Fate Turns on a Squirrel’s Teeth

On the morning of July 9 my journal entry began, Setting off again this morning at high tide. We’ll see what transgresses. Headed to Maine.

It was to be our second attempt at a launch, but it followed the fifth or sixth major named storm in the life of our circumnavigation dreams. Still, we were both hopeful. We had no beautiful friends to wave goodbye to on the docks, and no champagne to sprinkle on the bow, but the day was calm as we pulled out of our slip and made our way to the mouth of Swan Creek and into the Chesapeake Bay. I’m not going to relay what happened next, it was the scariest moment I’ve ever had on a boat, but it’s a long, and in the end, humorous story that will wait for a book’s telling one day. This blog focuses on what happened afterward, which was not so humorous, despite the lead photo in this blog.

About an hour after we entered the bay, we still had no wind and were motoring along, which often makes me sleepy. So I laid my head down on Bill’s lap and looked up at the mast towering into the cloud-tufted blue sky. After a while, I asked Bill, “Can you still see the Bay Bridge?”. 

“Just barely,” he replied. 

So I sat up and scanned the horizon to the hazy south. I couldn’t see the bridge until Bill pointed. It was barely visible in the thick summer air, and I marked it in my mind, the Bay Bridge is behind us. 

Just then the wind started to pick up and Bill got excited to raise the main sail. We had only sailed once in the month since we left our home port in Deale. So I took over the wheel and Bill went forward to prep and raise the halyard. As the sail was going up, suddenly Bill stopped and his face fell. All he said was “No. No.”

I saw a cascade of white feathers, or something light like that, scatter onto the deck and float back along the starboard side of the boat. I thought a bird had nested in the sail, or been killed by a predator and left in the sail. But then I saw Bill sink to the deck on all fours, so I knew it was something much worse. I steadied the boat and went up to the mast. There was a gaping hole in the sail, which, as it gently flapped in the mild breeze rained a shower of feather-light dacron onto the deck. Two feet of sail had been chewed away. Our brand new sail. 

We had waited years to get that sail, wanting to spare ourselves the huge expense of it until we were ready to head out on the trip. It was ruined. It took a moment to make sense of it, but suddenly I remembered earlier that day I had seen squirrel footprints on our hatch and heard soft footfalls on the deck. Knowing how important a nest is to a creature, I went to scan the sail bag and sure enough, there was a terrified squirrel crouching at the back of the boom.

Bill and I were silent for a long time. Then a period ensued that I cannot recount here except to say that Bill turned the boat around, back toward the marina at Haven Harbour, and when I coaxed him into unfurling the only in-tact sail we had left, it was because I believed it would be the last sail we ever had and I wanted to remember it. 

Two days later, we ushered the squirrel from the boat and have had the sail repaired as best as it can be. It will never be fully strong again, but it may last a while. We have decided that we can no longer believe in the circumnavigation dream. We can’t even expect we will get to Maine at this point. Or out of the Chesapeake Bay. But we have provisions for several months on the boat, and many, many books we want to read and some songs we want to learn and sunsets to see and squirrels to forgive. 

We hope to head out again in a day or two with the only intention being to follow where the wind leads us, take what challenges arise, care for the boat as best we can, and love each other better than we ever have. 

Thank you all for following along on this journey, wherever it may lead.

Gratitude, Maryland

Where to start? Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland…all places I wasn’t expecting or hoping to to blog about at the end of June 2020, but that is the way of adventures.

I’m writing from the dining room table of my good friends, the Goods, who have kindly and warmly welcomed Bill and I to stay with them while the Maggie May is, again, being repaired.

After seven years of fixing up an old boat you might expect there would be nothing left to fix, at least for a while. But sometimes you have to fix the thing that a contractor just did a terrible job fixing, so bad that it failed utterly within a few weeks. (This is not the first time this exact thing has happened with the Maggie May.) And sometimes that thing that was fixed and failed is the bottom of the boat, arguably the most important part if you fancy staying dry. 

This is a long tale in full, and one that could benefit from a longer format and some emotional distance by the author, but in short, we had the boat hull completely redone over the past few months in Deale, Maryland, spent about three-quarters of a year’s boat-living budget, and within a week of setting out found that Maggie May’s bottom was covered with a half-inch or more of barnacles that could only be removed by power sanding the bottom of the boat and repainting.

 

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This was the failure of the paint we chose, or possibly the marine contractor who applied it. Or both to some extent. Or us for choosing the wrong contractor and/or paint. So far neither business is taking responsibility. So we are left holding a heaping handful of slimy barnacles (no offense barnacles, you are actually slimy in the literal sense), and the loss of another half-year boat budget, several weeks of time, and our crushed hearts. 

The added loss of savings may ultimately have the effect of ending our dream of a sailing circumnavigation. That is a hard pill to swallow after dreaming and planning for 15 years. But it’s possible that the global pandemic already ended that dream and we just don’t know it yet. 

I didn’t want to write this blog, have been putting it off, hoping we’d be back on the boat already and I could write with optimistic hindsight, with the perspective of someone on the ocean, looking back. (With any luck that will be the next blog.) So much of what I have worked on over the past decade (see the Borderlands Project ) has been sad or at least tinged with grief in some way. I liked the feeling of offering only hope in this blog, a documentation of discovery and joy. But the world is filled with sorrows much deeper than the travails of Maggie May, and resilience and gratitude are good offerings too so I’ll finish on this note…

A day or two after we found out that the hull paint had totally failed, Bill was feeling especially low, and we were talking about our options, when suddenly a Carolina wren started singing. If you know this little bird, you know that it has incredible pipes, certainly some of the strongest per-ounce in the bird world. But this was the loudest I had ever heard a wren sing. It was not because this particular bird was  so especially loud, but because it was so extremely near. Bill looked up the companionway stairs and saw the wren perched on our main sheet. About 5 feet away, the bird was belting out the sweetest, most determined song. It brought tears to Bill’s eyes and prompted him to say, “Ok, I get it buddy, message delivered.” Then, about five minutes after that, Bill got a text from our friend Maribeth who was asking how his back was (she had read my previous blog). Bill explained what was happening with the boat and Maribeth replied with a Mary Oliver poem, Just As the Calendar Began to Say Summer, about going to nature to unlearn society’s obsession with success, machines, oil and money. 

The poem ends with these lines: 

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,

the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny

in the bank,

the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.

 

Youghiogheny River in Western Pennsylvania, rolling its way to the Mississippi River and onto the Gulf of Mexico. We hope to meet these waters again one day far downstream in the SV Maggie May.

It’s impossible to say what will happen with this adventure. We hope to be back on the boat by next week and will proceed with a new dream of taking the journey as it comes, resting tired spirits and cherishing each moment for what it brings. It is a helpful reminder that the boatyard where Maggie May currently resides is just down the road from Gratitude, Maryland.

Garter snake in Ohiopyle State Park, PA

So far the past week’s detour has brought many things, including:

  • Moments on the Youghiogheny, Potomac and beloved Anacostia rivers, watching them rolling their pebbles, smoothing all hard edges as they make their water-way to the sea
  • A chance to hand off our car to Bill’s mom via his sister Laurie and her beau Bill on a country road in Ohio (Thanks Laurie and Bill!) 
  • Bill’s back fully healed!
  • A visit to the Double R creamery nearish to Cleveland for perhaps the best chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream I have ever had
  • A discovery of some weird larvae living inside a pitcher plant in an Ohio bog
  • A flock of cedar waxwings in a serviceberry tree
  • A visit to the largest remaining expanse of old growth hemlock in Maryland

    Wild turkey in Garrett State Forest, PA

  • An opportunity to grill asparagus 20-feet in the air overlooking the Haven Harbour gravel boatyard
  • The best cherry pie I’ve ever had, made by the clever hands of Michele Good
  • A chance to spend some time getting to know the nearly 1 year old Henry Good–oh boy what a charmer. 

 

The Voyage Has Begun

Chesapeake Bay: Rockhold Creek to Chester River

6-14-2020

Last Tuesday, June 8, 2020 we cast off lines at Town Point Marina in Deale, Maryland, and headed out into the Chesapeake Bay for what we hope is a 3-year voyage around the world. Dear friends began arriving around 8 am and we said a few words, read a poem of blessing, and sprinkled some champaign on Maggie May’s bow. The surge of emotion that accompanied all of this, caught me off guard. There are just some times in life when you have worked so hard on something, given everything you possibly have to make a dream become a reality (or stave off some catastrophe), when past, present and future well up together for a moment. All this to say, I barely got my words out, they were choked and garbled with raw relief, joy, apprehension and possibility. I think my friends understood. Here is the poem in full:

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blessing the boats
by Lucille Clifton

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

may you kiss

the wind then turn from it

certain that it will 

love your back may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that

Several friends sent this poem to me over the past few months, knowing our departure was imminent. It is so perfect in so many ways. 

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I looked back for a long time at my friends Margaret, Valerie, Dave and Anne waving goodbye from the dock where we spent so much time preparing Maggie May, and at our friends Tom and Emily who had brought their canoe to see us beyond the jetty. I looked back as long as I could, to remember that moment forever, to feel that love and the waves of gratitude for the life we have lived up to now. When I turned finally towards the bay, I turned to the great unknown I have longed for for all these many years, through so much grief, anxiety and inner turmoil. I turned toward fear and wonder and adventure and a life scoured to its barest elements.

The first leg of this voyage will be northerly so we headed the boat up the Bay towards the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The wind was light, 5-7 knots, but we managed to sail most of the way up to the bridge. I’d never passed under this immense span before. I’m not one to find awe in infrastructure, given all the damage it does ecologically, but passing under the Bay Bridge was something to remember, in part because of its mammoth imposition on the entire viewscape, and also because it was further than I had ever taken Maggie May to the north.

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Beyond the bridge we made straight for the Chester River, where we planned to anchor for the night. This river, the longest navigable waterway on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay, is home to the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, where we hoped to spend most of our time for the next days. But the wind was not favorable for an anchorage near the refuge, and the wind decides and we abide, so we headed deeper into the river to a little cove near the Comegys Bight. It was a good thing we did, because the weather grew nasty over the next few days. 

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Before the storm we had a few trips out in the dinghy to explore the nearby wetlands, beach and forest, finding many surprises, including the largest concentration of brown water snakes I have ever seen. Bill, terrified of snakes, vowed he would never set foot in this water after we made this discovery. We poled the dinghy into a shallow stream through thick wetlands and on the way out I noticed a little snake face staring out at us from the reeds. And then another and another and then, when we reached the mouth of the stream, a snake swam in right front of the dinghy with a fat, pale yellow fish with bewildered eyes, clamped in the snakes satisfied but anxious maw. The fish was easily three times the size of the snake’s head. I didn’t know they hunted for fish, and it was incredible to see this in action. 

Bill did not experience the same delight over this discovery as I did. 

As we got back to the Maggie May Bill was trying to secure the dinghy (Minnie May) and he wrenched his back painfully. His back had been bothering him for weeks, but I think the terror over the snakes and the jolting movement of the boat pushed him over an edge. And he probably had not been allowing his body to rest over the past weeks leading up to launch. Now his back has said, you will stay put for a while. So we have stayed anchored in this same Chester River spot for many days longer than we would have. Storms rolled over us and rolled on. Weekend boaters tubed in circles around us, their wakes tossing Maggie May about. Sun set and rose, casting its light and darkness upon the world. (c)Krista_Schlyer_-05688

I am content, wherever we are. I’ve spent the past 5 days learning how to live this life. I have learned many things, some important and some not so much. Here are 5:

  • Clothes are a nuisance, I shan’t be deploying them very often.
  • Peeing over the side of the boat (with the assistance of a she-wee, a tinkle-belle or other device) is liberating. Women of the wild, you must get one of these if you have not already.
  • Flies are obnoxious on land, intolerable on a boat.
  • Beer tastes delicious on land, on a boat the trumpets sound and the angels sing.
  • Being able to produce all of one’s own energy without dirty fossil fuels or industrial scale renewable energy is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. (I’ll do a blog on our systems one of these days.) We have met or exceeded our energy needs for the past 5 days with our solar panels and wind generator. 

 

At Home With the Gods of the Chesapeake

We made it. After 15 years of planning, 7 years of working on the boat, 2 months of pandemic lockdown, we are finally moving aboard Maggie May. Bill and I have spent the past few days carting carloads of stuff from our home basement and our friend Dave’s home, (where we were staying for the past few months), to the boat in Deale, Maryland. 

Bill and I have a bet as to how many carloads it will take to get it all here, and also whether there is any chance it will all fit aboard. I guessed 10 trips, Bill guessed 6. We are on 6 now, with at least 1 more to go. This is one bet I was hoping Bill would win. 

Our final trip from Dave’s house. Bill said we couldn’t get it all in one load. I begged to differ. As my reward I got to spend 45 minutes on the passenger side floor fighting off car sickness. Hooray.

 

Glad we were able to fit that sponge.

So far everything is fitting nicely on the boat, but we are already making some sacrifices, books, clothes (we won’t need those), backpacks, some tools and other things we can do without.

The process of trying to organize a small amount of space to contain enough food, water, clothes, gear, cleaning supplies, tools, sails, spare boat parts, medical supplies, charts and everything else we need for 3 years uses a part of my brain that I rarely access. But I find it liberating rather than constraining to think about what I actually need to be safe and happy. It’s not much really. 

The stuff we have on this boat represents about 10% of the stuff we had in our 700 square foot house. But it still seems like a lot right now.

The V Berth will be my office as well as guest quarters, sail storage, and scuba center.

One of the inspirations for this trip was to put myself in a situation where by necessity I had to live as simply as possible. I try to do this anyway, but it’s easy to be lazy about resource conservation when all the energy, water, space, and food you could want is a drive, walk or phone call away. And all of the waste from that way of living is carted away every week so I don’t have to look at it. On the boat, there is limited energy, water, space, food and everything that is a byproduct of my life—plastic, paper, metal, food scraps, human waste. Well now it’s all mine to deal with in a responsible way. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about how to do this. I’ll share some of this over the coming years. 

Dinner our first night aboard.

Yesterday the wind blew across Rockhold Creek with gale force. I’ve experienced gale force winds before, even on the boat while sailing. But never while living on a boat and it struck me yesterday as the angry wind howled around the mast, that this force will be ruling my life over the next few years. The wind is nothing to be trifled with. 

We live our lives generally with the wind as an afterthought. If it’s windy we may fly a kite, or maybe some of us get our energy now from wind power, or maybe it musses our hair, or cools us down on a hot summer day. But it doesn’t really play much of a conscious role in our lives. Yet, the wind is a god of this planet—a conductor of weather, a circulator of energy and moisture around Earth, a force as big as the oceans in the life that is lived all over the globe. I’m going to spend the coming years honoring this god like I never have before. My heart skips a beat at the thought of being enveloped in its power and spending every day thinking about what the wind is planning for the world at this moment, and how to I need to behave to live in concert with its whims, and what exactly will happen if I don’t. I’m already awestruck and no small amount scared. But also thrilled to my marrow. 

Another impetus for this journey was exactly this. To immerse myself in the natural world. Our species, (I can say our, because if you’re reading this, you probably are a member of that party) lost our humility in the face of nature ages ago, back when we decided to throw over the nature gods of early myth in exchange for ones that looked like us. And we have grown more and more estranged as industry and technology have further elevated our perception of ourselves. I have swallowed a sickening sense of this year after year as I watch more and more of the natural world succumb to our hubris and excess. It has been a poisoning of the soul to see this everywhere I look. And this journey is designed to extract that poison, even if it means cutting some deep wounds to get to that toxin. For me this means humbling myself to the elements, wind, water, sun, earth.

The first night on the boat after we moved in I couldn’t sleep. Excitement, anticipation, wonder over reaching this state of living after so much time and effort. I lay awake in the stern cabin, with less than an inch of fiberglass between me and the Chesapeake, listening to the gentle water slap against the boat. Living in the waters of Earth, this is what I have needed.

I am awash in gratitude, relief and contentment.

Coming up in my next blog, a tour of the Maggie May.

Confluence 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. 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.

White-throated sparrow

Confluence Moon

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.

A juvenile beaver on the Anacostia River in Washington DC. Castor canadensis

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.’”

Forest in the headwaters of the Anacostia River.

 

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.

Waking 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. 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.

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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!

Just soil.

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.

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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.

Mayapple.

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.

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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.

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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?

Anacostia 3-30-17-0097At 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.

***

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.

Fire and Ice 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. 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.

 

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February: The fire and ice moon

An ashen cloud shrouds Kenilworth Park in cold, gray shadow this morning, casting an especially bleak pall on the asphalt moonscape that sprawls across the southern end the park. Winter wind strikes my face as I gaze westward across a field of pocked gravel and bare turf, toward the sliver of remnant forest that lines the river. The voice of a distant Carolina wren, perched across the river, rings out from the forested bluffs of the National Arboretum. His loud, sweet song lofts along the Anacostia, an optimistic note challenging the drear of the day. I take a few steps toward the little crooner then stop, gazing for one wistful moment in the direction of the quixotic bird. Would that I could go to the river and sit in quiet audience until he has tired of singing; that I could watch clouds dance to the tune of a jaunty north wind, capering along with the river as it rolls on ever toward the sea.

Instead, I force my feet to walk in the opposite direction, obligated by the singular reason I have come here on this particular morning. February 15. The anniversary of bedrock bottom for the battered soul of the Anacostia. What happened here 49 years ago today, the river will always remember.

I turn my eyes to a blank, recently plowed expanse of bare earth to the southeast, stretching 100 yards toward the mouth of the Watts Branch. This ocean of dirt, made heavy by the moist winter wind, and made tidy by machinery over the past week, cannot hide what lies beneath–the last immortal remains of the Kenilworth dump.

It will not be mourned.

For most, it is long forgotten.

Kenilworth Park is a National Park Service property within Anacostia Park.

Kenilworth Park, National Park Service land along the Anacostia River that served as the District of Columbia city dump from the 1940s to the 1970s.

But forgetting a hidden wound doesn’t heal it. No matter how deep we bury this place in the crypt of collective memory, it shadows us, a toxic emotional and ecological undercurrent of our river community, one of those deep hairline fissures set in motion when English settlers followed John Smith up the Potomac, bringing with them the seeds of the Anacostia’s destruction, quite literally.

Tobacco.

Introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers in the West Indies, tobacco had become a hallmark of social status with the ruling class, a superfluity whose sole purpose was to broadcast a personal dominion over the chains of fear and want.

Demand grew as renowned physicians began to lecture and publish articles about the health benefits of this new plant from the colonies—which, according to some was a medical cure-all; a solution to every manner of malady from headaches, constipation, snake bites, and joint pain, to “rottenness of the mouth” and “windiness.”

As news of its prowess spread, tobacco became the economic foundation of the struggling British colonies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. So central was this plant to colonial success, that setting a minimum price for the commodity was the first item on the agenda at the very first meeting of the first elected governing body in the North American colonies. That meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses took place at the Jamestown Church in 1619. That same year, the first 20 African slaves were sold in Jamestown.

Up until this time, British colonies had proved themselves hapless in both the growing of food crops and the building of relationships with native peoples. For the floundering colonies, tobacco offered a way out and a way up; a means of transferring wealth and power from Europe to the New World. Wealth would buy weapons for conquest and expansion, food for sustenance, and slaves to produce more tobacco and keep the cycle of wealth and power flowing. With a growing demand and natural scarcity of tobacco in Europe, sales were assured; and the production opportunity in the colonies was bounded only by the supply of labor and land, and a means of transport abroad. In the Anacostia, these bounds could be removed by slavery, suppression of the Nacotchtank, and the river.

Tobacco production in the Chesapeake colonies exploded in the 17thcentury, from 20,000 pounds in 1619, to 38 million pounds at the turn of the 18thcentury, just 80 years later. In the same span of time, the number of African slaves tending the tobacco economy grew from 20 to 700,000.

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Tobacco production in the Anacostia River watershed stripped the land of protective forests and led to silt pollution pouring into the river. Modern development and deforestation continues to add to this pollution. This site at Bladensburg was historically 40 feet deep and crystal clear.

By 1640, both Maryland and Virginia had made tobacco official legal tender–cash money. It’s really no wonder then, why forests were scraped clean off the land: they could be quickly transformed into money that literally sprouted from the ground. For 150 pounds of tobacco, a man might buy more land or a larder full of groceries; or he might purchase an English woman for a wife, or 5 years of the life of an indentured servant, or put a down-payment on the entire life of a slave–all of which would help the planter cut down more trees to grow more tobacco money to buy more land and people.

The tobacco economy that dominated the first centuries of European presence in the Chesapeake Bay watershed destroyed the natural ecology of the Anacostia and other sub-watersheds of the Bay. This once 40-foot deep site of the Anacostia River was polluted by silt runoff from clearcut land.

This tobacco cycle ripped like a cyclone over the Chesapeake Bay and into its sub-watersheds, including the Anacostia, leaving a waste of broken ecological and human communities in its wake. And like a cyclone, the ravaging of the tobacco economy could not be stopped until the forces that fueled it were spent: either demand for tobacco eased, or the supply chain was disrupted. Until then, the pursuit of tobacco riches would continue to scour the land and soil and soul of an embryonic nation, hardening the concrete of a European economic model in which wealth was defined by profits, land, and slaves.

How you define wealth, defines you in turn.

 

***

 

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.

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.