Posted on September 6, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, animals, beauty, biodiversity, boat, Caribbean, Dominican Republic, dream, environment, environmental, fauna, flora, international league of conservation photographers, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, national parks, nature, ocean, passage, photography, sailboat, sailing, samana, sargassum, sv maggie may, wild, wildlife, Writing
Posted on May 22, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
Category: Maggie May, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: Chesapeake Bay, circumnavigation, environment, international league of conservation photographers, krista schlyer, Maggie May, nature, no-waste, philosophy, photography, sailboat, sailing, simplicity, sustainability, sv maggie may, united states
Posted on February 15, 2019
Wednesday morning at dawn a solitary pied-billed grebe paddled through a misty oxbow lake called La Parida Banco in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. La Parida translates from Spanish as: one who has just given birth, perhaps the most apt description I’ve ever heard for a wildlife refuge. I contemplated this meaning as the little grebe and I shared a cold February sunrise in the North American tropics of South Texas.
Though we occupied the same space, we came to La Parida on different errands: his was a search for food and safety on an island of wild sanctuary within an ocean of human development. Me, I was surveying the site of the first major border wall construction in Texas since 2009, the construction that would devastate the pied-billed’s home.
Yesterday, wall construction began. I walked the Rio Grande levee at dawn and instead of the usual hawks, herons, turkeys and orioles, I was greeted by a battalion of law enforcement. I knew by the ripping feeling in my heart that this signaled the beginning of wall construction, a feeling that was confirmed when I saw an excavator arm moving like a giant insatiable insect over the forest. My mind went to the birds that had been building their nests in the forest; the butterflies who had laid their eggs on the underside of leaves hoping to keep them safe from predators; the tortoises and snakes in the brush, the bobcats and coyotes quietly hunting shrews and cottontail.
Grief has made itself a home in the borderlands of late.
But my thoughts were quickly interrupted by a by a Border Patrol agent, kindly telling me to leave. I backed slowly away, eyes still on the arm of the excavator moving purposefully over the forest just beyond a long line of Border Patrol and other law enforcement officials.
My walk back to the parking lot in Bentsen state park was one of my lowest moments in the past ten years. I have been documenting the US-Mexico border for more than a decade, since the Secure Fence Act of 2006 mandated the construction of more than 700 miles of border barrier through one of the most important biological regions on the continent. [See Embattled Borderlands ]
This land provides home to the highest diversity of birds and butterflies in the continental US; five of North America’s six cat species; resting and refueling for 700 migrating animal species; and a last hope for some 100 threatened and endangered species, including Sonoran pronghorn, desert tortoises, cactus ferruginous pygmy owls and many more whose futures are tied to this land. [see this report by the Center for Biological Diversity]
That future hangs by a fragile thread. In 2018, Congress approved $1.6 billion for wall construction on the border. Last spring, the Trump Administration began building wall in New Mexico. Construction began yesterday in La Parida. Surveyor stakes have been planted delineating the “enforcement zone” where forests will be cut. And Congress is adding another $1.3 billion in border wall funding in 2019 in order to avoid another government shutdown. Several locations in the Valley have been given a reprieve in this legislation, but not the Lower Rio Grande Valley refuge, not La Parida, she who has just given birth.
The ecological stakes of this political bartering have been well documented. Since the 1990s the US government has constructed about 400 miles of solid barrier, through the 2,000-mile borderlands. This wall has severed migration corridors for endangered bighorn sheep, ocelots, jaguars and wolves, caused damaging floods, degraded fragile watershed ecology, and fragmented and destroyed tens of thousands of acres of habitat essential to wild species. The barriers and habitat loss come at the worst possible moment, as climate change is exacerbating the frequency and intensity of droughts in the Southwest–a time when wild species’ best hope of survival is the ability to migrate.
These threats would normally be prevented by bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. But a provision in the Real ID Act of 2005 allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws to expedite building of a border wall.
Here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley the direct damage of habitat fragmentation and destruction is compounded by a history of large-scale agriculture, energy and residential development. More than 95 percent of the native habitat in the Valley has been replaced by agricultural fields, oil wells, wind farms, roads, subdivisions, and shopping centers. Within what remains of this endangered ecosystem, one of the most unique wildlife communities on the continent fights for survival. South Texas sits within a natural borderlands at the overlap of the north and south of the natural world, where temperate bird, butterfly, mammal and reptile species coexist with their tropical cousins.
It would be hard to overestimate the natural value of the La Parida refuge. It is one piece of the larger Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a collection of the most valuable ecological lands along the last 275 miles of the Rio Grande. The refuge began as a desperate attempt to save what was left of a vanishing ecosystem. Decades of work, thousands of volunteer and staff hours, and many millions of dollars have created what is now one of the most important wildlife corridors in the country. Refuge land and state parks, along with private preserves like the National Butterfly Center, offer one last hope for thousands of wild species. But this corridor along the Rio Grande sits directly in the path of the border wall, which will be built on the Rio Grande levee.
Few in the United States have ever heard of La Parida, but this refuge has given birth to the grebe, kiskadee, green jay, ringed kingfisher, red tailed hawk, bobcat and javalina. This land is essential. It is home. It is life. But as I look across the water to the Rio Grande levee where construction equipment moves over the land, I see death on the horizon.
Come and protest the desecration of the Rio Grande Valley-noon, Saturday, 2-16-19 at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. If you can’t come, call your members of Congress today or write an op-ed for your local newspaper. Be a voice for the borderlands.
Krista Schlyer is a conservation writer and photographer and author of the book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall. She is currently working on a film with Jenny Nichols and Morgan Heim called Ay Mariposa, which tells the story of two fierce women and a community of butterflies on the front lines in the battle against the border wall.
Category: Borderlands, Borderlands Project, Continental Divide, Featured, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: ay mariposa, beauty, border, border wall, conservation, construction, ilcp, immigration, international league of conservation photographers, la parida, Lower Rio Grande Valley, national butterfly center, nature, resist, resistance, texas, wildlife, wildlife refuge
Posted on February 7, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
Posted on January 14, 2019
The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press.
At icy dawn, the city remains gentled in night’s deepest repose. Walking past slumbering bungalows and a shuttered gas station, through deserted streets, across empty railroad tracks and along the edge of a sleepy forest– I traverse a dark, noiseless mile to the frosted footbridge at Bladensburg Waterfront Park.
Upriver, near the confluence of the Anacostia’s northwest and northeast branches, hundreds of Canada geese huddle together, raising a dark feathered shield against winter’s white knife and its unusually sharp edge this January morning. Last night an angry north wind descended on the watershed, driving temperatures to a low of minus 11 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 20 degrees below normal.
Today’s river landscape testifies to the hard hand of that north wind. At low tide a rigid silt sandbar covers the west side of the riverbed, and a half-inch of ice caps most of the remaining water surface. Downstream, the river departs to the southwest through a luminous white forest, gleaming toward the heart of Washington D.C.
I stand at river’s edge in Bladensburg, Maryland, once one of the busiest shipping ports in North America, a nucleus for trans-Atlantic trade in tobacco cultivated by the hands of enslaved Africans. This soul-weighty cargo succored a fledgling British colony and fueled an American revolution, all while sending a webwork of moral and ecological fissures spidering through the foundation of a young nation.
The thought sends a tremulous chill through my bones, though the Bladensburg waterfront before me bears little witness to this tortuous historical fault line. A few memorials to the War of 1812 are all that’s left as direct physical reference to what happened here, and day-to-day this humble space exists as a much-loved nexus for people and the Anacostia River. But in the silted shallow riverbed and bare-turf landscape, the river remembers.
On a slow stroll along the park’s riverside walk, I step out onto a floating pier, where I encounter a single Canada goose asleep on the cold wooden platform. I stop, wondering why he is separated from the larger flock and surprised that he has not been roused by my presence. Inching a few feet closer I observe that the morning frost, which has settled on the river landscape, its trees, riverbank, and pier, has also laid a glittering glaze over the goose himself, whose head is locked tightly in the thick down of his back. When I approach within a few feet of the bird, he still does not stir. I reach out, tentatively, and lightly touch a tail feather, preparing myself mentally to be scared witless when the goose awakens.
The feather crunches beneath my finger–the goose remains utterly still. Here is a sleep my winged friend will not be waking from.
Leaving the bird to his eternal rest, I make my way to the bank on the opposite side of the river. Ring-billed gulls have gathered on the western shore, tapping their beaks softly against the thin crust of ice covering the mud flats, searching for soft-bodied creatures in the warmer earth below. Gulls are argumentative, pushy birds by nature, but today they are solemn and respectful of each other, and barely bother to look up when I approach. In this deep cold, there exists a momentary truce. We are all too busy surviving the deficit of light and warmth to meddle in each other’s affairs. There is too much to lose in January.
We all, each Anacostia and Earth resident in our own way, have strategies for surviving the deprivation moon. And in this month of scarcity and dark vulnerability, we each harden our creaturely resolve and lean, as ever, toward a universal prime directive– what Aldo Leopold called, “freedom from want and fear.” It is a desire never attained in life, not really, but ever sought-after for all who move about on this planet, whether they are rooted to the earth and reaching toward the sun, or walking, flying, or swimming in search of life’s next pressing need. This elusive prize fuels our action and existence, from humble subsistence to greedy conquest. How a creature or community pursues this fundamental freedom, will ultimately define it.
Leopold’s anxious ambassador for this universal endeavor was a meadow mouse, gleefully building his snow tunnels and food storage rooms, gathering his brittle brown grasses, all in the safe obscurity of winter’s white cloak on the Sand County land.
“The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack,” Leopold wrote.
For mouse, unlike goose and gull, a long harsh winter offers rest, a relative reprieve from the ever-keen eyes of winged predators. It is here, under the deprivation moon, he has a frosty window on a world free from fear and want. For this clever mouse, snow is a building material and shroud for protected transportation pathways out of the eyesight of raptors, and for storage rooms to house a larder of grass for a well-fed winter mouse. The hawk, whose great advantage of speed and vision is stymied by the snow, will hold on over hungry months, awaiting a warm spell or the spring thaw, when mouse pathways are generously revealed, and another winter has passed into spring–a season of increasing freedom from fear and want.
My Anacostia gulls, if they live through this trying winter, will surely experience a similar spring euphoria, and will undoubtedly squawk and caw about their spring fortune loudly and often. I anticipate shaking my head and rolling my eyes at their brash boasterisms sometime in a near warmer future, but in truth, they will then have earned bragging rights. Though they themselves are not modest, gull, like hawk and mouse, seek a modest fortune, nothing more than freedom from hunger, and a sheltering space insulated from the icy grasp of death. They harbor no desires for superfluous luxury, their pursuit is simple–they want only a chance at life in all its luminous elemental dimensions.
Today, that pursuit demands determination, discomfort, and an efficient stillness. Gulls keep their wings tucked tight, voices quiet, and heads down.
I do the same, substituting arms for wings, and leave them to their winter misery.
On normal days, even in winter, attempting to walk out onto the silted shallows of the Anacostia would be treacherous. Many have died in the urban sludge that has accumulated on the Anacostia bottom over the past four centuries of America’s pursuit of freedom from fear and want. Our proclivity to hound every manner of superfluity led to the felling of ancient forests, silting of the river and elevation of the historic riverbed some 40 feet–bringing an end to the bustling port of Bladensburg. It is now almost beyond imagining that ocean-going ships once docked at this spot on the river.
I test the earth of river bottom and find it icy-firm, a rare opportunity to experience a moment within the arterial wall of the Anacostia. We are all, always, within the body of a river. Every upland and lowland inch of the watershed plays a part in the river system, from my own backyard, to the headwaters at Sandy Spring in Olney, Maryland, to the smallest trickling capillary entering into the Watts Branch. But here, upon this artery at river-heart is where it all comes together.
On any given day the Anacostia, like all rivers, is ever new. It is the same water course, but eternally changing and ever changed, reinvented by moods of wind and weather, the magnetic pull of the moon on its waters, the restless angle of sun’s illumination, and the wingbeats, splashes, and songs of its wild inhabitants.
I stand in the middle of a unique moment flowing together with an infinity of distinct river moments–there is a timeless surge of power here that jolts the senses and urges me forward.
Cautiously I test each step before I take it, and when the river begins to give beneath my weight, I go no further. By this point I am nearly standing in the middle of the Anacostia and can view the sculpted work that winter wind and restless tides have made of the river. The deep freeze that came in the night during a higher tide capped the river in thick ice, but when the tide began to go out and the air began to warm, rigid sheets of Anacostia began to buckle and break apart, like a river-puzzle–each piece now set aglow at the edges by the subdued light of a far-distant sun.
The fractured ice gives new voice to the Anacostia, a grumbling, groaning river-resentment as tide and current jostle the river’s assemblage of broken ice sheets. But the real river drama must have happened sometime in the dark early morning hours, when shifting tide and climbing temperatures pried the largest pieces apart. This thunderous cracking, for a massive volume of water must have be something to hear–a soundtrack echoing the epic ecological dynamism that over so many eons of fire, ice, water, and wind–of continents colliding and seas ever-rising, ever-falling–created and continues to recreate this river watershed.
Somewhere in the earth beneath my feet there lies a record of the grand incomprehensible ages of river life. Somewhere, running deep beneath the riverbed, back through time beyond reckoning, it leads down to a primal era where river life radiates in its purest form, from some ancient infernal source, through a billion years of rock, clay, sand, and silt. Down 50 feet, 100, 500, 1000–there lie the hallowed earthen halls of river memory.