THE BOAT LAB: Energy & the Sun All-mighty

Many early religions had the sun at the pinnacle of their pantheons. The reason for this becomes more apparent with every minute passed under the direct stare of the tropical sun.

This thought comes to me as we are cleaning Maggie May’s decks in the Dominican Republic. The yellow face is pressing down upon my cranium with its orange-hot thumb, causing my knees to buckle in supplication. After a mere 20 minutes my thoughts grow hazy and my skin begins to sting, I scramble for shade and crouch low, shaking my feeble fist at the yellow face. Just leave me be! Por favor.

It’s not just me. The most important person on earth, the most powerful, the most beautiful, graceful, the strongest will bend and weep in the face of the unrelenting sun, this central cog in the nature machine, which gives and takes everything we have, right down to our very own bodies. You would think we humans would have more humility in the face of this blinding force, but that is not our way.

I myself never gave much thought to the sun before this voyage. Sure, I luxuriated in the warmth of a sunny spring day after the enduring chill of a frigid winter. I strategized about where to plant my tomatoes so they would have the most sunlight. I schmeared on sunscreen for protection. But I didn’t really think much about the sun as a power responsible for, well, my whole world. I now think on it every day as my life has become much more obviously wound up in the cycles of the sun.

From the sun comes everything. The golden fruit of a mango, the wind in our sails, sunburn and heat exhaustion, the tides to some extent, hurricanes, cabbage, the shifting patterns of rain, drought, dehydration, warmth. Coffee.

I am pouring myself some just now. I heated the water for it by plugging into our boat electrical system, a bank of Firefly batteries connected by wires to 5 solar panels which are at this very moment collecting solar energy like leaves on a tree from the Sun Almighty.

These leaves power the fan that is blowing on me, the rice I’ll have for lunch, the batteries in my camera, the blender for making Bill’s signature banana coladas, the lights, the automatic pilot, the VHF, the freshwater pump, the emergency bilge pump, the electronic charts, all of it, everything electrical that we have used for a year and a half has been powered almost entirely by solar energy, with some assist from the wind— though in reality that is also solar power since the sun makes the wind.

THE ENERGY PLAN

Still life with LED light, fan, Krista’s raggedy homemade port cover, and Bill’s special pillow.

Several years before we moved onto the boat, Bill began devising an energy strategy that would allow us to be as free from fossil fuel use as we possibly could be. We’ve had some challenges over the course of this sailing dream, things that in our lowest moments we have grieved as personal failures (or at times a cruel joke of Poseidon), but we’ve also had successes beyond expectation. In the arena of energy independence, I don’t think even Bill anticipated how successful we would be.

The first step of the strategy was to build in efficiency and conservation everywhere, to minimize energy needs before even thinking about how to meet that need. Often in energy policy this comes as an afterthought, we think first of securing enough energy for the current need, rather than reducing energy demand through efficiency and conservation so we don’t need to supply so much. (If you’ve already secured the energy for current need, why conserve? Aside from some pesky distant future worry like climate change, which Homo sapiens can’t get their heads around enough to afford it the deadly seriousness it deserves.)

On the Maggie May the first practical step we took was to get rid of the air conditioning and the generator that came on the boat. This wasn’t too hard a decision as neither of them worked properly, but we could have chosen to repair them or replace them. This would have meant carrying more fuel on board and using fossil fuels to keep ourselves cool in a world that is warming due to excessive use of fossil fuels. We decided we could do without it and simplify the boat and our lives, while learning to live the way most of the world’s humans, and all of its non-human animals, live.

Bill also took the important step of changing out every light bulb on the boat, most of which were either incandescent or halogen, and replacing them with more energy efficient LED lights. There are a lot of lights on a boat, even small boats like ours with only a few hundred square feet of living space. We needed about 35 new light bulbs. Some of these lights are linked to safety and survival, and they run from bow to stern and up to the top of our 50-foot mast. Having long-lasting, low energy lights not only significantly cut our electrical demand (the demand from lighting is now about a fifth of what it was), it increased safety by increasing brightness of navigation lights and decreasing the number of times we’d need to climb the mast to replace bulbs.

Bill getting winched up the backstay to do some maintenance.

The lack of air conditioning would obviously mean much warmer temperatures on the boat. Bill bought foil-faced recycled denim insulation to insulate every nook and cranny he could find on the SV Maggie May. The insulation reflects radiant heat and cools the boat, so we are slightly more comfortable on the hottest days (currently that is every day) but more importantly we require less energy to run our fridge—the biggest energy hog on the boat—and have less need for fans to keep ourselves coolish. I also made some raggedy white shades for our boat hatches and ports which helps keep the temperature inside the boat down and wards off pirates who think our boat looks too trashy to be worth their time.

We minimized electronics as much as possible. We’ve seen boats out here with washers and dryers, big screen TVs, huge freezers and everything else you can imagine to make life on the water exactly like a life of comfort on land. But it all requires energy and there is only so much space on a boat for solar and wind. So many people have generators or use their diesel engines frequently to charge their batteries.

When we had tightened our energy consumption belts as much as possible, we bought five solar panels and a Rutland wind generator. Bill had calculated that the solar panels, with a 428 watt total output, would meet most of our needs and that the wind generator — capable of 500 watts —would serve as a backup on cloudy, windy days.

At the same time Bill upgraded the electrical system and, as a back-up for the back-up of the wind generator, added a new more powerful alternator on our Yanmar diesel inboard (more on this diesel engine in a bit). The alternator can be used to charge the battery bank when the diesel engine is running. The new alternator would have the ability to charge the batteries faster, thus requiring less diesel fuel.

But everything depended on the battery bank. Our lead acid batteries that came on the boat when we bought her were struggling to hold a charge. They were essentially old-school car batteries. If we were going to gain some distance from fossil fuels, we needed better batteries. Bill researched our options and we considered whether to replace the batteries with the same kind of cheap battery, to buy new expensive lithium ion batteries, or go the middle ground with some type of absorbed glass mat (AGM) battery. Bill found a relatively new kind of AGM battery called Firefly that uses carbon foam in its internal structure. They function somewhat like a lithium ion battery in terms of capacity, but the price is closer to the standard AGM. Being a new and somewhat untested technology, the choice of Firefly batteries was a bit of a risk, but they have performed very well for us over the past year and a half.

When we bought our 30-year-old boat 8 years ago, she came with a gasoline outboard for her dinghy, which of course died shortly before we were about to leave on this voyage. We decided to replace it with an Electric Paddle, a light electric engine I can carry in one hand. This has its downsides (see below) but the greatest upside was that we would not need to bring any gasoline on board the boat.

Even when in a marina we generally don’t plug into the electrical system, unless we need to do some battery maintenance.

ENERGY STRATEGY RESULTS

For 18 months we have lived on sun power. Once or twice we have been under extended cloudy skies and the wind generator has stepped in to save the the day. But we have never once needed to start the diesel engine to charge the batteries. The solar panels have kept up with our needs even on partly cloudy days. The feeling this engenders for me is a sort of weightlessness, I am unburdened of the undercurrent of guilt I feel on a daily basis at home, where most of our energy comes from the dirty electric grid. We purchase through a wind power supplier, but it is industrial wind. (I feel better about wind than coal, but it is still infrastructure and it disrupts and degrades the land and poses dangers for wildlife.) We could put solar panels on our house, but it would require cutting down a large walnut tree that provides shade for the house and almost everything for a suite of animals who live in it.

On the boat it’s simple: we collect sun energy as though foraging for mushrooms or collecting rainwater.

There are two caveats. The Yanmar diesel inboard engine on Maggie May, and the propane stove.

Budget is always a factor. Had we unlimited resources we could have transitioned to an electric engine. But that was not a viable option. The cost of replacement would have been at least $20,000. We didn’t have it. But we are primarily a wind and sail driven vessel. And we use our engine as little as possible, to get in and out of marinas and tight anchorages, and to get to our destinations safely when the wind shifts or dies. It is primarily a safety device rather than a means of propulsion. We buy on average about 40 gallons of fuel every 4 months and that may decrease once we start heading a better angle on the trade winds (ie, south or west; going east can require some motor sailing because the angle on the wind is at times not conducive to safely making our destination).

To minimize our use of propane we bought small electric appliances that could run off of our battery bank, including a cute two-cup rice cooker and a small super-efficient hot water pot. Many days we get by with just these appliances which keeps our fossil fuel use down and keeps the heat from cooking at a minimum. We refill a small propane tank about once every six months.

Wind generator pulling its weight on a rainy day.

Lessons and Challenges

Choosing not to have air conditioning was no great loss. But one thing has made it much harder, the fact that humans have polluted most of our waters. Cooling off would be as simple and enjoyable as jumping in the water. But the majority of the past year and a half we have been traveling through unhealthy waters–along much of the United States East Coast and most of the Dominican Republic—essentially everywhere except the Bahamas. The fact of this state of affairs is nothing short of tragic. But we stay cool by finding trees to sit under during the hottest part of the day, pouring cups of drinking water on our heads, creating boat shade however we can, keeping our daytime activity levels low and cooking only at night. Not having AC also means we have to be more vigilant about mold growth without the dehumidifying effect of climate control. We spray down the boat often with vinegar+water+tea tree oil.

We are both very glad we opted not to have a generator. The comforts and luxuries afforded by these machines are those we can do without, along with the noise, smell and carbon footprint of a generator. The one thing we miss is the ability to fill scuba tanks, and we may want to remedy this at some point.

When thunder booms and an Electric Paddle feels especially slow.

Our electric dinghy engine is quiet, doesn’t smell of fuel or pollute the water, requires no maintenance and is super light and easy to get on and off the boat. It is slow, but this to me is a benefit as we are more likely to see wildlife and notice cool things that are happening around us. There are situations where speed can be helpful, say when you are chased by a thunderstorm. But this happens rarely if we are being careful. The other drawback for us is the distance our motor can go, only about 5 miles and that is only at half speed. Other electric motors have a bigger battery capacity, but they also are heavier and bulkier. Trade offs.

The solar has performed so well, and we minimized our energy needs so well, that Bill is often heard mourning the purchase of the wind generator and the new alternator. To which I say, “You never know, they may save our lives one day.” But it may also turn out that they were a huge waste of embodied carbon and money.

Which brings me to embodied carbon.

I was not going to put this blog out there without some discussion of embodied energy consumption. My partner is Bill Updike after all. This is a phrase I would not be aware of if not for him. Every single thing we buy new or construct has a cost in embodied energy and carbon. The energy required to mine the raw materials, the energy required to fabricate and transport the materials to be sold. Every item of clothing, bite of food, tool, pillow, cup of coffee, battery, engine, road, wall, bridge. We rarely count these costs when making policy decisions or governing our own lives. But choosing not to buy or construct is the greatest rebellion against our dark role in the breakdown of global biodiversity and our climate system.

Me and Dingy on an exploration in Los Haitises National Park, Dominican Republic.

In our lives and on the boat we try not to buy, or we buy local or used as much as possible. We didn’t buy a new dinghy, even though ours is 20+ years old and falling apart (and we have named it Dingy), because if we can make it through the trip without buying one, Dingy will have a longer, more fulfilled life and the world will have a little bit less toxic vinyl to have to contend with. But we did buy an inflatable kayak so we could have some independence of each other (this is a serious safety factor) and a backup for Dingy. It may turn out we didn’t need the wind generator and the new alternator. There is embodied carbon in our emergency life raft and we may, (hopefully), never need it. But we may. There are always these choices and while we have tried to make the best choices we could by conserving and building in efficiencies, and installing solar and wind power, I know we will find places where we have not made the best decisions.

But the best decision can at times be unclear or just out of reach. So at best we reach for the decision that is informed by facts and leans toward a healthier world for everything under the Sun Almighty.

THE BOAT LAB: Crash Diet for Freeeedom

Aside from a long-term vegetarian diet I generally have eschewed dieting. Physical expectations for women in my culture are toxic, and also, I’m just not a very regimented person by nature. But since we moved onto a boat the idea of dieting has gained appeal. I’m talking bout a regimen. A conscious approach to what I consume, where it comes from and what the implications are for the microcosm of me and Bill and Maggie May, and perhaps more importantly for the places we visit and the world at large.

SV Maggie May during a three week stay in the Exuma Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas.

One of the most interesting things about boat life is the degree to which we can be self-sufficient, storing or producing everything we need to live for more than a month at a time. This requires a level of effort and a degree of consciousness not demanded by life back in Mount Rainier, Maryland—where garbage is set on the curb to disappear and never be heard from again; sewage goes out of body, down a drain and out of mind; endless water is in the tap; endless energy is wired into the house; heat extremes are as easy to deal with as stepping into and out of the house; food is a block away at the Glut food coop; and doctor, dentist, therapist are a metro ride or walk away. What a comfortable, easy life! At home I could choose to be conscientious and recycle, compost, buy wind power, or really conscientious and reuse or reduce my household waste, energy and water. But I could also not do that and everything would run just as smoothly from my comfortable vantage point in my home (though of course not for the planet).

Why buying local produce carries the smallest carbon footprint.

On the boat, the system of unseen services a land community (in a privileged wealthy nation) provides is largely absent. Our comfort and even perhaps survival depend on us managing resources wisely, figuring out how we will have enough food, water, energy; what we will do with our waste; how we will cope with medical crises and mechanical or structural failures on the boat. If we act without forethought, we will feel a cost. In this way, natural scarcity is imposed upon us in a way that I personally have never felt before. This challenge, these costs, this consciousness, is the bargain we make for our wandering lifestyle.

One of the places we’ve been able to visit for long periods, Los Haitises National Park in the Dominican Republic.

In exchange for a certain thoughtfulness about how we use space, water, food and energy, and money, we are granted an unlimited access to something so precious, so rare, so lacking in our lives before this–time. A richness of time I have never before experienced, (except maybe as a child, but then everyone is always bossing you around).

We also have a type of freedom deeper and broader than any expanse I have ever felt. There is no such thing as total freedom. Life without the imposition of constraint is a mythology. We are animals and we must eat and hydrate and find shelter. But within these inescapable confines there exists a profound space to be encountered. The closest parallel for me would be a long backpacking trip. But even then you are constrained by what you can carry on your back and whether there is fresh water at hand. What we can carry on Maggie May’s back allows for exploration of weeks at a time in the stillness of the wild, away from the endless noise and haste of an engine driven world. If we are wise and abide the laws of natural scarcity.

Freedom and time.

We fill our bounty of time with various wonderful and tiresome and terrifying and edifying things, one of which is mindfulness about topics I just didn’t have time, or maybe energy, for before. Often these thoughts turn to the laboratory of sustainability that a closed system like a boat can be. Which brings me back to diets.

Before we started this trip, years before, Bill and I began turning our minds to the challenges of scarcity and how we would greet them on the boat. Because his background was energy policy and green building, Bill was in a good position to set us up on the energy front. I took on the problem of waste, particularly trash and plastics. We both thought about water scarcity, Bill wrangled the sewage question, I managed food scarcity. We created plans for dealing with each of these challenges in new ways (for us, in our lives) and all of these solutions have in some way required an adherence to diets, regimens.

A visit to a landfill in the Bahamas was hearty inspiration for our low-waste boat regimen.

Challenge inspires innovation. Necessity is the mother of invention. This truth is the universal fuel of evolution, the bold and unmerciful hand that shapes all creation. It is also one of the most important tools of social evolution, the tried and tested philosophy behind things like bag fees, stormwater fees, and carbon taxes. Putting a cost on something forces recognition of a value that is being squandered, like clean rivers, a healthy climate system, clean air.

On the policy level, taxes that place a value on resources we tend to abuse are meant to prompt us to think about how we are using those resources and to spark innovative ways to conserve them. And they work, when governments are courageous enough to use them and communities are wise enough to embrace them. Imposed costs spur creative solutions, much like fire forces adaptation in plants and animals. 10 cents for a plastic bag doesn’t seem like a forest fire, certainly a lot less painful, but in a matter of a few years this small fee cleared the Anacostia River of most of its plastic bags and raised important funds for river restoration in Washington DC.

An imposed cost on plastic bags has almost eliminated one of the most persistent forms of pollution plaguing the Anacostia River in Washington DC.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need to impose costs because we would all be aware of the intrinsic cost of all resource use and we would voluntarily choose to conserve. That is not the world we live in. Not yet. At this stage of our evolution when something is free and seemingly endless, we as a species squander it. Putting a price on carbon and plastics and pollution, things we all want us to generate less of, causes people make different choices in response to these valuations. A person could choose to reuse their plastics or reduce their purchasing of items with single use plastic. Under a carbon tax they might decide to drive less and bus or bike more. Or buy an electric vehicle instead of one that requires gasoline. They may ultimately decide that having fewer kids is a smart answer, since everyone’s consumption and carbon footprint is multiplied by the number of kids and grandkids they have. But the large majority of people will not think about these things until society places them squarely in front of their eyes and says: act responsibly, or pay accordingly so we can fix the damage that you do. For the common good.

For us aboard the microcosm of Maggie May, the danger of not conserving is very real and present. In addition to the costs to the global ecosystem, we feel immediate impacts to our boat wide common good in loss of self-sufficiency, loss of freedom when our trips must be cut short for lack of water or food, or trash overflowing, or no energy to run critical boat functions like navigation lights and emergency communications. Or, if we are on a long ocean passage the cost may be our health or our lives if unforseen weather extends the trip and we have not conserved wisely.

Solar panels working hard in the intense sun of the Bahamas.

Over a series of blogs within the Maggie May blog, The Boat Lab blog, I’m going to share some of the things we’ve learned while addressing the various challenges of self-sufficiency and conservation, including energy/carbon, trash, human waste, food and water. Each of these will be handled separately, though they are all interconnected.

The blogs will address some interesting questions: Just how far off the grid have we been able get? How might we do better? Are there things we know we could improve on, but well, we just love potato chips and peanut butter and so we are going to allow ourselves some guilty pleasures? Just how many types of biological life can infest a composting toilet and which ones are the least desirable companions on a boat? And how might this all translate to our lives back home?

So much learning.

I won’t be saying anything Ben Franklin didn’t say or get credited with saying, so if you don’t have time to read the blogs, here they are in short Franklinian phrasing:

He that would live in peace & at ease, Must not speak all he knows or judge all he sees.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

When the well is dry they know the worth of water.

If you desire many things, many things will seem few.

No gains without pains.

A stitch in time saves nine.

Hunger is the best pickle.

Luperon, DR

Here’s a strange thought. SV Maggie May arrived in Luperon on the north coast of the Dominican Republic on May 17. Our almost three-month stay here constitutes the longest time either Bill or I have lived anywhere other than the Washington DC metro area since 1998.

A strange thought. Especially considering this is not a place we meant to come. 

We came to the Dominican Republic because the trade winds had worn us down. Because a pandemic had created too many obstacles, and worn us down. Because transitioning to a life on fluid ground exacted and extracted so much more of us than we had imagined it would. Because the hurricane season was looming and we needed a hidey hole.

But in Luperon, quite unexpectedly we found rest, safety, time to learn, heal, acclimate, explore.

In a week or so, when the moon begins to wax gibbous, we will begin looking for a weather window to make our next passage.

This passage will not be easy. We are heading to Samana Bay, also in the DR, where we hope to wait out the rest of the hurricane season. This requires a trip of about 100 miles due east before we round the northeastern edge of Hispaniola. A hundred miles is not a long distance. But 100 miles in a boat whose max speed is 7.5 knots, directly against 15-20 knots of trade winds, which accelerate to 25-30 knots along this mountainous coast, is an infinity of hard time stuffed into a compactor and spit out as about 24 hours of shallow-breath, white-knuckle sailing. The consistency of the trade winds is a wondrous thing, a thing that has shaped the course of natural history and within it, the small but weighty mass of human history. These winds have been the delight of sailors for thousands of years. They have also been the bane of sailors who try to oppose them for just as long. 

Luckily, there are islands and weather systems that disrupt the trades at times and these disruptions constitute narrow windows for making passage. And there are sailors who have studied how this works and passed their knowledge forward so that newbies like us can get east when prevailing wind patterns are dead set against it. I’ll go into the strategy in a future blog. It is enough to say that Bill and I will be better prepared for this next leg of the adventure than we have been for any passage since we began in May 2020. And we are excited to face the challenge ahead. That is saying a lot given how we felt when we limped into Luperon back in May.

So much life has happened here, and I have focused on living it, rather than writing about the experience of living it. I want to share some of what we have seen here, but there is too much to recount so I’m going to make this a photo blog. Hopefully each thousand-word photo will convey something important about our life in the Dominican Republic.

SCUBA! For the first time on this SV Maggie May voyage, which was supposed to be all about diving, we were able to scuba dive. We saw seahorses, rays, eels, so many fishes, turtles and superbly strange sea creatures. We saw coral reefs, thriving, dying and dead.

We got to spend time relaxing, learning about and enjoying Punta Cana with our friends Gabby and Rick.

Sometimes, perhaps even often, the thing unsought is the thing you need, an offering of time and space to stash away as an immortal treasure, ever impactful even if only rarely remembered. Such was our unplanned arrival in the Dominican Republic. And who knows what comes next.

Destination Unknown

One year ago today Bill and I woke at dawn in Town Point Marina in Deale, Maryland. As usual the swallows and osprey had beaten the sun awake, and they chattered and fretted as we prepared the boat for its biggest day, the day we would cast off lines from our home port.

Within the hour, as we prepped SV Maggie May and ourselves for departure, some of our friends arrived to bid us fair winds and safe return. We were all wearing masks and keeping our distance, but the connection to these beloved people transcended space and time from that day to this. I can still see them waving goodbye from the docks, two of our friends following us out in their canoe until we passed the jetty into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Beering Committee Chairperson Margaret Boozer-Strother (bottom) and Margaret, Valerie Theberge and Anne L’Ecuyer on the docks at our departure. (Top)

That day I felt only exhilaration. A day we had worked toward for ten+ years, with many stumbles and falls along the way, was finally here. The biggest dream of my life was happening: to sail around the world.

I look back on that day now and think: how was there no apprehension or anxiety or fear in my heart that day? I know the answer. Because I was confused about our destination. I thought “around the world” was our destination. No.

We were not headed to “around the world”. We were headed to the unknown. And we have been spectacularly successful at finding it. This is the great beauty of the unknown. It can be terrifying, but it is very easy to find. And every day you are there, you become changed by it. For Bill and I, any romantic notions we had about ourselves as intrepid explorers have been dashed. We are cowering soft creatures quavering in the power of a world so much more awesome than our minds can even conceive. We have learned to head out on an ocean passage as well prepared as we can possibly be, knowing that it will not be enough if the capriciousness of the ocean and sky do not bend in our favor. When it’s time to pull up anchor and raise the sails we breathe deeply, swallow as much of our fear as we can hold and let the rest ride the wind around the boat.

45-foot blue in the Bahamas.

And in this way we have seen a palette of colored waters defined by the brilliance of the sun and the profundity of the sea. Colors that have made us cry out and catalogue our favorites by depth, and sit and just…stare…agape. We have been able to see some of the smallest creatures under the surface of the sea, some who have never been seen by another human eye and never will and yet their lives must delight the sun and moon and water beyond any of the billions of humans that strut around upon the land as if proprietors of all.

I have learned how to steer a vessel by wind and stars. Not as a true mariner. At this point I would probably end up in Antarctica if I relied solely on my celestial navigation. But I can keep a course this way and am learning more every day.

We have seen every single sunset for 365 days running.

We have also met with grief in all its guises, ever waiting in the unknown.

Today we find ourselves in a country we never meant to visit, planning to stay for longer than we meant to be anywhere. And it is perfect. We spent the past week with a friend, Eladio Fernandez, from the Dominican Republic. But not just any friend, one who knows the animals and plants and people of this island, who is tireless in his efforts to understand and protect the natural world, and who is generous enough to share this with us. We followed Eladio for days as he checked on orchid populations along roadsides and in federal protected areas of the northern dry forests and mountain foothills. Wild orchids sprouting from trees and the earth, painting a masterpiece of beauty solely for the eyes of the animals who pollinate them. Pollinator and orchid have lived in dynamic relationship for eons, each one prodding the other to become what it must in this world. Both molded and goaded by the gods of all things, sun energy and time.

Eladio in paradise.

This long stay in the Dominican Republic offers me a chance to fulfill or at least make progress on a dream of my life, to learn Spanish. I have scrabbled by with rudimentary Spanish for a decade of working on the US-Mexico borderlands, always wanting to improve but being so single-minded with my efforts to fight border wall that I didn’t think I could spare the time to really learn the language. Now I have that time.

Our watery route to the unknown.

I have begun to see this voyage not as a single dream of sailing around the world, but as a journey of a thousand dreams. To search for orchids and anoles in the Dominican Republic, to drink from a mountain stream, to swim with sharks and spend time with seahorses, to learn the ukulele and Spanish and sailing and celestial navigation, to spend time just enjoying and experimenting with photography and writing, to become the kind of friend I would like to be to all those I love, and the partner I would wish for Bill.

Captain Updike reading about creating a sustainable economic system, while sitting in the mountains of the Dominican Republic.

And maybe above all, to face a journey into the unknown with courage and inquisitiveness and an open heart for whatever may come.

The Grace of Sharks

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.

We saw this young turtle another time, on a dinghy ride in Hawksbill Cay.

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.

Nurse sharks at Staniel Cay, Exumas

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.

Bill at the beginning of a four hour hike that turned into an 8 hour hike. A gorgeous trek over Warderick Wells where we saw endangered hutia, narrowly managed to avoid getting a poisonwood rash and learned that the word “trail” has a different meaning 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.

A Very Pungo Thanksgiving

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.

Important reminders posted in the head.

I’m so grateful to all of you who have supported this journey. My thoughts are with you today and always.

Donuts in the Desert

ST. MARY’S RIVER, 11-5-2020 — Yesterday afternoon we sailed up the St. Mary’s River on a light wind from the southeast. This river, which we have returned to several times over the past months, runs southward from its headwaters to its mouth at the lower stretches of the Potomac. Along the way it twists and turns making for good Maggie May protection from any weather surprises. (As well as some great birding and one of the best bakeries I have ever been to. (ENSO mmmmmm))

Golden-crowned kinglet in St. Mary’s River

The gentle winds of yesterday allowed us to sail into anchor, rather than switching the motor on. Bill handled the helm, steering us into the watery nook where St. Mary’s College is located, nosing Maggie May into the wind, dropping her mainsail, and waiting for the wind to settle the boat’s forward motion. Then, my turn, I dropped the readied anchor. There is such a poetry to floating into anchor, rather than grinding to a halt with the engine. We can’t always do it, but it always feels good. 

After checking the anchor and tidying up the boat, I set to trying to capture on video a wondrous event that had, I suspect, happened when we were cowered inside the boat during the frigid gale of a few days past. Some thousands of spider balloons had become entangled in our rigging and now flowed like streamers of pure light from every vertical surface. Their spiders were showing up here and there, but most were utterly unseen, or perhaps had perished in the violent cold.

Spider balloons streaming from the shrouds.

I became caught up in the life of these spiders for quite some time. At one point I said to Bill, “It’s crazy. I only learned about spider ballooning a few years ago (from Charle’s Darwin’s journal “Voyage of the Beagle”) and now I see them all the time. But my whole life they must have been streaming past me, only my eyes never knew enough to see them.”

There is so very much my eyes don’t know.

Bill and I sat down to some beers and sunset watching, then Bill went downstairs to make dinner. He had recently gathered the ingredients to make his favorite soup, Tofu Kimchi Soup, and was setting to it.

I drank my beer and thought about spiders, elections, and bird migrations. I felt calmed by the sail and the spiders and the loons, surf scoters and mergansers we had seen on the water. But the night was about to take an exciting turn.

“I’m 100% Clean!”

Krista Schlyer

“I’m 100% Clean!”

Such was my declaration to Bill after dinner. He jolted a little. I must have startled him out of some thoughts he was lost in. But the moment called for it. I had just brushed my teeth. As a rule, I don’t consider the brushing of teeth to qualify me for such a strong statement of personal hygiene but this time it followed a bigger deal that had transgressed an hour earlier: I took a shower. 

When life is whittled down to the bare elements: heat, food, personal safety, water and health, each comfort that goes beyond this becomes like a gentle rain of donuts from the sky, or a waterfall of donuts in the desert, or something else where donuts are involved. 

Such profound personal and bodily delight from the simplest of things: a hot shower.

It was hot because on the passage from Lower Machadoc Creek on the Virginia side of the Potomac to the St. Mary’s River, on the Maryland side, we had very little wind and it was coming from the wrong direction. (Note: Wrong for us, not wrong in the metaphysical sense.) So for a portion of the trip we had to have the engine on. Thanks to a heat exchanger, our diesel engine quickly heats a tank of very nice hot water.

A hot shower these days does not mean what it used to mean when I lived in a house. Does not mean 10 minutes of luxuriating in a constant stream of heated water, stretching out wherever needed, all soaps, washcloths, shampoos, conditioners, a little combing of my hair, a little humming here and there, perhaps a facial scrub. No. A shower on the boat means a half gallon jug poured in strategic places while sitting naked in the cockpit (unfortunate term in this context), or dinghy, or in the very tiny head where there is barely enough room to stand up and none to stretch an arm or leg in any direction. 

Gratuitous fog photo

Last night, feeling the need for a little extra comfort and cleansing, I showered in the head and used the sink shower-head, which pulls out nicely on a hose. I had to stop and start the water over and over to limit myself to a gallon of water–still an egregious use of water by Maggie May standards. 

We have a 110 gallon freshwater tank. We are never more than a day’s sail from refilling the tank at this point, but because we are trying to test out living independently, in case we get to do some long ocean sails or tarry in some remote island chains, we are trying to limit ourselves to 4 gallons a day, TOTAL. One gallon each for drinking, one gallon for cooking and cleaning, and one gallon for miscellaneous uses. ( The average American uses 88 gallons of water per day according to US EPA. In our land-life Bill and I had gotten our daily consumption down to 20 gallons, with much effort.) 

So taking a shower that uses 1/4 of our daily water is outrageous. OUTRAAAAYYYGEOUS. Given the events of the past few days, I felt I needed it. 

And, given that it had been five days since my previous cleaning, Bill was not complaining. 

I blame the long dirty stretch on the divine Zephyrus, god of the west wind. For much of the past five days, 30-50 knot winds from the upper latitudes chilled the region, dropping temperatures inside the boat to 40-55 degrees. This is not showering weather. Thankfully Zephyrus has exhausted itself for the time being and Maggie May’s belly is now ranging from 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit. I call that showertime in the days of plenty.

Self-certified 100% clean, last night I lay down with my sleeping bag, refreshed the election results page, and breathed in some fresh air. Feeling clean, content, and ready to face whatever comes next. 

Support this journey and blog

My plan was always to do a free blog to share the journeys of Maggie May and any cool, interesting and important things we might find along the way. Even with all the setbacks we’ve had, I want this to be a free blog. But if you are enjoying the story, and have some funds to support this journey and ongoing storytelling, the funds will help us continue on this path. Thanks!

10.00 $

Some october sights on the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac

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:

(c)Krista_Schlyer_-04872
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. 

(c)Krista_Schlyer_-05380

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.

(c)Krista_Schlyer_-05495

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. 

(c)Krista_Schlyer_-05536

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. 

 

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.

untitled-3769

 

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.

untitled-3937

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.

Anacostia 3-15-17-3061

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.

untitled-9902

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.