The Grace of Sharks

I woke one recent morning to bright sun streaming through the hatch a few feet above my pillow. Through the open deck I could see morning shining on the face of our life raft’s grand title: Fortune Favors the Bold. (The jury is still out on this idea. If we ever end up needing this raft, we’ll know for sure.)

Bill snoozed beside me and, feeling quite content, I could have stayed, forever. But I climbed over Bill as gently as possible, lowered myself out of the berth and made my way onto the port side deck where I looked over the water, interested to find out how the morning sun hit the land of Warderick Wells Cay, what shadows it cast, what illumination it brought.

Mostly I saw glare that stung my eyes, but in that glare two flippered hands and a bald little head crested the bright shimmer of water beside the boat. Baby turtle.

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

Heart soaring I turned to the starboard side of the boat where Maggie May and the water were still well shaded from the rising sun. In the cool blue below I saw a mass of legs floating by about a foot beneath the surface.

“Bill! Come up here!” I could hear he was up and rustling about in the galley, getting a bowl of granola. As he rushed on deck I began to doubt myself. The squid I thought I’d seen was starting to resemble something less interesting.

Bill, looking into the water, said “Palm frond! Nice!”

“It might have been a squid,” I said, over-loud, as he was already descending the companionway stairs toward his granola. I then saw another dark thing floating toward us on the ebb current. Uncertain, I didn’t call out to Bill, but he was headed up to have his breakfast on deck.

“That may be something,” I said from the side deck.

“Plant,” said Bill, mouth full, standing momentarily, then sitting back down in the cockpit.

“Oh shit! Get out here!.” I countered, because this is what I saw: He was right about the plant, another palm frond, but nosing up to investigate the frond (possibly also mistaking it for a squid) was an 8-foot long shark, and then another larger shark following close behind. Ten minutes earlier the three-year-old boy on the sailboat next to us had yelled in his baby voice “Lemon Shawwwk! Lemon shawwwk!” I don’t know my sharks yet, so I took his word for it. His father had said he’d seen a bull shark the day before. So this family knows their sharks or they are damn good liars who know their shark names.

The smaller of the sharks nosed up to the palm frond, lifted it lightly out of the water, so that a beam of morning sun kissed the sharks smooth head, and then sunk back into the water. It swam a few feet away then circled back, nosed the frond up again, then moved on to follow the larger shark.

Nurse sharks at Staniel Cay, Exumas

Such wild beauty, curiosity and grace I have rarely witnessed so closely, some 40 feet away. And this was just one of the unforgettable sights of the Exuma Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas.

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

It’s hard to convey what this means to me personally. Some who are reading this know me well, so they know that the past decade has been one of profound grief for me as I’ve watched the US-Mexico borderlands being decimated by border wall construction through three presidential administrations. Having dedicated my life to fighting that destruction of rare wildlife habitat and migration corridors as well as human lives and communities, I left for this sailing voyage broken. Often I feel beyond repair. In the end, when I stepped on the SV Maggie May, I had lost hope.

I won’t say I’ve regained it. I continue to follow the news in the borderlands. The Biden administration has already begun seizing land through eminent domain and talk is ongoing of finishing wall construction started under the Trump administration.

And it isn’t as if there are no wounds here. There is trash in the wildest places, plastic carried from the ocean to the windward side of every island. There are obscene mega yachts, each one a climate disaster. There are people who care not at all when they anchor in coral beds.

I wish I could train myself not to see these things, but I know that once open to ecological degradation the eye cannot close to it. What I want more than anything is to be able to open my eyes wider to awe and beauty and resilience and wonder. At least as wide as they have been opened to wound and scar and loss. To let the grace of sharks and the guileless vulnerability of baby sea turtles and the mind-boggling diversity of coral fill every available space in my psyche.

The Bahamas are vast, and the people are relatively few and the tourists are concentrated in places they can buy diesel and get internet and see pigs on beaches and swim in the cave where James Bond Thunderball was filmed. Fewer people means fewer wounds and more space for wildlife and healthier water and air. Where beauty can breathe and maybe thrive without the crush of human hands there is life, there is grace.

I have been working on strategies for letting go of what I wish we humans were. Trying to accept us for what we are. Trying to believe in what we might be someday. Trying to just do my best to be a good human.

I recently read a book that was very helpful in this regard. It is called Deep, and in a way it is about freediving, but the author also presents a story of the ocean at various depths, from the surface to the deepest trenches we call the Hadal Zone-named after hell. These deeps, where humans haven’t even really begun to explore, were once thought to be wastelands, empty spaces devoid of life, but we’ve been learning over the past decades that in fact they are filled with strange and wondrous life and may even be where life on this planet began.

This gives me such great solace, knowing that there is this reserve of life on Earth, that whether or not we humans can cure ourselves of our hubris and solipsism— the Earth has creatures beyond count and description waiting in the wings to begin again.

I so hope we figure it out. I’m rooting for us. I’ll be working toward that all my life. If everyone could see the curious shark and the squid-palm-frond, the silly baby sea turtle, the stingray, the poisonwood the saguaro cactus, desert turtle and jaguar, and how all of them are counting on us to figure our shit out, I believe we could do it. I do believe.

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.

The Deprivation 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.

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.

Gull flying over the Anacostia River in winter.

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.

 

***

 

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.

A big year

I’m a fan of ritual, though I have few rituals in my life. One that I cling to is taking a moment every December 31 to assess the year I’ve had, and on January 1 to look at and plan some goals for the year that follows. So here we go, part 1.

2015 has been a big year–I’m going out on a note of gratitude. It’s been a year of fulfilling work projects with inspiring collaborators, unforgettable times spent with friends and family, mind-bending beauty in wild places and meaningful moments that will never leave me. As a freelance photographer and writer I was able to work in 2015 in landscapes I know and love–the Anacostia River watershed, the US-Mexico borderlands, the longleaf pine forests and pitcher plant bogs of the southeastern United States–as well as ecosystems new to my eyes or long-missed–the Mojave River in California and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

I live in a community of giving, creative people, I have enough of everything I need and I’m healthy.

Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park with the Snake River.

Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park with the Snake River.

 

 

Along with meaning and contentment comes challenge, and 2015 has not been without challenge. I’ve watched beloved friends struggle with illness and loss, offering what I could, which is never enough. I’ve seen the world swirl in violence, fear and hate while global challenges beyond our reckoning, as well as opportunity and possibility, sit on the margins unobserved by most. I’ve watched a lifelong dream of sailing around the world almost crumble in a 30-year-old boat named Maggie May that has drained most of my life savings. And I’ve relived over and over some of the worst hard times of my life in publishing  and discussing my new book Almost Anywhere.

 

Longleaf 2014-2181 web

 

2016 is a crap shoot. Anything could happen, though I’ll be working my ass off to effect hoped-for outcomes (to be determined tomorrow). I’m prepared to be unprepared and over or underwhelmed, and as for adversity, bring it on. I have been watching the fire-prone ecosystems of the Southeast for some time now and have learned a basic lesson of Earth’s ecosystems, be they personal ecosystems, cultural, or natural like a longleaf pine forest. That is, without fire, there can be no light hitting the forest floor. And without that light, all of the little beautiful things that sprout from the soil or the soul, simply cannot be. And all of the even tinier things that live inside those little beauties, well they don’t stand a chance. I would trade every McHappy moment for one of those lovely little fireflower forbs.

Wishing you all a year of fireflowers in 2016.