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!

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Some october sights on the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac

Into the Abyss, and other fun things

One of the hardest things about this journey—beyond the heat and cold, the financial stress, fear and self doubt, the trying to live in a confined space with another (albeit lovable) human being, the banging my head on the bulkhead every damn time I go to the aft cabin—has been the absence of a mission. I anticipated that Bill and I would both be challenged living a life without clear purpose—without trying to do something intensely meaningful every day. But I didn’t know or guess what it would feel like, or how long it would last, or how I would plan to get past it. 

It feels like this: a void. A hungry void. An airy abyss of emptiness where the idea of food, fullness or sustenance hasn’t any meaning. It feels like a tightness and a looseness at the same time. It disorients, like you are in the middle of a vast body of water with no clue as to where you are or why. Rudderless, Bill says.

Bill had worked for 20 years in the environment and sustainability profession. First he wrote stories about wildlife and wild lands for Defenders of Wildlife and National Parks Conservation Association magazines. Then he built green houses of various hues with a visionary architect, Bill Hutchins. Then he installed solar systems…and finally began a long stint crafting energy and building policy for the city of Washington DC. All his life was geared toward one goal: helping to lighten the footprint of humanity so that other creatures would stand a chance. I did the same in my way.

This gave our lives a rudder, strong and deep. But also heavy. We decided not to have children guided by this same rudder and reason, to lighten the footfalls of humans on this already overburdened planet. Most adult Homo sapiens get much of their meaning and purpose from their kids. We had our own work-rudder-kid, but we dropped it when we stepped onto this boat, just dropped it, on purpose. We know where it is. We can go back and pick it up one day perhaps. But it was becoming too heavy and our souls too tired to carry it. We had a new rudder, hard but light, aiming us toward a new goal to sail around the world. A squirrel, some shysters, and some real bad luck broke that rudder. We may one day repair it, but for the time being we are drifting in the void.

I have days when I feel the hunger as a vibration in my bones, like restless leg syndrome of the soul. Those days I sit on deck all day watching the water, listening to birds and leaves, reading about wind, stars, weather, and meditating on some good old fashioned Mary Oliver: And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire–clearly I’m not needed, yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value.

And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire–clearly I’m not needed, yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value.

Mary Oliver, The Buddha’s Last Instruction

This is one of those days. Today the wind approaches with obvious intent from the north, pushing the boat toward a forested shore within a deep cove in the St. Mary’s River, just off the Potomac, near the mouth. Bill sits beside me eating oatmeal while I practice my eagle call, hoping to approach the genius of John McCain’s 2008 rendition. (Sorry, this doesn’t actually sound like an eagle’s cry, but Bill does an imitation of McCain saying Ahmadinejad that sounds exactly like an eagle).

Crows fly out of the forest bluff as a dark cluster, a Gang of 8. Three of them break off and dive swiftly toward the water, then level off a hands-breadth above the sparkling surface. I can only presume they are wanting to feel the wind as it glances off the waves, pressing up against their bellies and shining, sun-warmed black wings. With little fetch the wind can only stir the water into low peaks, but they are insistent and serious as they march toward me, pass by without a glance, and continue ever on toward land. One after another, they take my every thought with them. Sparing only one. That as the juvenile bald eagle circles round and round on thermals that rise along the forest edge, he is engaging in something pointless, perfect, meaningless and a complete distillation of all the meaning the world has ever held: he is practicing his communion with all that is within, and all that is without. He is learning how to soar like only an eagle can.

A Chesapeake Summer

Summer on the Chesapeake Bay, in five lines:

Hot, humid, thunderstorm.

Bald eagle tries to steal fish from osprey. Osprey crying out indignantly, loses fish.

Great blue heron barks  at both of them, at no-one, at everyone and the general effrontery of the world.

Hot, humid, storm.

Jellyfish.

Great blue heron in the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the Chesapeake Bay.

In a few more lines

Several days ago, at anchor near the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, dusk was quietly descending when Bill said, “Is there bioluminescence in the Bay?”

There wasn’t as far as I knew, but I went up on deck to see what he was seeing. A pale orange reflection of the dusky sky lay upon otherwise dark water. We watched and waited and presently there appeared a blue light. Then quick as a heartbeat it was gone. I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined it. 

“Am I seeing things?” Bill said. 

If so we are having the same delusion, I thought. We kept on watching as dusk faded to dark.  There was another pulse of blue light, floating along the side of Maggie May, and another, and another. Disks of pale blue, about the size of my open hand, drifting along with the tidal current, turning on, turning off. Bill and I sat in rapt audience.

We were the only boat in sight near the wildlife refuge, where wetlands and coastal forest cover the land and protect the water community, offering a haven to bald eagles, herons, gulls and terns, little snakes, blue crabs, and apparently bioluminescent jellyfish. This was my guess, as I had read somewhere that some jellyfish could illuminate in this way. The lights seemed to move in the manner of a jelly, kind of haphazard, without any apparent intention other than as a silent passenger upon the prevailing current. Utterly without aspiration they seem, like a dimly lit shadow of some listless being, but also radiating a profound passive grace. And full of blue surprise.

Bill looked up “bioluminescence” and “Chesapeake Bay”, and sure enough, there are several forms these watery lights can take, from the bacteria that lights the water itself at certain times and in certain places, to jellyfish.

Osprey on an abandonner sailboat in Swan Creek.

Living on a boat in summer in the Chesapeake, one hopes for such gentle wonder to distract from the heat, flies, not nearly enough wind for sailing or far too much from frequent storms. And the pollution.

The Chesapeake has made great improvement in the past decades, thanks to efforts by thousands of individuals and organizations and regulations that are leading us toward the right track. But it is still a deeply wounded ecosystem, as is its sub watershed the Anacostia River, and for many of the same reasons. Reasons that date back to Captain John Smith, herald of environmental and cultural woe for the Bay 400 years past. 

When we decided to stay in the Chesapeake through hurricane season, I did some research into the healthiest waters of the bay, hoping to find someplace we could swim and cool off without worrying too much about one of us getting another skin infection, or worse. Such info is not easy to find. There are sites that list which beaches generally pass water quality tests that indicate the water is healthy enough to swim in. But even these waters after a rain and through much of the summer can carry dangerous bacteria and viruses. The ecology of the bay has been too deeply eroded over too long a period. 

I found a site created by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources that mapped the state’s “Tier 2” waters. This Orwellian term is the official designation for the 253 relatively healthy streams, many of which lie within the greater Chesapeake Bay watershed. Most of these are not on the bay itself, but up in the smaller creeks. By the time their waters reach the bay, they have mixed with the foul runoff from farms, roads, and cities with antiquated sewer and stormwater systems. As a rule, healthier waters are not accessible by a sailboat. Most are nestled in some swath of natural land that has escaped the fate of most of the Mid-Atlantic region: becoming a shopping mall, housing development, urban area, agricultural or industrial development, or sporting complex.

Fishing boat in the Chester River.

The reality is, for hundreds of years we have treated this precious estuary, the largest in North America, as a tool for transportation, commerce and human recreation. The Chesapeake’s intrinsic value and its essential value to thousands of other species has escaped us.

Maryland’s environmental department estimates that 20 percent of the land in Maryland can be classified as a Tier 2 Watershed. This is much more than I would have imagined. But one-quarter of that is in danger of development or other harm. And fully 80 percent does not qualify as healthy watershed. With the large majority of the state’s landmass considered to be unhealthy for its waters, we have a long way to go. Still, 50 years ago, a healthy bay wasn’t even much of a consideration. Today it is, and tomorrow it will be more so if history is any guide. There is reasonable hope that one day the heroic efforts of every riverkeeper, watershed organization, motivated public servant and responsible citizen, will lead us closer to the state of grace the Chesapeake existed in once upon a time.

 

The Eastern Neck, much of which is healthy forested land, is one of those rare places in Maryland that offer a vision of what was and could be again. On the passage to our anchorage we saw skates sailing through the water, blue crabs, schools of fish attended by hungry gulls and terns, and many jellyfish. ( Generally this last item is met with groans, as swimming with them is just slightly less desirable than splashing around in E. coli. But the light show off Eastern Neck has given us a new appreciation. ) And over the past month living on the Bay aboard Maggie May, we have encountered enough wild surprise to imagine how a resilient watershed could rebound if we humans could learn to love the land just a little more. 

As for Bill and I, we are currently in Rock Hall again, doing what I hope will be the last of the boat repairs for at least a little while. We are back at Haven Harbour Marina, which has truly been a haven for us through some emotional, financial and literal storms (this is where we weathered Tropical Storm Isiais.) Looks like we are back just in time. Hurricane Laura may be on its way to the Chesapeake.

 

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

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.

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.

 

Anacostia 1-2014-7930

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.

(c)KristaSchlyer Anacostia-11

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.

Border Angels vs Excavators

Like many South Texas mornings, yesterday’s dawn was sung into existence by Altamira orioles, great kiskadees and green jays, warblers and cardinals.  It’s hard to imagine any hurt could go unhealed in a world where the birds chorus at dawn. So it seemed for a brief eternity as I walked west through the northern edge of Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, along the Rio Grande levee.

(c)Krista_Schlyer-01645

Wild turkey at the site of the future border wall in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Mission, TX.

I stopped for a moment on a low bridge over an irrigation canal to watch the just-risen sun peeking out from behind restless clouds moving with some easterly haste. And it was then I felt it, I was being followed. You know the feeling. I get it often while traveling in the borderlands, usually because I’m actually being followed by border patrol. But this feeling was one of anticipation, not the frustration or mild rage that border patrol provokes in me. And when I looked down the canal, into the light morning mist, what I saw made my heart quiver–a troupe of ridiculous wild turkeys shuttling along the canal bank toward me. I crouched low on the bridge and waited as they approached in unhurried fashion, stopping briefly every few feet to inspect the grasses for food.

When they were less than 20 feet from me, one of the turkeys gave his wings a grand flourish, catching the morning sun for one perfect translucent moment. Angelic he was, a regular borderlands angel. And then the moment passed and the troupe walked up onto the levee and continued on its way.

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Wild turkeys on the Rio Grande levee, planned site of border wall construction.

And I returned to the reason why I had gotten up before dawn to walk down the levee. It was not to hear the orioles or greet the angels, that was just fortune’s mercy. No, this spot, where these turkeys are traveling through their habitat, their home, their source of sustaining food, water and shelter, this is where the border wall will soon be built.  And it could happen any day. (c)Krista_Schlyer-01005

I followed the turkey’s path along the levee west of Bentsen park to the La Parida tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. When I reached the refuge I found just what I had come to see, but hoped I’d never find: surveyor stakes lining the levee and an excavator parked next to the National Wildlife Refuge sign. Within days it is expected that this machinery will begin to tear down the trees where the orioles are building their beautiful nests and laying their eggs, and scrape the land where threatened Texas tortoises and Texas indigo snakes are resting and hunting, and pour 20 feet of concrete wall into the Rio Grande levee.

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Excavator on the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, South Texas.

As I was looking at the construction machinery a National Wildlife Refuge law enforcement truck approached and the officer told me to move along, that I was not supposed to be there. (I held my tongue and moved along, but I wondered to myself about his job description, which is supposed to entail protecting wildlife refuges from destruction.)

The money for this segment of border wall construction was approved by Congress in 2018. The day after the bill was signed Senator Chuck Schumer and then Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared that they had defeated Donald Trump and not included border wall in the budget. The national news media repeated their claims. And yet here I am, staring at the machinery that will raise a combined 30 feet of concrete and steel through this sanctuary of wild life.

This wildlife refuge, along with the Bentsen state park, the National Butterfly Center and hundreds of other tracts of public and private land, are part of a 30-year effort to try and save a vanishing ecosystem, one of the richest and rarest ecosystems in the United States–from utter destruction. The environmental stakes couldn’t be higher here. Two of North America’s major avian flyways funnel through the Rio Grande Valley, as do major migration pathways for monarchs and other butterfly species, and migration pathways for endangered cats. These migrants depend on the spare remnants of habitat that are left to them and that Valley residents, the federal government, and national environmental groups have been trying to save for decades. And now we are preparing to scrape this precious land to the bone and further fragment it with massive border walls.

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La Lomita Mission Chapel, Mission Texas

I went to a dawn vigil this morning at La Lomita Chapel, a historic church that is also in the path of the border wall. (The church has been fighting the federal government’s taking of the mission land through eminent domain.)

The priest saying the mass, Father Roy, spoke passionately about the wrong-headedness of the wall and about the foundational Christian teachings that demand an open heart and hand towards those who need your help. It was a stirring speech, but what reached me was not the affirmation of the core religious and humanist beliefs of generosity and love, but Father Roy’s caution that we not let anger over this impending desecration overcome us. We must maintain a core of peace and love, or be destroyed by rage against those who are most responsible for this.

As I have heard Van Jones say, ‘When it gets harder to love, love harder.”

But it is getting harder and harder with every dollar Congress gives to president Trump for border wall construction; with every denial by the Democratic party that they have done so; with every news story that parrots this Washington DC delusion; with every new piece of machinery that arrives at the border and every new surveyor stake that is planted in a land of living sanctuary.

It is getting harder and harder to love. And I’m not sure my border angel and his winged compatriots, who depend on this land for their very lives, think peace is the best option at this point.

Congress is working on another deal behind closed doors. They are discussing what to call the border barriers they are sure to fund if we keep the peace rather than making it very uncomfortable for them to fund more wall. Please call your senators and representative today. Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121
For more information about the history of the US-Mexico borderlands, visit: Embattled Borderlands. Or get my book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall. And look for Ay Mariposa, a new film coming out this spring.

 

Border Wall Construction Begins, again

89. Wildlife refuge staff Nancy Brown at a wall construction site.

2008 Border wall construction on the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I can still hear Americans cheering when Ronald Regan demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Today is also the 10th anniversary of a much lesser known historical event — the Borderlands RAVE. It was an expedition I organized with the International League of Conservation Photographers, focused on raising awareness of the beauty and biodiversity, value and vulnerability of the US-Mexico borderlands after the passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

There were 15 of us on that trip, some of the most committed photographers, scientists and filmmakers I’ve worked with. We traveled the border from San Diego to Brownsville from January 19 to February 19 of 2009. We documented some of the most exquisite beauty and rarest habitat in North America; stayed with border residents who opened their homes to us and shared their stories of love for their homeland on the border. We were detained by Border Patrol and by flat tires and desert sand. We slept under the endless desert sky.

Prairie dog family in northern Chihuahua Mexico.

Prairie dogs in the US-Mexico borderlands.

The last days of the trip were spent in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where less than 5 percent of native habitat remains and border wall construction had already begun to fell forests and scrape the land bare, leaving no secret passageways or gentle quarter for endangered ocelots and jaguarundis; setting the stage for massive flooding that would drown imperiled Texas tortoises in 2010; and diminishing an already nearly vanished refuge for birds and butterflies.

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When the trip ended we had gathered thousands of photographs, undeniable evidence of the importance of the borderlands and the threat that a wall posed to them. I believed then that if we just showed Congress our evidence, that this kind of destruction would end. In March of 2009, I created an exhibit of our team images and worked with Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Mennonite Central Committee and friends and family to install the exhibit in the House of Representatives. We had a reception and briefing, where many members of Congress came to speak of their opposition to wall. We did the same thing in the Senate in November 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And senators came to speak about their opposition to the wall. We had a newly-elected president who, when he was campaigning, had said:

The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand.”

But President Barack Obama had voted for the Secure Fence Act, and he would continue to build the border wall that George W. Bush had started.

Flash-forward 10 years: I left my home in Washington DC this morning and got on a flight to South Texas where border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley is starting up again. Donald Trump has become the fourth successive president, starting with Bill Clinton in the 1990s, to expand the US-Mexico border wall. Trump will, like the others, start on National Wildlife Refuge land, because it is easier to destroy the homes and futures of wildlife than to take land from Texans. Trump will also take private land, but he will start with the low-hanging fruit, public land, where he has already waived the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act and every other law that would impede construction. Congress gave the executive branch that power under the Real ID Act of 2005.

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Desert cottontail near border wall construction in 2008, San Pedro National Riparian Corridor, Arizona.

Tomorrow I will witness and document the destruction of forests where birds have begun to construct their nests and butterflies have laid their eggs; they will be torn down by machines funded by American taxpayers.

My first instinct is to end with something snide, like: Happy Anniversary.

But that would suggest it’s possible to simply shrug off this moment, and accept walls as an inevitable feature of the modern world, along with mass extinction of Earth’s biodiversity, climate chaos and nationalism. It isn’t and they aren’t.  So instead I’ll end by asking every person who reads this to make a phone call to their members of Congress, because one thing I’ve learned is that politicians don’t do things because they are right or wrong, they do them because their constituents demand it.

For more information about the history of the US-Mexico borderlands, visit: Embattled Borderlands. Or get my book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall. And look for Ay Mariposa, a new film coming out this spring.

 

Anacostia River Web Series Launches Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join the Anacostia River journey here.

 

River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia

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

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

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

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

Reviews of River of Redemption

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

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

 

RIVER OF REDEMPTION SYNOPSIS

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

A bald eagle on the Anacostia River, Washington DC.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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