Posted on April 21, 2021
I woke one recent morning to bright sun streaming through the hatch a few feet above my pillow. Through the open deck I could see morning shining on the face of our life raft’s grand title: Fortune Favors the Bold. (The jury is still out on this idea. If we ever end up needing this raft, we’ll know for sure.)
Bill snoozed beside me and, feeling quite content, I could have stayed, forever. But I climbed over Bill as gently as possible, lowered myself out of the berth and made my way onto the port side deck where I looked over the water, interested to find out how the morning sun hit the land of Warderick Wells Cay, what shadows it cast, what illumination it brought.
Mostly I saw glare that stung my eyes, but in that glare two flippered hands and a bald little head crested the bright shimmer of water beside the boat. Baby turtle.
Heart soaring I turned to the starboard side of the boat where Maggie May and the water were still well shaded from the rising sun. In the cool blue below I saw a mass of legs floating by about a foot beneath the surface.
“Bill! Come up here!” I could hear he was up and rustling about in the galley, getting a bowl of granola. As he rushed on deck I began to doubt myself. The squid I thought I’d seen was starting to resemble something less interesting.
Bill, looking into the water, said “Palm frond! Nice!”
“It might have been a squid,” I said, over-loud, as he was already descending the companionway stairs toward his granola. I then saw another dark thing floating toward us on the ebb current. Uncertain, I didn’t call out to Bill, but he was headed up to have his breakfast on deck.
“That may be something,” I said from the side deck.
“Plant,” said Bill, mouth full, standing momentarily, then sitting back down in the cockpit.
“Oh shit! Get out here!.” I countered, because this is what I saw: He was right about the plant, another palm frond, but nosing up to investigate the frond (possibly also mistaking it for a squid) was an 8-foot long shark, and then another larger shark following close behind. Ten minutes earlier the three-year-old boy on the sailboat next to us had yelled in his baby voice “Lemon Shawwwk! Lemon shawwwk!” I don’t know my sharks yet, so I took his word for it. His father had said he’d seen a bull shark the day before. So this family knows their sharks or they are damn good liars who know their shark names.
The smaller of the sharks nosed up to the palm frond, lifted it lightly out of the water, so that a beam of morning sun kissed the sharks smooth head, and then sunk back into the water. It swam a few feet away then circled back, nosed the frond up again, then moved on to follow the larger shark.
Such wild beauty, curiosity and grace I have rarely witnessed so closely, some 40 feet away. And this was just one of the unforgettable sights of the Exuma Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas.
It’s hard to convey what this means to me personally. Some who are reading this know me well, so they know that the past decade has been one of profound grief for me as I’ve watched the US-Mexico borderlands being decimated by border wall construction through three presidential administrations. Having dedicated my life to fighting that destruction of rare wildlife habitat and migration corridors as well as human lives and communities, I left for this sailing voyage broken. Often I feel beyond repair. In the end, when I stepped on the SV Maggie May, I had lost hope.
I won’t say I’ve regained it. I continue to follow the news in the borderlands. The Biden administration has already begun seizing land through eminent domain and talk is ongoing of finishing wall construction started under the Trump administration.
And it isn’t as if there are no wounds here. There is trash in the wildest places, plastic carried from the ocean to the windward side of every island. There are obscene mega yachts, each one a climate disaster. There are people who care not at all when they anchor in coral beds.
I wish I could train myself not to see these things, but I know that once open to ecological degradation the eye cannot close to it. What I want more than anything is to be able to open my eyes wider to awe and beauty and resilience and wonder. At least as wide as they have been opened to wound and scar and loss. To let the grace of sharks and the guileless vulnerability of baby sea turtles and the mind-boggling diversity of coral fill every available space in my psyche.
The Bahamas are vast, and the people are relatively few and the tourists are concentrated in places they can buy diesel and get internet and see pigs on beaches and swim in the cave where James Bond Thunderball was filmed. Fewer people means fewer wounds and more space for wildlife and healthier water and air. Where beauty can breathe and maybe thrive without the crush of human hands there is life, there is grace.
I have been working on strategies for letting go of what I wish we humans were. Trying to accept us for what we are. Trying to believe in what we might be someday. Trying to just do my best to be a good human.
I recently read a book that was very helpful in this regard. It is called Deep, and in a way it is about freediving, but the author also presents a story of the ocean at various depths, from the surface to the deepest trenches we call the Hadal Zone-named after hell. These deeps, where humans haven’t even really begun to explore, were once thought to be wastelands, empty spaces devoid of life, but we’ve been learning over the past decades that in fact they are filled with strange and wondrous life and may even be where life on this planet began.
This gives me such great solace, knowing that there is this reserve of life on Earth, that whether or not we humans can cure ourselves of our hubris and solipsism— the Earth has creatures beyond count and description waiting in the wings to begin again.
I so hope we figure it out. I’m rooting for us. I’ll be working toward that all my life. If everyone could see the curious shark and the squid-palm-frond, the silly baby sea turtle, the stingray, the poisonwood the saguaro cactus, desert turtle and jaguar, and how all of them are counting on us to figure our shit out, I believe we could do it. I do believe.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Borderlands, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, Bahamas, beauty, boat, border wall, conservation, environment, environmental grief, Exuma Islands, grief, Maggie May, national park, nature, ocean, sailing, sea turtle, shark, sv maggie may, wildlife
Posted on April 16, 2021
My computer still refuses to turn on so in lieu of a normal blog, while we have WiFi, I’ll post some thoughts/mini-blogs to try and catch up the SV Maggie May story.
We left Great Harbour in the Berry Islands on March 28 hoping to get to the Exumas over a couple of days, in advance of a cold front that was sure to bring some unpleasantness.
The first day’s sail was a perfect downwind run up to the northern tip of the Berries, where we headed east on a gorgeous reach to the east side of the island chain, along Great Stirrup Cay, which cruise lines have made into a ridiculous amusement park—the paradise of the Bahamas just isn’t quite enough.
Sailing anchorage to anchorage in the Bahamas requires a keen eye toward reading the water. It is inadvisable to travel on cloudy days, with the sun in your eyes or too low on any horizon, because glare obscures the various colors of the water. These waters are much better charted than they ever were, but still there are rocks and coral heads and shoals that you can only avoid by knowing what color the water around them looks like. In general, blue and blue-green are good, black, white and yellow are bad, but also some browns are bad and some are good. The nuances escape a newbie and for Bill and I, having known a good deal of bad luck aboard the Maggie May, anxiety follows us from anchorage to anchorage.
When we arrived at Soldier Cay, a nurse shark swam a couple laps around the boat as we were setting the anchor. We marveled, watched the sun set and moon rise and slapped together some dinner before hitting the bed. We rose at dawn, prepped the boat and followed our GPS track out as soon as we could see reasonably well, because we needed to get from Soldier to the west side of Nassau in time to read the water into our next anchorage. That day the wind was ever on our nose and the waves and wind were building more than expected. The sea, seeming in a big hurry to get somewhere, piled upon itself. The waves were only about 2-4 feet but steep and close together and battling us every step toward Nassau. We arrived in plenty of light to see the few rocks that were sprinkled about Charlotte Bay, a beautiful harbor of green glass water encircled by mansions so we felt compelled to grumble just a bit about the gross excesses of the rich.
When the anchor was good and set we made dinner and downloaded the weather forecast on our Iridium Go. Then we spent dinner discussing our options. The cold front would be blowing from the north/northeast. There were only a few places within a days sail where we could find a protected anchorage. The forecasted wind direction wasn’t really good for any of the options, we would be heading into the wind wherever we went. From the list of uncertainties and mediocre options we chose to get up before dawn and go to Highborne Cay in the Exumas.
With a near full moon we followed our route back out to deep water in the pre-dawn hours the following day. For the first hour it was as quiet and pleasant a moonlight sail as we’ve had. And then the wind picked up and shifted to come from precisely our heading to Highborne. We could no longer sail with the wind dead ahead and were ever mindful of timing our entrance to Highborne for daylight. What followed is a long unpleasant story about one of the worst days we’ve had traveling across the Exuma Bank. I’ll spare you the details but here are the lowlights…Every dozen minutes we asked ourselves if we should turn back as the waves got bigger and steeper with the wind at 20-25 knots. We alternated who would steer every 30-45 minutes because it was so exhausting and stressful trying to maneuver safely through the constant 6-8 foot+ waves at 2-3 second intervals. This requires a different kind of water reading. More of a feeling your way through the path of least resistance. Where the waters surprisingly steely violence will do the least harm to boat and crew. Often getting it wrong if your attention strays just a little. And then Poseidon pounds against the sides of the bow with a thick wooden plank, hurling the sea over the bow, dodger and bimini.
There was a moment we almost turned back, then we realized we were halfway there. The waves slowed our forward motion so much that our speed wavered from 2-6 knots. It was a misery. And seeming without end. 10 hours on constant alert, getting thrashed up! Down! Side! Side!
But when we got within a few miles of Highborne the waves began to calm and as the island came into full view a rainbow appeared over Highborne and remained all through our entrance to the anchorage. A squall that could have made things even worse passed mercifully around us.
When the anchor hit the sand and held, relief washed over us both like a giddiness.
We would worry about the cold front tomorrow and never, ever, plan to sail at an angle less than 60 degrees off the bow, unless in an emergency. Ever. Every day we learn a little something new. The next lesson: How to emotionally confront daily life in the most beautiful place you have ever seen.
Posted on February 12, 2021
Fort Pierce, Florida, Birthplace of Maggie May
Everything tastes so much better when you have reached the far side of an unexpected ordeal. My coffee this morning. The new box of Walkers shortbread I just opened. The breakfast eggs and potatoes Bill made. Some 16 hours ago I thought there would be no more breakfasts on the Maggie May. Just for about 60 seconds, or maybe 10 minutes, it’s hard to gauge this precisely when each second stretches and stretches beyond the theoretical elasticity of that particular unit of time.
We cast off lines in St. Augustine geared up to get south of West Palm, Florida, where we planned to take a relatively short, straight line across the Gulf Stream to reach the Bahamas. But first we would sail offshore to Fort Pierce, then get back on the inland waterway to travel another day south to the Lake Worth inlet. In central Florida the space between the Gulf Stream and land narrows to almost nothing. Fort Pierce was about as far we could go in the ocean before the current would be against us. For a sailboat whose max hull speed is 7.5 knots and average speed of 4-5 knots depends entirely on the generosity of the wind, a 2-4 knot current can send you backwards. So, we planned to go to Fort Pierce offshore, then head in for the last stretch on the Intracoastal Waterway.
When we arrived at the St. Augustine inlet, we started to head out toward the ocean but the narrow channel looked rough. We had timed it for high tide slack, but getting timing right on tide and current, especially in unfamiliar inlets, is one of the biggest challenges we face. If you get it wrong, things can go oh-so-very-wrong. And we haven’t had a lot of experience. We checked tide tables and weather and even asked for advice from a local TowBoat US captain, who said something to the effect of: Its a weird inlet. Days I think it is going to be near impassable and it’s calm as a pond. Other days I think its going to be easy and…
Not super helpful.
We hesitated at the entrance to the inlet, then turned the boat around and went to the mooring field in town. While we were talking over our options, we saw a sailboat about our size moving toward the inlet. We decided to watch them and then hail the boat on the VHF to see if it was a reasonable time to go. I made note of the boat’s name: Andiamo Two.
We followed and watched their passage through the inlet. It looked a bit rough, but they managed it and made it to the ocean side. Meanwhile another sailboat much smaller than ours was also heading out. Bill followed that boat and I hailed Andiamo Two on the VHF. “Andiamo Two, Andiamo Two. This is Maggie May,” I waited for an answer. Repeated. No reply.
We then noticed the smaller sailboat had thought better of the thing and turned about. In a few minutes we saw the wisdom of their choice as there were 6 foot very steep waves that began to crash over Maggie May’s nose. It was too late to turn back without risking a hit broad side and getting knocked down in that narrow space between two jagged rock jetties. The entire space between the jetties consisted of a cement mixer of steep and breaking waves. Wave after wave rushing toward us and on every hit Maggie May’s bow would bury in the chaos. As her nose came up, water would crash over the boat toward the cockpit and over our dodger and bimini (cockpit covering). Maggie May had never taken such a pounding. I just kept my eyes on the waves and on goddam Andiamo Two beyond the chaos. If they could get through…
Finally the waves began to subside a few feet and we began to breath again. We both looked a little bitterly at Andiamo Two, now with her sails happily up and heading south.
“Andiamo. We should have known from the name not to follow them,” Bill said.
“Who is the greater fool: the fool? or the fool who follows him,” I offered, referencing Obi-Wan. “And Andiamo Two? I think we know what happened to Andiamo One.”
With that out of our systems we began raising the sails. The waves were still somewhat steep and unpleasant, and I had gotten a good head start on some seasickness, but with the sails up Maggie May handles these conditions better than under engine. I was, since we had made it through, relieved that Andiamo Two had helped make our decision for us. We might still have been deliberating on the mooring field, or have decided to stay and wait out the cold fronts, or travel the ICW all the way to West Palm, and I was eager to be out on the ocean again.
We started our watch schedule. Two hours at the helm, two hours resting. I took the first turn at the helm.
Conditions were not what we had hoped. The forecast called for wind going east, but it stayed north/northeast. Since we were headed south, that meant we were near dead downwind much of the time with waves frequently rocking the boat side-to-side as well as hobby horsing us when the wind would slacken. The wind was also lighter than expected, 5-10 knots rather than 10-15, which makes a big difference for a boat like Maggie May when running downwind. With so little wind to fill the sails, and with the main often blocking wind from getting to the genoa (that’s the big sail at the front of the boat), the genoa would frequently flap around wildly. The waves were disrupting the angle of the wind on the sails, making the boat want to jibe wantonly. We had a preventer rigged to keep the main from jibing accidentally, but the genoa was a wild card, herking-jerking with ill timed wind and wave. At one point the unpredictable motion knocked Bill against a teak corner down below, hurting his back. Had it not been for that we would have used our new gib pole, designed to make the genoa behave in just such conditions. But it takes some effort to set up and Bill’s back together with my seasickness made us disinclined to tackle this.
Sometimes sailing can be the most beautiful, peaceful thing. Wind, sails, hull and waves in perfect connection. The best feeling, flying over the ocean quietly, as a living part of it, rather than as a machine plowing through.
This was not that feeling.
When you need to go one way and the wind strongly suggests you go another, you may be able to do what you want, but wind and water will make sure you suffer for it. We had to go our way. The wind wanted us to head toward the Gulf Stream, with a cold front blowing in from the north. That is the worst possible scenario. We were not going there. So we sailed on as best we could until the wind wandered off altogether. We also needed to get where we were going at a certain time. Inlets are often challenging for boats, as evidenced by our exit from St. Augustine. We hoped to time our arrival at the Fort Pierce inlet for slack tide the next afternoon, so we wouldn’t be facing the rage of an outgoing current against a wind coming from the east, or heading into the unfamiliar inlet in the dark. Rather than toss around on the ocean until the wind returned we switched on the engine. There was an upside to this. With just an hour of daylight left, I spotted a dolphin near the bow, and then another and another. They were following the boat, surfing our bow wake. I scrambled up to watch them darting in and out of our wake, a confluence of effortless power, speed and grace. Like creatures built of nothing but water and light, chaperoning Maggie May into the night.
When the dolphins moved on I suggested to Bill that he go rest his back, while I take back-to-back watches. He protested. But I reminded him that he had done that for me on the last passage and it was my turn.
I was on watch when the sun went down behind the Florida coast and shortly afterward, when Sirius and Orion became visible on the southeastern horizon. These two guided the boat through much of the night, with a third companion surfacing from the east shortly thereafter. It appeared first as a strange irregular orange pinpoint on the horizon. Earlier Bill had pointed out an endless line of cumulus clouds to the east and said, “I bet that’s the Gulf Stream.” That white band had become a dark band and within it was a strange orange glow, not very large, which I mistook for the light of a ship. Then it dawned, no, that’s the moon mostly hidden within a wall of moisture risen from the world’s largest ocean current. I felt a sharp pang in my chest. On reflection, it brings tears to my eyes. We haven’t come that far, relative to our initial goal, but every inch was hard won physically and emotionally and this sight is a dream.
I hadn’t expected the moon to rise quite so soon and before long it had risen above the cumulus wall and was fully visible, deep orange and enormous. Just a tad waning but fully gibbous. My mind went immediately to a memory from 25 years past of my boyfriend Dan telling me about the moon illusion. We had seen a full moon rise over Tucson, Arizona, a giant of moons it seemed. He explained how its apparent size was a trick of perception because in fact the moon remains the same size and can even be measured to show it occupies the same space regardless of where it is in the sky, but our eyes cannot see it as the same size. “You can take your finger and cover the moon from view on the horizon. Then take the same finger at the same distance from your eye and cover the moon anywhere in the sky. It is the same relative size. But your eyes see something different,” he said in awe. There are many hypotheses as to what causes this illusion, but it remains somewhat mysterious, he told me.
What a gift to have such a moon bookending memories throughout a lifetime. Dan has been gone for more than 20 years now, cancer took him from my life and the world at age 28, but he was so present with me as the moon ascended, chasing Canus Major westward across the sky.
I almost went down and woke Bill so he could see it, twice I got up to do so, but figured he should rest. After the moon had fully risen and shrunk to half its size in my eyes, he came up the companionway stairs.
“You can still rest, I’m doing fine,” I said.
“I can’t sleep, I may as well be on watch.”
So I went down to record my watch log (weather, lat/lon position, sea state, observations, etc) and then climbed into my sea berth. (This is a special bed with high sides, or in this case a lee cloth, to keep one from tumbling out as the boat rocks and rolls.) It took a while to fall asleep, and as soon as I did, it seemed, Bill was shaking my shoulder gently. I looked up at him, “My turn?”
I gathered my stuff under a red night vision light. When I climbed up the companionway into the cockpit, it seemed like a pale blue version of daylight had descended. The moon was now nearly overhead, just to port of the mast. On the starboard side, off the bow, Sirius and Orion. This orientation guided me throughout the watch. My seasickness had now ebbed almost completely. In the moonlight I could always keep sight of the horizon. I can see why so many sailors are inclined to start a passage on a full moon. The full dark can be so disorienting until you get accustomed to it. With the moon I could see everything I needed. Maggie May continued to be bounced by the ocean swell, but we were on motor through the night so at least the sails weren’t banging and thrashing with every wave. I dislike the sound of the engine, there is something troubling and tiring about the grind and vibration of it, so we try to sail at every possible moment. But if we missed our chance to enter the Fort Pierce inlet at slack tide the following day, we risked be caught outside the inlet for days without a safe window to enter. Such was the doom of the weather forecast.
Bill and I traded watches through the night and at dawn I rose and made myself some tea before taking over. When I got on deck there was already a faint glow to the east and a strange line of shadows all along the horizon, very near. The sight took me aback. For a moment I was sure I saw an impossible dark forest stretching the length of the Atlantic Ocean, with the sun about to rise behind it. In fact, while I slept we had come to our closest approach to the Gulf Stream.
“Wow, the Gulf Stream is so close!”
Before long the sun had broken the cloud forest spectacularly, the clouds fracturing its piercing rays into diffuse beams of yellow and orange. For the rest of the morning Bill and I sat watch together. When we were about 2 hours from Fort Pierce, the wind began to pick up so we were able to turn the motor off and sail the last stretch. The wind continued to increase to a steady 20 knots and we arrived early to the inlet, about 2 pm, with low tide forecast to be 3:08. We needed slack water, so we turned around and headed back out for 45 minutes before turning around again and sailing back in.
At this point we should have hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF and inquired about timing on entering the inlet. With the strengthening wind, the ocean was beginning to heave. We were torn between getting through the inlet before it got worse, or making sure the ebb current had gone fully slack. We each had read that the number one thing is not to go into an inlet when there is a current opposing wind, especially the ebb current (the current created by the tide going out). But it can be hard to judge when the current will shift in inlets, and we did not know these waters. We waited until 3:25, thinking the tidal current had surely slackened or reversed at that point since we were well past low tide. But we had seen no other boats going in the inlet, a sign it was not yet a good idea. Just then, several boats arrived and appeared to enter successfully. (Though we were still a mile out and couldn’t see the details).
We started our approach. Another boat, which seemed to have been playing the same waiting game, was following about 10 minutes behind us.
At first it seemed all was fine. We had about 3-5 foot ocean swell behind us, but it was manageable. I took the binoculars and looked at the inlet, rough, but it didn’t seem worse than what we were in. We continued on past the outer channel markers. I looked again through the binoculars at the narrow channel between the jetties. There were waves crashing occasionally against the rocks but the conditions in the channel appeared to be about what we were experiencing, I thought. I said as much to Bill. But doubt nagged me. Who am I to say? I don’t know what it should look like through binoculars. I know I’m looking at a distortion but is the real better than the distortion or worse? And if we wait does this get even worse and so is this our chance?
Bill interrupted my inner dispute. “Keep a lookout behind me for big waves on the stern. I can’t see them and a big one could cause a broach.”
I looked behind him and the waves were not large but one hit us on the port quarter and threw MM’s nose to port.
“Like that one,” Bill commented.
“That didn’t look large, but ok,” I said.
The waves remained constant for the 8-10 minutes it took to get the second set of red and green channel markers. It was clear the ebb current was still running against us, but so far it was only a knot or two. I could see the other boat behind us at the entrance to the channel, pacing back and forth indecisively, perhaps watching to see how we fared. And then I saw the wave sets between us begin to grow measurably, 5-6 feet now and increasing speed.
“You have a bigger one coming on,” I said to Bill. It lifted Maggie May and twisted us about. “And another one.” Bill struggled to keep the boat straight. Thankfully, just behind us there was a lull, the waves 4 feet and not as steep but also not relenting.
“You have a little breather, no big ones just now.”
His face was focused, intent.
Ahead of us the sea was heaping upon itself, marching in relentless battle-formation battalions toward the beach that lay south of the port side jetty. In the channel ahead, a melee of whitewater peaks and valleys awaited. The water broke violently over land and rocks. Perhaps 50-100 people were gathered on the jetty, fishing, wind surfing and perhaps as spectating at the inlet coliseum. We were still 500-1000 yards from the worst of it. I knew it was going to be hairy based on two things: the current was now 3.5 knots against us, and the waves were mounding up in front of us in a way that made our bow look improbably small. But it wasn’t until I turned around that I realized hairy didn’t begin to cover it. The lull had given way to 7-8 foot and higher waves as far as my eyes could see.
Every soft thing inside my ribcage lurched and then plunged into a bottomless pit. I looked at Bill, steadied my voice and said, “You’ve got some big ones coming. Not too big, but bigger.” This was a lie. They were too big, but that didn’t seem like helpful information.
When the first one hit it twisted Maggie May 40 degrees to port while pushing the whole boat some 10-20 feet to starboard. There were buoys marking the channel and wave after wave was tossing us to starboard and toward the red buoy and the rock jetty beyond. To compensate Bill would turn the helm to port and then starboard, the big danger being that every turn put us for a moment at least partially beam-to the waves and a direct hit broadside could knock us down or pull us under. Not compensating was not an option. Timing was everything and it was going to have to be impeccable if we were going to get through this.
I looked forward and saw massive waves, lines of them mounded higher than our decks and heads, ceaselessly breaking from the weight of themselves. This was beyond my capacity to process. I’ve never wanted to not go somewhere so much in all my life. (This is saying something, because I’ve had to go many places I really did not want to go.) But options were limited to one. There was no way out but through. Beyond the middle of the jetty the water calmed to such an extent that there were people in small skiffs fishing peacefully. But I had almost no hope at that point that we could arrive there safely. I was certain that, if not this wave then the next, would hit us just wrong, sending the SVMM hurdling out of control and that here, the very place we bought Maggie May (then known as Vilkas) 7 years ago, was where she would end. I could above all else feel my heart pounding within my chest, or stomach or somewhere, trying to pump wave upon wave of blood, trying to keep pace with the angry ocean. I looked back at the waves charging behind us, thrashing against stern and beam and I looked at Bill, fierce determination, concentration, or was it blankness? This could be the beginnings of catatonia. Or, he is in that place of focus where it’s just him and the boat and the water. I hoped for the latter. I had stopped telling him about the giants behind. It seemed redundant.
At one point, at the crest of a wave, I saw that the sailboat behind had followed us. This answered my question about the distorted image one sees from afar. Definitely worse. I wanted to hail them and say ‘don’t do it!’ but just then I could not move. I noticed then that the waves behind us were slightly smaller. I wanted to tell Bill but I didn’t know if it would last and didn’t want to break his focus. I looked ahead to an unbroken line of wave that reminded me of a hydraulic in a class 5 rapid. We entered, and when it spit us out, we were out, just like that, the end. But thankfully not The End.
I looked back at Bill and gave a little whimper before turning back forward as we passed a man in a small skiff serenely willing a fish to bite his line.
We headed to the nearest anchorage, watching the sailboat behind us navigate the inlet, ready to call the Coast Guard if need be. When the boat was safely inside it pulled past us as we were anchoring. Bill read the name on the stern aloud “Andiamo Two.”
Breakfast the next morning offered time for calm reflection. We did not arrive at Fort Pierce unprepared. We did our best to find the right information. But local knowledge is key to inlet passage, and we didn’t have all the information we needed. We know now what more we should have done, including more in-depth research into tide and current stations for this inlet and more voices giving us local insight. We won’t make the same mistakes again. But having faced the worst conditions we have yet encountered with Maggie May, we have a confidence we would not have otherwise attained. Bill has some experience at the helm in handling seas that one hopes to never have to handle. His mind went to focus, not panic. For that alone the experience was priceless. And we were never truly in danger, with so many people and the Coast Guard nearby for a rescue. But the boat and this dream was.
Less tangibly, the passage at Fort Pierce gave us this: fear, want… these emotions connect us to all living things, and to the hardships that forged us each to our own kind. Challenge, terror and survival seem to pluck a string that resonates those universal tones, making colors seem brighter, food taste tastier, each breath seem sweeter. This is what adventure gives us that a vacation does not. Not just a rest from hard work or the usual sights and sounds of life, but a passage beyond the safety and security we intentionally build around ourselves, a fortress with no visible boundaries but which makes life smaller somehow. Longer, but smaller. I’m not a person who craves danger, I do my very best to avoid it. But having lived with death or danger nearby on many occasions in life—some inadvertently sought and some that came barreling over me unawares—I understand what nearness to this threshold offers the creaturely mind. Ineffable awe for the mere fact of being alive with lungs for breathing, hands for holding a coffee cup, and taste buds that spring to life for a cookie.
We now plan to savor this life for a while in the land of manatees before crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. There is a tricky dance we will need to do in order to align the demands of Covid restrictions with the implacable force of the Gulf Stream and ill-tempered winter weather. We will wait out the worst of the cold front season in Cape Canaveral, lessening at least one of the trifecta of hurdles between us and the Exhumas.
Posted on December 29, 2020
At 2:00 am I look up from my book to see Bill sleeping deeply, his sleeping bag gripped tightly around him against the cold. The dim blue light cast by a night vision night light pulls his face out of utter darkness. He’s just a face and a cocoon of maroon puffs of sleeping bag. It’s his turn to keep watch, but these may be the only moments of peace he gets on the Waccamaw. I go back to my book and work to keep my eyes open.
Bill had spotted the Waccamaw River in South Carolina on a satellite map when we were still in the Chesapeake Bay. It looked to be a rare island of wildness in a sea of East Coast humanity. You can’t see wildness very well on nautical charts, which focus on the water depth and landmarks useful to navigation, and hazards like shipwrecks. But a satellite view shows either pale land crisscrossed by lines and little boxes and wires and all the things that humans contrive to make our lives easy; or the deep, unbroken green of forest and unblemished beige of winter wetlands. And in the Waccamaw River, the breadth of the unbroken land was almost too good to be believed. Almost 55,000 acres of this watershed are protected as a National Wildlife Refuge, making for one of the largest continuous wildlife habitats in the southern coastal plain.
We didn’t plan to go to the Waccamaw, having grown quite shy of planning. Any expectation can be dashed. Any plan can be thwarted by the unexpected crab pot, or cold front or mechanical failure or squirrel. But we very much hoped to make it to Waccamaw. We had just traveled through Myrtle Beach where the Intracoastal Waterway is lined with new made mansions and forests about to be felled for new made mansions.
It felt like a weight had been lifted when we entered the land of living trees in the Waccamaw wildlife refuge. Breath became easy and deep. We pulled into a watery tunnel of cypress called Prince Creek just as the sun was setting on December 8.
So this blog is not about the winter solstice as the title might suggest. It is about a different long, dark night.
Clouds had covered the sky all day, casting a cold pall on our journey. But just as we were about to set anchor the sun made a brief appearance, creating the most perfect possible moment, casting the light of a photographer’s dream. As has been the case on this whole journey, (something I did not foresee in my decade of daydreamings), my first mate’s duties took precedence over all else. I took two minutes to have my breath taken away by the beauty of sun on cypress, snapped a couple of pictures, then worked with Bill to set the anchor, and then, for the first time, to set a second anchor.
In the Chesapeake Bay, in almost every case, a boater can rely on a single good anchor, and for the past six years of boating on the Bay, we did. There is very little tidal change or current and there are so many protected anchorages that one gets very spoiled with the ease of anchoring.
We had decided on Prince Creek, a narrow tributary of the Waccamaw River, because we knew a cold front was looming and we wanted to be in a tight place without too much fetch (the distance that allows waves to build with wind). But there’s tight, and there’s tight, and Prince Creek is really tight, only about 200 feet across. That would be fine in calm conditions, but the creek has a fairly strong current that shifts with the tide, which was likely to be exacerbated by the wind—forecast for near gale force. We knew this would be tricky, and so decided to set an anchor off the stern of the boat along with the one off the bow.
We made two attempts to set the stern anchor until it held, or so it seemed, then watched what remained of the sun’s last magnificent rays and went below to make dinner. The wind was starting to toss Maggie May about, so after dinner we decided to start an anchor watch schedule. Not tired, I took the first watch while Bill rested. It was only about an hour into my watch when I checked the chart on the iPad for the 10th time and our boat icon was suddenly perilously close to the shore. I thought it might be a GPS glitch so I went on deck. Stocking feet, no coat, temperatures in the 30s with the gusting wind funneling down the creek.
I walked on deck in the dark and turned on the spotlight, which illuminated the bony arm of a tree reaching so near the starboard side of the stern I could almost have touched it. It was likely 15 feet away. Everything looks closer at night in a gale. Regardless, it was way too close. And on a shore we did not expect to be anywhere near. We had started 100 feet away from this shore and should not have swung this wide unless our stern anchor dragged, and possibly the bow anchor as well.
I ran down and roused sleepy Bill.
“Something’s not right.” Understated as always. “You should come look.”
Once on deck Bill agreed, not good. We tried to shorten the stern anchor line and pull ourselves off the shore, but it was under immense load trying to hold 20,000 lbs of Maggie May against 30 knots of wind ganging up with the current of a heavy tide. I brought the bow anchor line in about 5 feet, just what I could get by tugging at the snubber line (this is a line that attaches to the anchor chain to take the shock off the windlass (the machine that raises and lowers the anchor)).
We were still too close. The boat was nearly beam to the wind, waves and current, suspended by two anchors off a mess of cypress knees, snags and limbs that would gash the hull and tangle the mast. Throughout the past few days we had seen boats wrecked all along our route, including several nearby in the Waccamaw. These visions were ever present as we decided what to do next.
Bill was able to loosen the stern anchor line when the wind rested, and switch it from the port aft cleat to the starboard aft cleat, which had the effect of shifting Maggie May more downstream, more bow to wind and current, and further away from the shore that had us in its grips. Then we deliberated in the icy darkness while the wind howled and waves smacked the boat around. We could let loose the stern anchor all together, with a float attached, and go back and get it once the conditions calmed. This could get us further downstream and mid-channel, but if the main anchor didn’t hold we were in trouble. We could tighten the bow anchor so we were not so close to the shore, but that would increase the likelihood that the bow anchor would drag. We considered several other options that each had their dangers and decided to snug the bow up a bit, just shortening the snubber line, not the anchor chain, and see how we did. That was about 11:30 pm.
Bill said he would stay up as long as he could and keep watch. We set up beds in the main salon—Bill on port, me on starboard. I tried to sleep, unsuccessfully for the most part but I drifted off at some point and woke at 1:30 am to find Bill fighting off sleep.
“I don’t think I can stay awake” he said.
“I’m not sure I can either, but I’ll try.”
I woke surprisingly well and read for a while from a fantasy novel about sailing that my friend Cat had gifted me. The Girl From Everywheretook my mind off the trouble at hand and kept me awake. Around 3:00 the wind began gusting and I checked the digital chart. AlarmAlarmAlarm. Maggie May was now on the opposite side of the creek, almost within the shoal line. Inconceivable. GPS glitch? I ran on deck, shined the spotlight on bony cypress fingers straining to touch the port stern. Disoriented in the dark, I had to walk around the boat shining the light to figure out that we were truly where the GPS had placed us, and in a place we did not want to be, about 5-10 feet from lodging hard aground at the edge of the forest. The stern anchor must have flipped over and was just coasting along the bottom, and the primary anchor must have traveled some too. I woke Bill. More rapid deliberations. We pulled the bow snubber as close in as we could to gain some distance from the shore. Then we put the stern anchor line on a winch and cranked it in with much effort. At this point the anchor was not helping and might be weakening the primary anchor with its wanderings. When we hauled the anchor up on deck, we found a tree stump attached to it.
After the secondary anchor was free, we floated even closer to the shore. Decision time. Stay and hope for the best? (Do not trust to hope it has abandoned these lands). Re-anchor in the center of the creek with a shorter chain scope and hope the primary anchor holds? Leave and head to the mouth of the creek in the dark? Or, turn this movie off and go back to bed?
Finding the center of the creek in the dark proved difficult so Bill declared: I want to go to the mouth.
One thing you have to accept on a boat when you are first mate is that when the captain makes a declaration you accept it, even if you don’t agree.
No moon. No light. Sub-freezing wind chill now at 20-25 knots, I went on the bow and shined the spotlight to starboard, to port, to center, then back to starboard…. When Bill got too close to the forest on either side, I’d say, “Turn to port” or “Turn to starboard”, guiding him for the mile of this narrow winding creek back to the entrance on the Waccamaw. For the first time in this trip we employed the headsets Bill’s family had gifted to us the Christmas before, so we could speak in calm voices and hear each other just fine, though he was in the warm, toasty, probably 40 degree cockpit enclosure and I was on the bow in the 20s. In my haste I had not donned my foul weather gear, just a thin fleece, but I had at least put on shoes. The ride seemed an infinity of time, slow motion through the biting dark. Occasionally the spotlight would fall on a great blue heron roosting on a cypress branch. Heads tucked tight against their feathers, the birds would turn their bodies from the blinding light, too annoyed and cold to even chastise me. (This is quite unusual and speaks to the unpleasant conditions. Herons will always make time to chastise.)
Around 4:00 am we arrived at the mouth, some 50 feet wider than the creek; we anchored toward the middle, set the snubber, and went below into our beds and sleeping bags in the main salon. Neither of us slept until close to 5:00. I set an alarm for 6, slept a bit, woke and checked location, slept a bit, checked location, slept. When the alarm went off, I set it for 7. We got up at that alarm because the sun was beginning to rise. I made hot almond milk and we had some warm granola for breakfast, then tidied the deck and praised the sun, took up anchor and headed out to find a better spot by the light of day.
The wind had calmed somewhat as we headed up nearby Bull Creek, found a wide spot, about 400 feet, and set the bow anchor, before laying down on the hard wooden benches of the cockpit and resting in grateful peace under the warm gaze of the sun.
This was as good a day as any to give thanks, so when we felt rested, we began cooking our belated Thanksgiving Dinner, delayed because we had no propane on actual Thanksgiving. It tasted like the best meal we had ever eaten.
That afternoon we watched the light dim on forest and creek. As the sun went down we heard a strange noise, like a frog or some weird reptile. Finally we looked near the shore and in a tree was an anhinga! Our first truly southern bird. Such a weird call, such a weird bird. Anhinga are like weird cormorants, and cormorants are already weird. Like a snake and a cormorant made a baby. When they swim, sometimes their whole body is beneath the surface, so it appears a snake is swimming vertically through the water. Outrageous.
Bill did the dinner dishes and arranged our real bed in the aft cabin just the way I like it, all to make up for me having to stand on the bow in the biting wind. I was asleep by 7 pm. I had set an alarm on the chartplotter to alert us if we drifted toward shallow water, and though we both woke several times in the night to check our position, we slept blissfully until sunrise.
As the sun ascended, I sat on the frosty deck in my warmest clothes and watched the mist travel across Bull Creek; watched several river otters scramble into the water and swim downstream; watched a young beaver swim through the golden water; watched our anhinga wake from its perch in the southern forest of red leaf and reaching arms draped with Spanish moss, all a safe 150 feet away.
Happy New Year all. I hope your 2021 is filled with peace, rest, and just the right amount of adventure.
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Posted on November 26, 2020
A bald eagle perched in a long dead conifer has been witness to a spectacular procession of light-on-water these past 12 hours. He and Bill and I. We are all in the upper stretches of the Pungo River, near the point where the Alligator River – Pungo Canal reaches its southern terminus in North Carolina.
This canal was cut through land to create an inland connection between the Pamlico and Albamarle sounds and thereby facilitate safer boat passage along the Eastern Seaboard. It is one of many canals along the Intracoastal Waterway (known as the ICW), which connects New Jersey to Florida through an inland water route.
Yesterday Maggie May transited this canal. Yes, we have officially left our home waters on the Chesapeake Bay, as of November 19. After all that has befallen this boat and crew in the past seven months (not nearly the half of it is told in previous blogs) our departure from Norfolk on the ICW was more momentous than we had imagined it would be. The mechanical, electrical, structural, financial and emotional issues that led us to set aside our original dream of sailing around the world have not really ceased. But we have new goals. To learn Spanish and ukulele, to find clear water where we can see life below. To conquer our fears and learn to be kind to each other, even when we are afraid. And of course, the goal of all goals, to not have to have goals.
Today we find ourselves in the Pungo River watching the tail end of a rainbow alight on our bald eagle neighbor in its snaggy tree. It is coincidentally, Thanksgiving Day, my own favorite holiday. For the food. (Our propane is gone so we will be eating rice today.) For the resilience of this holiday against the ever-expanding consumerist takeover of holidays. (Not counting Black Friday because it comes after.) But mostly I love Thanksgiving for what it it celebrates. Not the part about Europeans coming to conquer and take this land for themselves, for profit, for religious expansionism. I wish that history had gone differently. I can imagine a different present day if those who carved European history into this land had held a different view of themselves and others and the land itself. To love Thanksgiving I accept its disastrous historical beginnings with a heavy heart, and look beyond to the feeling that prompted the first observance. A feeling universal in all creatures in some fashion. Gratitude. An overwhelming feeling of humble appreciation that through hardship and struggle, even at times near unto death, we live …for now …with the eagle in the tree, and our next door neighbors, and best friends and family (be they near or far), and our most beloved of fellow creatures. We can see and listen and be awed by this beautiful world. By rafts of arctic birds resting out the winter on the Chesapeake Bay. By the sight of raindrops pregnant with sunlight falling from the boom. By the sound of loons calling through fog. By the sight of my sleeping bag and pillow fluffed up and laid out with care by Bill on the coldest of nights, and the knowledge that in a little while I will be warm and safe and have some time for blessed rest.
As I write a steady rain begins to fall. I sit in our protected cockpit looking out on the world, listening to the rain tap and patter against the canvas that shelters me. The temperature this morning has risen to the mid-60s, giving a welcome reprieve from near freezing temps much of the past week. The eagle has left its tree in search of a more protected perch. My mind lingers on the sunset of yesterday. Around 4:00pm we had just anchored and I bid Bill to make haste so we could watch the sun go down. I had a feeling about this one. The sky was getting ready to share some secrets. I set out some pillows on deck and we sat for an hour as a parade of light and cloud and watery reflection marched across the horizon and consumed our every emotion and thought. Perched in a tree behind us, the eagle had also watched the scene unfold. We three watched and watched until the darkness was full upon us.
I don’ know how eagles are with the giving of thanks, but Bill and I gave all we had. For this moment and the last, and any future moments we may be privileged to have. Happy Thanksgiving to all.
I’m so grateful to all of you who have supported this journey. My thoughts are with you today and always.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, beauty, boat, circumnavigation, conservation, environment, gratitude, icw, intracoastal waterway, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, nature, photography, sailboat, sailing, sunset, sv maggie may, thanksgiving, united states, Writing
Posted on April 5, 2019
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. Each chapter of the book is titled according to the custom of many native North American cultures, to name a month for the defining quality of its days. Anacostia Almanac months are defined by two temporal threads–our present days within particular seasons, and the days throughout time that have led to this moment in the watershed.
For the past week a young white-throated sparrow has been camping out in my yard. His song wakes me every morning, very, very early, before the sun has made the slightest hint of light on the eastern horizon. Before I have any intention of getting out of bed. So I just lay there, awake and listening in the darkness.
Bird reference books often translate the white-throated’s song into the phrase Oh sweet Canada, Canada, an apt description of both the phonetics and the tone of these birds. Theirs is a wistful song constructed of minor notes, as if they are always preoccupied by thoughts of some other time and place, some melancholy memory or remembrance of a long lost friend. My visitor sings throughout the day, distracting me from my work as I would rather listen to him than do just about anything else. Though…I’ve gathered he is a young bird because he seems to be practicing…and in need of practice. Sometimes he gets it right, but often he goes off key or loses pitch entirely or devolves into a whistle. He sounds like a gawky teenage boy whose voice is changing; every time he opens his mouth, what comes out may be a boy’s treble, a man’s baritone, or some crackling squawk that lies somewhere in between. His song lacks the grace and assurance of a mature songster, and he appears to be quite alone. I have seen no other white-throateds for a few days. I doubt his pitiful song has chased them off. By now, many of my winter sparrows have begun to migrate north to Canada. Perhaps he is staying behind to practice before he journeys to the breeding grounds and attempts to woo a lady. That would be a good plan. He’s not ready from what I can hear.
Yesterday I noticed the first buds on the walnut tree outside my back window. A few have already dropped into their bright green bloom, like clusters of tiny green grapes; but most are little more than bare twig with the slightest brown nubs just waiting to sprout. Within days the green thoughts percolating within these nubs will burst forth, attracting the attention of hungry squirrels, and very soon after that, my house wrens will return from points south and begin their seasonal governance of the walnut tree where for years they have raised their young. They will scold squirrels, sparrows, and humans alike if we dare to enter their defense perimeter. I once saw a napping squirrel harangued for fifteen minutes by one of these feisty birds, which are the size of a ping-pong ball and about as heavy. If a squirrel was inclined, one punch of its paw in the wren’s face would send the little ping-pong bouncing, bounce-bouncing. But squirrels rarely seem inclined toward violence, and wrens are disarmingly cute. This particular squirrel ambled off and found another branch further from the wren house where he could nap in peace.
Life seems to move so fast in these early weeks of April, everything becomes a battle for who will live the boldest and claim the best space for sun and food and shelter. Who will project the moxy that keeps interlopers away from their homes. Who can adapt to changing climates and conditions and still manage to thrive.
In search of some of this wild life I head out on my bike. On the bridge that spans the Northwest Branch on Rhode Island Avenue, I see a swallow emerge from one of the drains that empties into the river. He flies around for a spell then returns to the hole, apparently having built a nest within. It’s just a small hole, about the circumference of a baseball, about the size of a swallow, in the center of a 30-foot high concrete wall that channels the Northwest Branch toward its confluence with the Northeast Branch. I can imagine that to this little bird it resembles a cave in a high cliff wall, the kind of place his ancestors nested in, though a lot, lot noisier. And here, watching the swallows flying in and out of their concrete cave near the merging point of main branches of the Anacostia, I consider the idea of confluence: two distinct arms, branches, ideas, coming together into one fluid stream. Throughout its modern history the Anacostia has been plagued with issues of injustice and environmental degradation: the felling of ancient forests, extermination of entire species, decimation of the native people, enslavement of Africans, dumping of sewage and garbage in the river, destruction of wetlands, dumping and burning in poor neighborhoods, decades of failure to do right by this river community.
In the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights paralleled the struggle for environmental protections. Both efforts sought to right wrongs, to end realities that were degrading to all involved, and both sought to compel the machine that had been ripping the garden to shreds–breaking the foundational bonds of community apart–to abide by the dictates of an increasingly more enlightened collective mind. Both were successful, to some extent, for out of this time came the legal framework that seeks to guide our river community on ethical environmental and social paths–the Clean Water Act and Civil Rights Act. But through the tumultuous 60s these efforts generally followed their own separate trajectories. At the time of Kelvin’s death, the ties between racism, poverty, and environmental degradation remained disconnected in the national consciousness.
Then in September 1982, the confluence of environment and justice struck the nation between the eyes when a poor, largely African American community lay down in the middle of a Warren County, North Carolina, road. The residents of Afton had protested the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in their community, but they were ignored. Industry and government made their plans to dump society’s toxic wastes on people they expected would have no recourse against them. As trucks filled with PCB-laden soil rolled into town, the residents, and their allies from the Civil Rights Movement, blocked the opening to the new landfill. For six weeks they protested–marching, laying down, standing up, and sitting down, saying no, no, no we won’t be dumped on. In the end they lost, and toxic waste was unloaded on their rural town.
This wasn’t the first instance of a community resisting an environmental insult. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta organized farm workers in the early 1960s to protest exposure to pesticides and other workplace perils in California farm fields. In 1967, African Americans in Houston picketed a city garbage dump where two children had lost their lives. In New York City, 1968, residents of Harlem protested the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community.
And of course, Kenilworth residents gathered to block the entrance to Kenilworth dump in 1966. But none of these efforts had garnered nationwide attention as protests for environmental equality. Something different happened after Afton’s failed protest. One of the protesters that joined that effort, Washington D.C. resident Walter E. Fauntroy, a long-time civil rights activist, took a decisive step. Fauntroy was by that time serving as the Congressional representative for the District, and though he had no voting rights, he did have the power to request a study from the Government Accountability Office about the siting of hazardous waste facilities. That study, published in 1983, found that three out of four hazardous waste landfills in the Southeast were located in poor and largely African American communities. More studies followed around the nation, and a trend became apparent–if you were economically disadvantaged and a racial minority, you were significantly more likely to have a waste facility in your back yard. Kenilworth dump was the rule, not the exception. There were thousands of Kelvin’s nationwide living, and sometimes dying, in the waste of an indifferent world.
I stand on the bridge watching swallows make do with their concrete cliff home as traffic on Rhode Island Avenue flies by, and the Northwest Branch rolls ever onward toward its confluence. Near the water surface, another pipe enters into the stream, this one with a stain of grime left where polluted water has trickled out for decades. I notice someone has painted the figure of a peasant, holding his hands under the foul pipe, washing.
And out of nowhere, on an Anacostia breeze, the words of a King return to me:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Category: Anacostia, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: aldo leopold, almanac, Anacostia, arboretum, art, beauty, book, Chesapeake Bay, conservation, environmental, environmental justice, excerpt, history, ilcp, march, nature, photography, pollution, river, river of redemption, spring, the anacostia project, urban, washington dc, wildlife, Writing
Posted on March 26, 2019
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. Each chapter of the book is titled according to the custom of many native North American cultures, to name a month for the defining quality of its days. Anacostia Almanac months are defined by two temporal threads–our present days within particular seasons, and the days throughout time that have led to this moment in the watershed.
Fog envelops the upland forest of the U.S. National Arboretum this morning, where a monochromatic quilt of chocolate, café-au-lait, pale beige, and khaki cloth, blankets the woodland floor. Stitched in the shapes of oak, beech, poplar, black gum, and tupelo, they are a memory of November’s final act at the end of last year’s growing season. When the autumn curtain fell, it landed ever so softly here–and here it stayed to gentle the hand of winter; to give warmth to the roots and tiny creatures that slumber through snow and ice in the tired heart of the forest. These leaves are proof positive of things coming up before they fall, of what was and will be again. They blanket a promise the land is hiding under air alive with intrigue, under this watchful fog, November’s guise, a beguiling disguise for a wakeful land.
I crouch low to the ground and lift a corner of the leafy quilt. At first I find…soil. Just sleepy soil. The record of autumns past, of leaves rummaged by little bird feet, sorted and tossed by the busy hands of squirrels, chewed up by ant and worm and an unseen menagerie of insect oddities. These characters, alchemists all, transform the spent and fallen leaves, the discarded solar collectors of the forest, into growing season gold. They transubstantiate sun and leaf, into life!
And upon it I find no insects crawling. Not one. No tiny skink, or ant; millipede or spider. Just soil–rich waiting, portentous, expectant earth. Soil is nothing. It is everything. As John Burroughs wrote: “The soil is marrowy and full of innumerable forests. Standing in these fragrant aisles, I feel the strength of the vegetable kingdom, and am awed by the deep and inscrutable processes of life going on so silently about me.”
It should be enough to find soil, to rejoice that, in fact, the dirt is right here where I last saw it. But today I seek something else, soil in its next form, transformed by sun and seed. There is no visual evidence, no sign on the forest floor of what lies below, this hidden hope, but I know it is there buried in the brittle brown pages of forest history.
I lift another hem of the leafy quilt and there it is, my quarry: a small, determined cylinder, the size of my pinky finger and the color of alive; a nascent, newborn green digit, pointing itself with unbreakable determination toward the sun. This coil of leaf is wound so tightly around itself that the only visible evidence that it is not a solid mass are tiny lines that spiral round the outside of the sprout. The coil protects the tender plantling from the guile of winter’s last grasp, from the inescapable uncertainty above the warm earth; leafy layers harbor heat at the heart of the matter. The coil also creates a rigid structure strong enough to part the soil from which it must emerge. Such effort! Though my eyes cannot detect upward movement, I can almost hear it groaning with the strain. This taut, perfect package pushed its way from root through compressed earth, through topsoil and into humus, adding girth to its green self along the journey. It began as a germ. Using the rich decay of millennia of forest life it grew into a pregnant idea of a plant, a thought for a future life unfurled in the sun as a pretty little frog parasol planted in the forest floor.
I knew you would be there, little green soldier always standing at the front lines of winter’s last stand. You see, war rages in the Anacostia watershed this morning. Noiseless and nearly imperceptible, it is the battle of two epic forces meeting at the boundary of their temporal domains.
Winter has staked an early, decisive claim over this March day, holding an icy hand over the land, bidding tree, insect, and amphibian to sleep…sleeeep. But spring entrenched itself into the soil yesterday and now rises up to meet the dawn calling flower, bird, and fox to wake! Wake! For the moment, neither will give ground and the clash spreads an enveloping fog over the land. I walk upon this misty precipice between restive winter and frenetic spring, imagining I might pinpoint the exact moment when frost surrenders to fecundity.
A week ago we had our first snowstorm of the strangely mild winter, along with bitter gale force winds raging through the watershed. Freezing rain formed icicles dripping like glass from the first rosy buds of redbud trees. The entire river landscape seemed dipped in glimmering liquid crystal.
Transitions in time and thought, great battles between epic forces, do not come easily.
But now the sun lingers longer every day, melting ice from bud and coaxing the first blush of spring onto the fingertips of bare-armed maple trees. In the marshes, red-wing blackbirds and cattails grow bolder: the one flashes ever more fiery shoulder patches and ushers chattering challenges to rivals; while the other begins to push new green spikes through wetland earth. From within the lowland forest at the edge of the river, spring peepers have begun to chorus haltingly, their song charms water snakes, who begin to peek out of their cozy winter holes.
The robins are singing, the redbud has unfrozen, and the osprey has returned to the Anacostia sky. I spied him from my kayak a few days ago and such joy I felt when I recognized his far-off form, to know that against unimaginable odds he has survived his grueling odyssey to South America and back. Anacostia born and bred, his biology dictated that he make a life-or-death gamble on a three-thousand mile journey upon wind and wing. He had to find a safe winter haven, then gamble once again when he took flight for home, that spring would beat him back to the Anacostia. If by chance he had landed here on a city still covered with snow, a river whose fish were locked beneath a sheet of ice, death would have greeted him at the door of his lifelong home. He could not go back to Brazil, weary as he would be. He would have to simply lay down upon the Anacostia earth and melt away. When the osprey arrives home in March, I know there is no going back to winter. As Aldo Leopold said of the Canada goose’s return to Sand County: “His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”
Every year, when the osprey returns and the hours of light and darkness are poised in near perfect equilibrium, winter’s pale chill lingers despite spring’s onrushing radiance. When the forest remains asleep but with eyes aflutter, I come to this forested bluff at the edge of the Anacostia, searching. Ostensibly, I am searching for a particular sign of the coming spring, a very small electric green sign that signals the land has marked the approaching angle of the sun.
But I am also looking for something less tangible, something entirely insubstantial but enormous; a pathway of memory to an elusive portal leading to the Anacostia of old.
Beyond the hem of this forest, the columns of the first U.S. Capitol building rise out of a hilltop meadow, strange and incongruous. The Corinthian columns were originally erected in 1828 on the east portico of the Capital, but as the building grew they became obsolete and were later relocated atop this hill in the Arboretum. A monument can be a reminder of many things. These columns speak of history, of legacy, of the long making of a capital city. Today, in this fog, with the breath of land and river rising to cloak the columns, they also speak of a river landscape long subdued and erased into utter forgetfulness.
Over the past centuries, since before those columns were originally built out of sandstone quarried from Aquia Creek in Virginia, we removed all memory of what a watershed is. We scraped away, paved over, cut down, and carted away our watershed context: dumping dredge on wetlands, putting parking lots over former forests, even covering over the very streams that fed the river–turning gentle babbling waterways into pipes and culverts. We have no memory of what it means to live in a watershed because we can’t see one anymore. Most residents have never considered this absence, because in effect, we have imposed on ourselves an ecological dementia. How do we go forward wisely, when we cannot summon what we left behind? How can we restore the Anacostia watershed if we can’t remember it?
At the Arboretum, I look for a conduit to an ecological synapse that has not been fully severed, hoping to conjure the lush land that sprouted as the Pleistocene chill abated, a land that felt the feet of badgers, bison, and wolves, that met the eyes of the first humans who ever set foot here in the Anacostia watershed. It is nothing more than an intellectual exercise–that watershed is gone forever. But the practice offers something important. Here at this spot in the Arboretum, called the Fern Valley Trail, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has endeavored to recreate a piece of that native Anacostia in the upland woods, the forest floor, the bend of a clear creek rushing down the hillside toward the river. There is no place like it in the Anacostia watershed for the density of land remembrance.
Tourists often come to the Arboretum to view exotic plants from Japan and China: bonsai, cherry trees, Japanese maple, and bamboo. I come to be transported not to a forest a continent away, but rather to my own home, centuries distant and so much further beyond my reach. Here, in this recreated land, it is possible to breathe air that is an echo of an Anacostia unbroken. To find a germ of an idea of what may have been, and thus, a thought, a hope, a prayer for what could be again.
Fern Valley is alive with pulsing synaptic memory of bloodroot, woodland poppy, Dutchman’s breeches, towering sycamore, oak, pine, and maple; of chickadee, kinglet, and owl; assassin bug, butterfly, and beetle.
I keep an eye out every March for the mayapple, a green umbrella beacon guiding the way toward the growing season. I know when I see them pressing upward, that beneath this sea of fallen leaves a whole green and buzzing world is already rising, just below the soil unseen: soon there will be fiddlehead, bloodroot, trillium, spring beauty, trout lily. Long ago these early risers, the first of the spring bloomers were dubbed wake-robins, because it was understood that when they appeared, the long quiet of winter was over, it was time to rise for bird, bee, and butterfly, it was time to wake, robin.
From every slumber there must be an awakening.
Category: Anacostia, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: aldo leopold, almanac, Anacostia, arboretum, beauty, book, Chesapeake Bay, conservation, environmental, excerpt, ilcp, march, photography, pollution, river, river of redemption, spring, the anacostia project, urban, washington dc, wildlife, Writing
Posted on February 15, 2019
Wednesday morning at dawn a solitary pied-billed grebe paddled through a misty oxbow lake called La Parida Banco in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. La Parida translates from Spanish as: one who has just given birth, perhaps the most apt description I’ve ever heard for a wildlife refuge. I contemplated this meaning as the little grebe and I shared a cold February sunrise in the North American tropics of South Texas.
Though we occupied the same space, we came to La Parida on different errands: his was a search for food and safety on an island of wild sanctuary within an ocean of human development. Me, I was surveying the site of the first major border wall construction in Texas since 2009, the construction that would devastate the pied-billed’s home.
Yesterday, wall construction began. I walked the Rio Grande levee at dawn and instead of the usual hawks, herons, turkeys and orioles, I was greeted by a battalion of law enforcement. I knew by the ripping feeling in my heart that this signaled the beginning of wall construction, a feeling that was confirmed when I saw an excavator arm moving like a giant insatiable insect over the forest. My mind went to the birds that had been building their nests in the forest; the butterflies who had laid their eggs on the underside of leaves hoping to keep them safe from predators; the tortoises and snakes in the brush, the bobcats and coyotes quietly hunting shrews and cottontail.
Grief has made itself a home in the borderlands of late.
But my thoughts were quickly interrupted by a by a Border Patrol agent, kindly telling me to leave. I backed slowly away, eyes still on the arm of the excavator moving purposefully over the forest just beyond a long line of Border Patrol and other law enforcement officials.
My walk back to the parking lot in Bentsen state park was one of my lowest moments in the past ten years. I have been documenting the US-Mexico border for more than a decade, since the Secure Fence Act of 2006 mandated the construction of more than 700 miles of border barrier through one of the most important biological regions on the continent. [See Embattled Borderlands ]
This land provides home to the highest diversity of birds and butterflies in the continental US; five of North America’s six cat species; resting and refueling for 700 migrating animal species; and a last hope for some 100 threatened and endangered species, including Sonoran pronghorn, desert tortoises, cactus ferruginous pygmy owls and many more whose futures are tied to this land. [see this report by the Center for Biological Diversity]
That future hangs by a fragile thread. In 2018, Congress approved $1.6 billion for wall construction on the border. Last spring, the Trump Administration began building wall in New Mexico. Construction began yesterday in La Parida. Surveyor stakes have been planted delineating the “enforcement zone” where forests will be cut. And Congress is adding another $1.3 billion in border wall funding in 2019 in order to avoid another government shutdown. Several locations in the Valley have been given a reprieve in this legislation, but not the Lower Rio Grande Valley refuge, not La Parida, she who has just given birth.
The ecological stakes of this political bartering have been well documented. Since the 1990s the US government has constructed about 400 miles of solid barrier, through the 2,000-mile borderlands. This wall has severed migration corridors for endangered bighorn sheep, ocelots, jaguars and wolves, caused damaging floods, degraded fragile watershed ecology, and fragmented and destroyed tens of thousands of acres of habitat essential to wild species. The barriers and habitat loss come at the worst possible moment, as climate change is exacerbating the frequency and intensity of droughts in the Southwest–a time when wild species’ best hope of survival is the ability to migrate.
These threats would normally be prevented by bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. But a provision in the Real ID Act of 2005 allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws to expedite building of a border wall.
Here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley the direct damage of habitat fragmentation and destruction is compounded by a history of large-scale agriculture, energy and residential development. More than 95 percent of the native habitat in the Valley has been replaced by agricultural fields, oil wells, wind farms, roads, subdivisions, and shopping centers. Within what remains of this endangered ecosystem, one of the most unique wildlife communities on the continent fights for survival. South Texas sits within a natural borderlands at the overlap of the north and south of the natural world, where temperate bird, butterfly, mammal and reptile species coexist with their tropical cousins.
It would be hard to overestimate the natural value of the La Parida refuge. It is one piece of the larger Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a collection of the most valuable ecological lands along the last 275 miles of the Rio Grande. The refuge began as a desperate attempt to save what was left of a vanishing ecosystem. Decades of work, thousands of volunteer and staff hours, and many millions of dollars have created what is now one of the most important wildlife corridors in the country. Refuge land and state parks, along with private preserves like the National Butterfly Center, offer one last hope for thousands of wild species. But this corridor along the Rio Grande sits directly in the path of the border wall, which will be built on the Rio Grande levee.
Few in the United States have ever heard of La Parida, but this refuge has given birth to the grebe, kiskadee, green jay, ringed kingfisher, red tailed hawk, bobcat and javalina. This land is essential. It is home. It is life. But as I look across the water to the Rio Grande levee where construction equipment moves over the land, I see death on the horizon.
Come and protest the desecration of the Rio Grande Valley-noon, Saturday, 2-16-19 at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. If you can’t come, call your members of Congress today or write an op-ed for your local newspaper. Be a voice for the borderlands.
Krista Schlyer is a conservation writer and photographer and author of the book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall. She is currently working on a film with Jenny Nichols and Morgan Heim called Ay Mariposa, which tells the story of two fierce women and a community of butterflies on the front lines in the battle against the border wall.
Category: Borderlands, Borderlands Project, Continental Divide, Featured, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: ay mariposa, beauty, border, border wall, conservation, construction, ilcp, immigration, international league of conservation photographers, la parida, Lower Rio Grande Valley, national butterfly center, nature, resist, resistance, texas, wildlife, wildlife refuge
Posted on January 14, 2019
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.
Posted on January 16, 2018
There are some places in this world where life and beauty effervesce from the ground itself, places we simply can not lose. There are landscapes where lines must be drawn in the proverbial sand and we must say, no, you will not take this from the world. Not on our watch. Many such places exist in the US-Mexico borderlands, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is one. Here is a place people will lay down their bodies to protect. It is that rare, that special. I want to show you why.
I wrote a poem about Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas, and worked with a talented group of filmmakers–Allison Otto, Jenny Nichols, and Morgan Heim–to translate it into a short film. Please take a look.
President Donald Trump has been banging his nativist drum demanding billions of dollars for a border wall. Congress has been deal-making and deliberating behind closed doors, preparing to bargain away the future of the borderlands in exchange for the Dreamers held hostage by the Republican Party. I don’t believe any of them know or care about what they are sacrificing to the altar of political power––all for a wall that will have no effect on human migration but will destroy one of the rarest eco-regions on Earth.
Please share this film with your friends and family, with your members of Congress. Pick up the phone and tell your Congressional representatives: the border is not a bargaining chip. The Dreamers must be saved from exile from the only home they have ever known, and the borderlands must be protected from border walls, fences and militarization. #noborderwall #saveSantaAna #cleanDreamAct #aysantaana.
The number for the Congressional switchboard is: 202-224-3121
The 75th anniversary of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is January 27. Many hundreds of people will be journeying to South Texas for a special rally for this endangered landscape. Santa Ana needs our help. If you can join us, here is some information about the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/419603675122981/ . If you cannot travel to South Texas, please take some action for Santa Ana the week of January 27.
For more information about the peril currently posed to the US-Mexico Borderlands, visit my web story: Embattled Borderlands.
Category: Borderlands, Borderlands Project, Featured Tagged: allison otto, animals, ay santa ana, beauty, birds, border, border wall, butterfly, center for biological diversity, defenders of wildlife, endangered species, environment, film, jenny nichols, mariposa4, mexico, morgan heim, nature, poem, politics, santa ana, savesantaana, sierra club, texas, trump, video, wildlife, wildlife refuge