, inviting readers to experience the seasons of the Anacostia year, along with the waxing and waning of river’s complex cultural and ecological history.Schlyer_jacket_web

Blending photography with informative and poignant text, River of Redemption urges readers to seize the opportunity to reinvent our role in urban ecology and to redeem our relationship with this national river and watersheds nationwide.

The book is now available at Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks, and online booksellers like Amazon.

Reviews of River of Redemption

“Krista Schlyer rediscovers a treasure in our nation’s capital, the Anacostia River. A gifted story teller and photographer, she leads us on a moving expedition of human failure and the miracle of nature’s renewal.” –TOMMY WELLS, Director, DC Department of Energy and Environment

“Krista Schlyer has woven her way into the soul of the Anacostia with poetic prowess….a symphony of beauty through words and photos.” –BRENDA LEE RICHARDSON, former Director of Earth Conservation Corps

 

RIVER OF REDEMPTION SYNOPSIS

Seventy years ago, when Aldo Leopold was writing his prophetic essays in Sand County Wisconsin, the culmination of all his fears was unfolding on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington DC. The river’s ecological fabric had already been torn from every possible angle. It had been channeled, walled, deforested and dumped on. While Leopold was writing about the meadow mice and oak trees of Sand County, the National Park Service was lending out the banks of the Anacostia as a dumping grounds for the refuse of the nation’s capital. That garbage was burned every afternoon in one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. On the banks of the Anacostia came the violent collision of colossal failures in ecology and justice–all brought to a painful nadir in 1968 with the death of a small boy named Kelvin.

A bald eagle on the Anacostia River, Washington DC.

Just three hundred years earlier the Anacostia had been a living, breathing artery of life for the Nacotchtank people, but in a wink of time we transformed it into a toxic channel and dumping grounds.

The profaning of the Anacostia was made possible by one factor, forgetfulness.

In our Anacostia amnesia we forgot the beauty of an old growth forest, the joy of jumping in a clean river on a hot summer day, the thrill of seeing a bald eagle soaring high above the earth. We forgot the satisfaction of struggling to haul a healthy fish out of the water, and the simple pleasure of sitting on a riverside and gazing down into a clear water-sky to watch turtles fly with perfect, impossible grace. But most of all we forgot that we are a part of a community of land, water, air, bird, mammal, fish, amphibian and insect. We forgot that this river watershed is our community, a community in which every single resident has both rights and responsibilities for the common good.

 

River of Redemption  is a book aimed at remembering our fundamental relationship with rivers, and imagining a future where that relationship will be restored.

The book was published in November, 2018. You can buy it at Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks and on Amazon and other online booksellers, or order a signed copy today in my Book Store.

You can also read excerpts from the book by clicking on the River of Redemption submenu of the Anacostia Project tab.

This is a rant, be warned

I took a few hours last night to participate in my local government by attending an input session for the Prince George’s County, Maryland, master plan for environmental, rural and agricultural conservation. There are of course many ways to get involved in the future of the little spot of Earth I occupy, but I think there is something especially encouraging and meaningful in understanding and trying to effect the land planning process.
Marbled salamander

Marbled salamander

These are plans that will affect the next decades of my county which spans the ultra-urban Anacostia River watershed, my great love, to the rural Patuxent River watershed, and south to the Potomac River. Some of my most favorite friends live in these lands, from the great blue heron and marbled salamander to spring peepers and northern brown snakes. For watershed health, wildlife habitat and ecosystem restoration, these plans could have a greater effect than anything else going on in my county, either for good or ill. Bad planning in the past has effected heartbreaking consequences, everything from the further devastation of the Anacostia River through the paving of the watershed, to clear-cut forests in the Patuxent watershed that make way for developments with names that drip with acrid irony like Forest Haven or Heron Bend (I made those up, but you all know what I’m talking about).

This forest was cleared to build a Whole Foods.

Last night’s input session was geared toward environmentalists and there will be others focused on hearing the thoughts of agricultural interests and developers. Some of the haggard enviros who attended last night looked as if they had been trudging to these same meetings for 40 years, and some probably had. And some of those expressed a tired anger, for being ignored for 40 years and having to go to another meeting and express the same thoughts about how the term “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, and how the best way to halt rural development and destruction of ecosystems is to stop incentivizing it by having taxpayers fund the extension of sewers and maintenance of new roads.
I can understand their frustration. This was my first planning meeting but I’ve seen things, ohhhh I’ve seen things, nonsensical things happening around the county that just make you think, whose in charge here and how is it possible they are still making all the same bad decisions we made 50 years ago? More parking lots in parks that never have full parking lots, rather than more trees and meadows. New roads that are not built with permeable paving, bioswales, rain gardens and bike lanes. We know how to do this people. We know how to be better citizens of earth, how not to pollute our rivers and air, how to create green spaces that provide homes for birds and cute little critters trying to make their way in the world, and for people whose lives and hearts are elevated by being able to see said cute critters and pretty winged things. Why aren’t we just doing it!!
I know, I know, things take time. This is true. Many of the incomprehensible developments we see have been in the planning stages for decades. There’s a particular Whole Foods development on a former forest that raises my blood pressure every time I see it, its been at lease a decade in the works (when finished it will have a big sign that says Whole Foods of Forest Haven – I made that up) .
This time delay means we won’t see the fruits of our current conservation-planning efforts for perhaps decades more. I have some hope about what those decades may bring. Some of that comes from seeing the spread of good ideas throughout the Washington DC metro area, in government, nonprofits, residents. Specifically last night it came from watching the residents and government planners engage, and continue to try to effect good outcomes, and perhaps specifically from the opening words of Adam Ortiz, director of the Prince Georges Department of the Environment. If he had been a random bureaucrat, I may have considered the possibility that he was blowing smoke up our asses (sorry Adam, I know some of the more haggard enviros thought that). But Adam is a friend, a much respected friend with a keen heart and mind. And he said something that resonated with me, something that inspired me to write all this down.
I’m paraphrasing…and embellishing, but he expressed the idea that along with a responsibility to protect our Earth this conservation planning effort was an exercise in connection. Connection to our space on this planet, our home, yes, but also connection to others who share or have shared or will share this space. What we see around us, what many of us lament as bad decisions and loss of something valuable, that was the work of those who came before us. They gathered in rooms like the one we were in last night, they talked about their vision for the future, and yes it was a shitty vision in many ways. But they put much of themselves into planning how to live in this land, and did the best they could with the information and knowledge they had at the time.
Now is our time. Our part in the story of this landscape, this ecosystem of people and rivers and wild creatures and loveliest flowers. We get to make different decisions, hopefully more thoughtful ones informed by all we have learned since those centuries of planners before us. And in the future, 30, 50, 100 years from now, there may be a room full of people cursing our name for making such pathetic decisions, but hopefully they will know we worked together and we tried our best.
And just in case none of my ideas make it into the plan, I’m setting them down here. (So that the future people in that conservation planning room don’t blame me.)
Guiding principles:
  • Net gain of forest canopy and native wildlife habitat.
  • Highest best use of government park land – turf, unless it is a ball field, is not the highest best use. All excess turf and any parking facilities that are not consistently filled to max should be converted to native meadows and forests.
  • All utility corridors should be native pollinator meadows, this will help struggling native pollinators, AND help the county agriculture system by providing little worker bees.
  • An incentive program that provides a mechanism for all new developments to contribute a meaningful amount of money to a land conservation and restoration fund.
  • Green infrastructure should be a mandate for new roads, development and anything that creates an impermeable surface, and a preference should be given to techniques that have the multiple benefits of providing stormwater retention, native habitat and beauty.
  • An end to taxpayer-funded incentives for development in rural, forested or other lands that provide important ecosystem services, wildlife habitat and green space. We should be incentivizing redevelopment only. There’s so many boarded up, broken down, paved places in this county, we could redevelop for a century and not run out of crappy dilapidated spaces to fix up.
We know how to do this people. Let’s not invite the scorn of our future selves.
Thank you to those who had the stamina to read this to the end.

Anacostia

The Wildest Part of Washington DC

We all have a stake in what happens to our rivers, but perhaps none more so than the wild neighbors who share our urban waters and green space. They go unnoticed most of the time. They’re not present in the meetings where decisions are made to cut down urban forests, or pave over vernal pools.

In the Anacostia watershed in Washington DC and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland, thousands of wild animal and plant species depend on the decisions we make. If we are going to choose wisely for them, and for us, we need to get to know our neighbors.

Meet more Anacostia neighbors in my photo gallery.

Anacostia Story

The Anacostia River was abused and neglected for more than a century, becoming one of the nation’s most polluted rivers, right in the heart of Washington DC. Today there is growing momentum for restoration of this watershed, but for a full recovery watershed residents must awake, and the Anacostia Story must be told. This slideshow represents a vision for a coffee table book about the Anacostia River, to be used to help elevate awareness and understanding of the watershed, and help more firmly establish the Anacostia’s central role in the quality of life of Washington DC residents.
Click on the first slide below to start the slideshow.