Thieves in the Night

Had the Atlantic trade winds been westerly, we would be living in a very different world. These relentless winds blowing ever from the east facilitated the conquest and colonization of the Western Hemisphere; they made and unmade kings.

And they make beggars of all who choose to sail against them. We become thieves in the night.

It was a moonless night when we stole away from Luperon. Despite our best intentions. Our plan had been to find a window of time under a gibbous moon when the trade winds were disrupted by an intervening weather feature—a trough, a stalled front, a tropical cyclone that had already passed us by. But this did not come to pass.

As the third-quarter moon began to wane, we had decided to settle back in and wait until the September moon began to wax toward full. But then chance brought us something we’d never hoped for: a solid 3-day forecast of 5 knot winds for most of the Southwest North Atlantic. 5 knots! This might turn into 10 knots along the north coast of Hispaniola, and if so, we could sail by day and motor-sail (hybrid of sailing-motoring) through the night. It was too good to be true, we had to take it.

For months, Bill and I had sketched out our departure from Luperon on the Dominican Republic’s north coast. If we had been headed west or north, we could have planned our next sail over a few days time. But sailing east to Samana Bay meant that we would either be zigzagging for 40+ hours, clawing our way against 25-30 knot East winds and their associated wave patterns; or we would be motoring and motor-sailing at night with almost no wind, and hiding out during the daylight hours—when the trade winds gang up with sea breezes and coastal acceleration to create one of the thorniest passages along the Thorny Path from the Bahamas to the Lesser Antilles. Bill and I calculated that over the first year of our adventure we sailed against the wind about 90 percent of the time. It was hard on the boat, hard on us. And there was really no end in sight until we reached the Virgin Islands and could turn southward.

We opted for the light-wind night passage. Upon our arrival in the Dominican Republic, we purchased the bible for this route, The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward, by Bruce Van Sant. Van Sant spent 20 years sailing the route between Florida and the north coast of South America, via the eastern Caribbean. Over that time he became one of the crustiest salts in the sailing world, a fellow who hates “No Smoking” and “No Fishing” signs almost as much as he dislikes sailing to windward. He is also likely the most knowledgeable person out there about how to safely sneak east against the trade winds.

The Gentleman’s Guide has a title that sounds like it was published in the 1950s, rather than 2012, but still, when the derivation is explained by Van Sant, it strikes me as jolly good fun,( despite the years of jolly annoyance I’ve had over sexism in the sailing world). There was an old sailing adage, something to the effect of, “A gentleman never sails to windward.” Thus a gentleman would never voyage from the United States East Coast to the Caribbean, because it cannot be done without doing some of the least gentlemanly sailing in the world. Sailing to windward is a sometimes brutal sport, sailing off the wind is a genteel pastime.

I myself, prefer genteel pastimes and while I enjoy an hour or two of beating into the wind, I am apparently a bit of a gentleman. So I was keen to learn all Van Sant had to teach. I read and reread the book, as did Bill, while we were moored in Luperon hiding out from the epic progression of tropical storms that 2021 has been.

When this rare window of calm appeared, we began to ready ourselves, scraping the barnacles off all of our bottoms; weaving through the beauraucracy regulating travel by boat within the Dominican Republic; checking, rechecking, re-rechecking the weather forecasts. Finally, at midnight, the last Monday in August, when the wind had eased for the day and we expected a meager waning moon to soon crest the eastern hilltop, Bill climbed up on the mast, hooked on the mainsail halyard, and I prepared to cast us off the mooring by the light of a spotlight.

As I walked the lines aft and made sure they were clear of our propeller, I noticed why we hadn’t yet seen the tardy moonrise–the moon was already up, but obscured by a thick fog, the mist of which rushed through the spotlight beam like a billion tiny insects. I couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of us. Had Luperon harbor had more of a strait forward entrance this would not have been a problem, but this bay’s entrance is shaped by shallow rocks and muddy shoals that make for a narrow channel that resembles a dogleg, broken and mended badly several times. There are markers, but they are not lighted and give little hint as to their colors in the dark. I went to the bow and tried to serve as eyes for Bill as he steered and consulted the chart.

“Ok, you’ve got a green to starboard and red to port. Then there’s a…I think that’s green, god, its really hard to say.” Bill replied through the dark, “Chart says it should be green.” (For those unfamiliar with boating aids to navigation, green marks the rightmost extent of the channel, often a shoal-line, when leaving a port. You don’t want to mistake red for green.)

And so it went as we groped along in the thick dark mist at 2 knots, figuring if we hit anything, we wouldn’t hit too hard. I could see fish swimming and leaping in the beam of the spotlight, an octopus legged languidly past the bow, headed toward Luperon, barely giving us a second glance, though its hard to tell with octopi. Occasionally the light would fall on a float for a fishing net and I’d alert Bill, or cliff face some 50 feet away. Then all would fade from view as I scanned the dark for clues to the deeper water.

After 15 tense minutes and 8 bouys passed, I couldn’t see any more channel markers. Standing on the bow I also couldn’t see the chart so I asked Bill, “Are we out?”

“We’re out,” he said.

I gave the water a few more scans for fishing floats, then went back to help Bill raise the mainsail.

As Maggie May made her way through the dark world we took turns at the helm, keeping the boat on coarse and watching the lights of Puerto Plata, Sosua and Cabarete fall behind us. The winds were light, so light that there was almost no wave action aside from an easterly swell—the ocean’s long memory of a wind somewhere, sometime. But we were able to keep the mainsail filled to take some strain off the engine and save a little fuel.

I hadn’t slept well for days before our departure, so Bill took first watch while I lay in the cockpit with my head near his lap, him stroking my hair, me looking up at the moon which was now clear of mist and accompanied by Orion striding purposefully toward the southeast. At 4:00am I took over the helm, just as Canus Major was following Orion into the sky. Bill rested beside me while I watched the dark horizon, only a pale reflection of moonlight and starlight ruffling the cloak of night.

I generally have no trouble staying awake on these passages, but before long, a powerful fatigue overtook me. My eyes began to cross, exhausted from the effort of holding their lids open. I pulled at my hair to stay alert. Ate some M&Ms one…by…one. Stuck my face out of the cockpit to get some air. It was then I noticed a dark line on the horizon in front of us, drawing ever nearer. Could be a trick of light, a huge trick of light. There is no land out here…is there? A rogue wave, the size impossible to tell in the darkness? How close is it? I didn’t want to wake Bill, but didn’t trust myself to decipher danger from hallucination, “Bill, uh Bill, there’s something on the horizon.” He jumped up like a piece of toast shot out of a toaster. “Wha! Whas going on?!”

“Do you see that?” He turned and then scrambled behind the wheel and flipped the boat around faster than I have ever seen it done.

Now facing the opposite direction, we both stared at the dark line, which began to resolve itself in the water.

“I don’t think it’s anything,” Bill said slowly, not entirely sure. “It must be just a giant matte of sargassum catching the moonlight in a weird way,” he said, turning the boat back the way we were going.

“Could be the garbage belt,” I said, referring to the line of garbage that follows currents around islands, 2-5 miles offshore. The garbage can come from all over the Atlantic. And it can destroy boats.

“Yeah, could be. Let’s head closer in toward shore.”

Back at the wheel, I steered us closer to the coast and Bill sat back down and began to nestle in to his pillow. He stopped and said “Are you ok? Do you feel sharp?”

“No,” just being honest. “But the sun will be up soon. I’ll be fine.” He went back to sleep. I didn’t tell him until later that I had been hearing music in the engine noise, first violins, then an angelic choir, then death metal.

A dusty pink dawn perked me up for a while, and I watched the coast roll by, along with patch after patch of sunrise-rose tinged sargassum. I shook my fist at it for making a fool of me.

The presence of this brown floating seaweed has been increasing over the past decade, significantly. Many places in the Caribbean, so dependent on tourism dollars, have named it a public enemy and much effort now goes toward controlling it, or desperately trying. Scientists are not yet certain what is causing the expansion of the plant’s range. It is almost certainly something humans have set in motion, either through climate change or increasing nutrients in the ocean from agricultural runoff. Sargassum provides important habitat for fish, sea turtles and other ocean organisms. But it can also be a hazard when it stacks up meters thick and miles wide and animals become trapped in it. But it is a force all its own, one of those immense mysteries we have yet to unravel, but you can be sure that when we do, we ourselves will be at the bottom of it.

I mused on this idea for a while as I watched flying fish dart by the dozens in front of the boat, etching 30-foot-long criss-crossed trails of disturbance in the glassy ocean. An hour later I woke Bill, handed over the wheel, and then crashed upon the couch belowdecks.

We spent the day making good, easy progress east, while passing by some of the most notorious locations on the coast of the Dominican Republic, including Puerto Malo (bad port), Punta Mala (bad point), and Cabo Cabron, or Cape Asshole, where we would snuggle in and anchor for the night. We had thought to keep going straight to Samana, uncertain whether we could trust the weather forecast. But the ocean was so placid, and I told Bill about my hearing music in the engine’s drone, and we really wanted to see the anchorage at El Valle, reported to be gorgeous.

Our anchorage at El Valle, near Cabo Cabron

In truth it was one of the most breathtaking anchorages Maggie May has ever, or perhaps will ever, visit. We dropped the anchor in late afternoon in the small nook where Cape Asshole meets the Dominican Republic’s mainland coast. The cape and mainland rise 1000 feet in mounded hills and sheer cliff walls where palm trees by the thousands cling improbably and birds soar on thermals flowing off the hillsides.

Once we were secure, I sat in the shade and watched a pelican dive for fish along the rugged coast. He wasn’t very good at it, but was fun to watch. The bird kept at it, over and over until he got some dinner, which gave me a sense of satisfaction for him. Bill had jumped in the water to cool off and check the propeller and engine water intake, which as suspected were partially clogged and crusted with barnys and other stowaways. When he climbed out a jellyfish tried to come along on his forearm and left some nasty tentacles behind. He brushed them off, but not before they left a nasty mark, as if someone had dribbled acid along his arm.

Bill giving thumbs up to El Valle, before jellyfish encounter

We made some dinner, watched the sun settle beyond the western wall of our anchorage, then lay down, hoping to get a few hours sleep before a late night departure. My alarm went off at 3:00am and we set about prepping the boat as tree frogs sang through the deep darkness all around. I pulled up the anchor and Bill drove us northward in the night stillness along the coast of Cabo Cabron.

The Van Sant method of transiting this coast uses what is known as the night lee to creep eastward. The night lee only works well when the trade winds are relatively light, 10-15 knots, and blowing from south of east, which happens somewhat infrequently. When it does, the sea breeze that accelerates the trades in the daytime, reverses to a gentle land breeze flowing off the mountains. This land breeze blows in opposition to the trades, gentling them and even changing their angle from east to southeast or even south. To take advantage of this, one has to follow the coastline closely, sometimes frighteningly close, within a few hundred yards, where a sudden strong shift in the wind or waves to northward could prove disastrous. Because Bill and I found a window where the daytime wind was going to so very, strangely light, less than 5 knots, we didn’t need to follow Van Sant’s method precisely, and could gain some distance from the rocky coast. But because we had the luxury of calm seas, we stayed close enough to Hispaniola that we could feel the power of this land and seascape.

As we rounded Cabo Cabron light began to glow on water and sky, giving a pale silhouette to Cabo Samana, the last cape would would pass before heading south and then west into the bay of Samana. Here the water was filled with sargassum, in places it flowed with unseen currents, elsewhere it lounged about as immense islands, hundreds of feet across. Some we tried to avoid, but others we motored through. Looking back behind us, I could see a clear water trail where the boat had passed through the sea vegetation.

Cabo Samana and a stream of sargasso

But as we approached Cabo Samana a few hours later, our speed inexplicably decreased by several knots. At first we figured it was a counter current that would ease when we rounded the cape, but it only got worse. When we were down to 3.8 knots Bill got worried. We tried tacking back and forth on sail alone for an hour, but we were getting nowhere because what wind there was, came directly from our destination. So we crept along under engine power until we could round Punta Balandra, enter Samana bay and anchor behind Cayo Levantado. Once anchored I dove down and found the prop entwined in pieces of sargassum. I cleaned it off, hopped back on board, and we got underway the last few miles to the Puerto Bahia marina, having regained most of our speed.

Cabo Samana

As we tied up at the marina, the first marina we have visited for six months, we looked forward to some real rest and the first real showers we had had in a month. We’ll stay at this marina while we sort out our Dominican Republic boat permits and do a few repairs, then will head out to one of our long awaited adventures, a trip to Los Haitises National Park!

SV MMMotivations

Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA.

The virus has offered lots of unbidden time for reflection. Time is a coin I was yearning for, if not in this manner and upon dry land. But it is valuable and I spend a lot of it thinking about what has moved me toward SV Maggie May over a 15-year period.

Bill and I hatched the circumnavigation idea after our last big journey, a year-long road trip around the United States in 2001. We both felt that the time spent away from human-structure was important, fundamental even to our long-term health. And so we had a conversation about what our next adventure would be and when. Within minutes we had settled upon sailing the world within 5 years time. Sailing has stayed constant, the time element elongated considerably.

I wasn’t a sailor when we started thinking about this but I had always had sailing around the world somewhere in my mind. (I’ll have to try and unearth a first-cause back in my brain folds.) I was drawn to some intangible something of sailing life. I now have a more specific sense of what that something is, a sense that has become stronger over the years as the 5-year-plan stretched into 10 and 15.

Sailing, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, has a way of making you feel small and insignificant, but also powerful and eternal at the same time.

I’ve spent most of the past decade working on a project in the US-Mexico borderlands, witnessing destruction of land, decimation of wildlife and plants, desecration of culture, all of which made me feel small and powerless for years on end. This project prevented me from making faster progress toward SV Maggie May, and it also made her transform from an idea, then a desire and finally into a necessity. The borderlands kept me from the ocean, even as they pushed me toward it.

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

I’ve worked on other projects, including extensive work on one of America’s most degraded rivers, trying to give voice to urban wildlife, documenting the British Petroleum oil spill. But none has been a driving motivation in my life for as long as the borderlands, and none has caused so much self doubt and undoing as fighting the border wall.

My motivations at the border grew out of a desire to make my life mean something. Not…just a desire, a compulsion, born of the greatest disappointment of my life in March 2000. I’ve written a whole book about those events, so I won’t go into it in this blog. But in essence I lost a good part of myself and afterward set out on a path to find what I had lost and find some grip on life again. I found a focal point in conservation photography, and a specific anchor on the US-Mexico border. I’ve also written about the borderlands extensively, so I won’t cover it here, except to say that by spending time with the wildlife of that landscape I felt I had made a compact with them, that I would do everything I could to be a voice for their future.

I stayed true to that commitment for more than 10 years, and over that time I went from feeling I was certain to be able to help turn things around, to feeling I had no power to even help, to feeling I could make a difference over a longer period, to feeling I had made no difference at all despite trying everything I could think of. And now, just feeling tired and destroyed, laying on a battlefield, eviscerated but somehow still living.

I’ve tried so many times to come to terms with the fact that I am small, just a person. And the forces that compel people to build walls are far beyond my scope to heal. And that the best I can hope for in any such endeavor is to open a window in people’s minds to see what they otherwise could not, something beautiful that might instill some responsibility for lives they will never encounter, but nevertheless impact gravely through direct action or passive complacency.

Kit fox in the Janos Grasslands, Chihuahua.

This is wisdom, but it requires a balance that I have always struggled to maintain. Instead I have often found myself on a roller coaster of belief in myself and my ability to make a difference, and despair over my insignificance. Teeter-totter-teeter-totter. And inevitably when outcomes are not what I have worked for, I am overwhelmed with guilt, and more acutely, grief, over what we are doing on the border, and so many other places.

My only true relief from this rollercoaster is on the Maggie May, where these two opposing forces merge peacefully. I am nothing, I am everything. Minuscule, microscopic, but connected to the very forces that make this world and everything in it. Wind, sun, water.

Mostly, I’m just alive.

***

Bill just came to tell me our Maggie May contractors called.  The last of our major boat projects is finished.

I’m coming home Maggie May.

 

Confluence Moon

The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press. Each chapter of the book is titled according to the custom of many native North American cultures, to name a month for the defining quality of its days. Anacostia Almanac months are defined by two temporal threads–our present days within particular seasons, and the days throughout time that have led to this moment in the watershed.

White-throated sparrow

Confluence Moon

For the past week a young white-throated sparrow has been camping out in my yard. His song wakes me every morning, very, very early, before the sun has made the slightest hint of light on the eastern horizon. Before I have any intention of getting out of bed. So I just lay there, awake and listening in the darkness.

Bird reference books often translate the white-throated’s song into the phrase Oh sweet Canada, Canada, an apt description of both the phonetics and the tone of these birds. Theirs is a wistful song constructed of minor notes, as if they are always preoccupied by thoughts of some other time and place, some melancholy memory or remembrance of a long lost friend. My visitor sings throughout the day, distracting me from my work as I would rather listen to him than do just about anything else. Though…I’ve gathered he is a young bird because he seems to be practicing…and in need of practice. Sometimes he gets it right, but often he goes off key or loses pitch entirely or devolves into a whistle. He sounds like a gawky teenage boy whose voice is changing; every time he opens his mouth, what comes out may be a boy’s treble, a man’s baritone, or some crackling squawk that lies somewhere in between. His song lacks the grace and assurance of a mature songster, and he appears to be quite alone. I have seen no other white-throateds for a few days. I doubt his pitiful song has chased them off. By now, many of my winter sparrows have begun to migrate north to Canada. Perhaps he is staying behind to practice before he journeys to the breeding grounds and attempts to woo a lady. That would be a good plan. He’s not ready from what I can hear.

Yesterday I noticed the first buds on the walnut tree outside my back window. A few have already dropped into their bright green bloom, like clusters of tiny green grapes; but most are little more than bare twig with the slightest brown nubs just waiting to sprout. Within days the green thoughts percolating within these nubs will burst forth, attracting the attention of hungry squirrels, and very soon after that, my house wrens will return from points south and begin their seasonal governance of the walnut tree where for years they have raised their young. They will scold squirrels, sparrows, and humans alike if we dare to enter their defense perimeter. I once saw a napping squirrel harangued for fifteen minutes by one of these feisty birds, which are the size of a ping-pong ball and about as heavy. If a squirrel was inclined, one punch of its paw in the wren’s face would send the little ping-pong bouncing, bounce-bouncing. But squirrels rarely seem inclined toward violence, and wrens are disarmingly cute.  This particular squirrel ambled off and found another branch further from the wren house where he could nap in peace.

Life seems to move so fast in these early weeks of April, everything becomes a battle for who will live the boldest and claim the best space for sun and food and shelter. Who will project the moxy that keeps interlopers away from their homes. Who can adapt to changing climates and conditions and still manage to thrive.

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

In search of some of this wild life I head out on my bike. On the bridge that spans the Northwest Branch on Rhode Island Avenue, I see a swallow emerge from one of the drains that empties into the river. He flies around for a spell then returns to the hole, apparently having built a nest within. It’s just a small hole, about the circumference of a baseball, about the size of a swallow, in the center of a 30-foot high concrete wall that channels the Northwest Branch toward its confluence with the Northeast Branch. I can imagine that to this little bird it resembles a cave in a high cliff wall, the kind of place his ancestors nested in, though a lot, lot noisier. And here, watching the swallows flying in and out of their concrete cave near the merging point of main branches of the Anacostia, I consider the idea of confluence: two distinct arms, branches, ideas, coming together into one fluid stream. Throughout its modern history the Anacostia has been plagued with issues of injustice and environmental degradation: the felling of ancient forests, extermination of entire species, decimation of the native people, enslavement of Africans, dumping of sewage and garbage in the river, destruction of wetlands, dumping and burning in poor neighborhoods, decades of failure to do right by this river community.

In the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights paralleled the struggle for environmental protections. Both efforts sought to right wrongs, to end realities that were degrading to all involved, and both sought to compel the machine that had been ripping the garden to shreds–breaking the foundational bonds of community apart–to abide by the dictates of an increasingly more enlightened collective mind. Both were successful, to some extent, for out of this time came the legal framework that seeks to guide our river community on ethical environmental and social paths–the Clean Water Act and Civil Rights Act. But through the tumultuous 60s these efforts generally followed their own separate trajectories. At the time of Kelvin’s death, the ties between racism, poverty, and environmental degradation remained disconnected in the national consciousness.

Then in September 1982, the confluence of environment and justice struck the nation between the eyes when a poor, largely African American community lay down in the middle of a Warren County, North Carolina, road. The residents of Afton had protested the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in their community, but they were ignored. Industry and government made their plans to dump society’s toxic wastes on people they expected would have no recourse against them. As trucks filled with PCB-laden soil rolled into town, the residents, and their allies from the Civil Rights Movement, blocked the opening to the new landfill. For six weeks they protested–marching, laying down, standing up, and sitting down, saying no, no, no we won’t be dumped on. In the end they lost, and toxic waste was unloaded on their rural town.

This wasn’t the first instance of a community resisting an environmental insult. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta organized farm workers in the early 1960s to protest exposure to pesticides and other workplace perils in California farm fields. In 1967, African Americans in Houston picketed a city garbage dump where two children had lost their lives. In New York City, 1968, residents of Harlem protested the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community.

And of course, Kenilworth residents gathered to block the entrance to Kenilworth dump in 1966. But none of these efforts had garnered nationwide attention as protests for environmental equality. Something different happened after Afton’s failed protest. One of the protesters that joined that effort, Washington D.C. resident Walter E. Fauntroy, a long-time civil rights activist, took a decisive step. Fauntroy was by that time serving as the Congressional representative for the District, and though he had no voting rights, he did have the power to request a study from the Government Accountability Office about the siting of hazardous waste facilities. That study, published in 1983, found that three out of four hazardous waste landfills in the Southeast were located in poor and largely African American communities. More studies followed around the nation, and a trend became apparent–if you were economically disadvantaged and a racial minority, you were significantly more likely to have a waste facility in your back yard. Kenilworth dump was the rule, not the exception. There were thousands of Kelvin’s nationwide living, and sometimes dying, in the waste of an indifferent world.

 

I stand on the bridge watching swallows make do with their concrete cliff home as traffic on Rhode Island Avenue flies by, and the Northwest Branch rolls ever onward toward its confluence. Near the water surface, another pipe enters into the stream, this one with a stain of grime left where polluted water has trickled out for decades. I notice someone has painted the figure of a peasant, holding his hands under the foul pipe, washing.

And out of nowhere, on an Anacostia breeze, the words of a King return to me:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

Forest in the headwaters of the Anacostia River.

 

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

Waking Moon

The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press. Each chapter of the book is titled according to the custom of many native North American cultures, to name a month for the defining quality of its days. Anacostia Almanac months are defined by two temporal threads–our present days within particular seasons, and the days throughout time that have led to this moment in the watershed.

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.

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Beyond the hem of this forest, the columns of the first U.S. Capitol building rise out of a hilltop meadow, strange and incongruous. The Corinthian columns were originally erected in 1828 on the east portico of the Capital, but as the building grew they became obsolete and were later relocated atop this hill in the Arboretum. A monument can be a reminder of many things. These columns speak of history, of legacy, of the long making of a capital city. Today, in this fog, with the breath of land and river rising to cloak the columns, they also speak of a river landscape long subdued and erased into utter forgetfulness.

Over the past centuries, since before those columns were originally built out of sandstone quarried from Aquia Creek in Virginia, we removed all memory of what a watershed is. We scraped away, paved over, cut down, and carted away our watershed context: dumping dredge on wetlands, putting parking lots over former forests, even covering over the very streams that fed the river–turning gentle babbling waterways into pipes and culverts. We have no memory of what it means to live in a watershed because we can’t see one anymore. Most residents have never considered this absence, because in effect, we have imposed on ourselves an ecological dementia. How do we go forward wisely, when we cannot summon what we left behind? How can we restore the Anacostia watershed if we can’t remember it?

Anacostia 3-30-17-0097At the Arboretum, I look for a conduit to an ecological synapse that has not been fully severed, hoping to conjure the lush land that sprouted as the Pleistocene chill abated, a land that felt the feet of badgers, bison, and wolves, that met the eyes of the first humans who ever set foot here in the Anacostia watershed. It is nothing more than an intellectual exercise–that watershed is gone forever. But the practice offers something important. Here at this spot in the Arboretum, called the Fern Valley Trail, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has endeavored to recreate a piece of that native Anacostia in the upland woods, the forest floor, the bend of a clear creek rushing down the hillside toward the river. There is no place like it in the Anacostia watershed for the density of land remembrance.

Tourists often come to the Arboretum to view exotic plants from Japan and China: bonsai, cherry trees, Japanese maple, and bamboo. I come to be transported not to a forest a continent away, but rather to my own home, centuries distant and so much further beyond my reach. Here, in this recreated land, it is possible to breathe air that is an echo of an Anacostia unbroken. To find a germ of an idea of what may have been, and thus, a thought, a hope, a prayer for what could be again.

Fern Valley is alive with pulsing synaptic memory of bloodroot, woodland poppy, Dutchman’s breeches, towering sycamore, oak, pine, and maple; of chickadee, kinglet, and owl; assassin bug, butterfly, and beetle.

I keep an eye out every March for the mayapple, a green umbrella beacon guiding the way toward the growing season. I know when I see them pressing upward, that beneath this sea of fallen leaves a whole green and buzzing world is already rising, just below the soil unseen: soon there will be fiddlehead, bloodroot, trillium, spring beauty, trout lily. Long ago these early risers, the first of the spring bloomers were dubbed wake-robins, because it was understood that when they appeared, the long quiet of winter was over, it was time to rise for bird, bee, and butterfly, it was time to wake, robin.

From every slumber there must be an awakening.

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

Fire and Ice Moon

The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press. Each chapter of the book is titled according to the custom of many native North American cultures, to name a month for the defining quality of its days. Anacostia Almanac months are defined by two temporal threads–our present days within particular seasons, and the days throughout time that have led to this moment in the watershed.

 

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February: The fire and ice moon

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

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

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

It will not be mourned.

For most, it is long forgotten.

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

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

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

Tobacco.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How you define wealth, defines you in turn.

 

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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.