The Bluejacket’s Manual

Spa Creek, Annapolis.

Betwixt wind and water: That portion of the hull that can be above or below water, depending on the angle of heel.

The Bluejacket’s Manual

On Spa Creek in Annapolis, I watch the sun rise and listen to gulls lending their unruly voices to the morning reveille being bugled from the US Naval Academy. Maggie May sways on her mooring ball and  I sit with my morning coffee perusing a 1943 edition of The Bluejacket’s Manual, an instructional tome written to orient enlisted sailors for life in the US Navy during the second world war. It belonged to my grandpa.

My brother Nick gave me the book one Christmas after Bill and I announced our plans to sail around the world. Nick had followed in my grandpa’s footsteps, enlisting in the Navy in the late 1980s—serving at a different time, in a different war. I will return the book to him one day after it has been around the world or at least around the sun a few times as part of the orbit of items that live within Maggie May. For now, the book sits in an honored location next to Original Maggie May’s ashes and an angel bookmark that was my granny’s. 

This week we have been stationary in Annapolis while Bill studies for the Captain’s exam at the Annapolis School of Seamanship and we get some projects done on MM, including yet another repair to the mainsail. This one, thankfully, is a much smaller rip that happened when the sail got caught on one of the reefing hooks. An unpleasant surprise, but pale in comparison to what has come before.

While Bill is in class all day long, I am working on my own studies and projects and leafing through Grandpa’s manual, written more than 60 years ago, much of it right here in Annapolis. Grandpa died when I was around 10 years old. I still have clear memories of a gentle but orderly man who made duty, responsibility, family and discipline the foundations of his life. I wish I could have known him longer, but reading this manual effectively connects us through time, space and the sea. 

The book is more than 1000 pages and it covers every aspect of being a member of this branch of the armed forces, from how to serve with distinction upon the sea, to how to kill and how to avoid being killed. There are sections on duty, discipline, advancement, retirement, hygiene, and seamanship. Some of it reflects a past that, while distant in time, remains all too near in the cultural psyche. All sailors are men, and all men are white. Also, if they are exercising they all wear French cut bikini-briefs. 

Germany has a swastika on its flag. The British flag is the flag of empire. 

The book is chockablock with information—I learned this term in the definitions section, along with betwixt wind and water and freshen the nip. I plan to work these into casual conversation with Bill, to ascertain whether his Captain’s Class was worth it. 

The Bluejacket’s Manual includes this proud fact: “Our Navy is as clean as any navy in the world.” Not the cleanest, but at least as clean. It contains this crucial advice: “The best type of bath is the shower”. Perhaps this bit was intended to help us gain a competitive edge over the other clean navies.

“Our Navy is as clean as any navy in the world.”

The Bluejacket’s Manual

The “Prophylaxis” section begins, “Bad women can ruin your bodily health.” There is no definition for bad woman. I am keenly interested. There is also information on how to chew your food—this topic comes up several times in the manual, which suggests there had been problems. There is a guide for how to fold your clothes the Navy way—this was mandatory with a guide for every type of garment and spot inspections to ensure that clothes were folded properly. Shoreside-me finds this hilarious; boat-me immediately begins planning an implementation strategy, knowing Bill will not buy into it. He will sit by and watch me refolding all my clothes, shaking his head quietly.  

The book is filled with lists (daily schedules in 15 minute increments, inventories of mandatory clothing items, procedures for launching the vessel and putting out fires, insight into the Navy’s chain of command). I can fully appreciate these lists, as there are dozens of things to be aware of at any given time when a boat is underway, and forgetting even one could put the boat and crew in jeopardy. 

For a sailor, The Bluejacket’s Manual of 1943 remains useful with tips on sail trim, knots, and navigation. Some of the thinking on these things has changed in the past decades, as has the style of underwear men do their calisthenics in, but since I don’t yet know enough to discern, I’ll probably suggest we try these techniques out.

My Grandpa must have read the entire 1145 pages, perhaps more than once. But he only marked one page, one single paragraph. It was about discipline, and said, in part: “A body of men which has good discipline is not subject to panic.” It doesn’t surprise me that if he was going to outline one paragraph, it would be this one. I am only now beginning to understand the critical role of self-discipline in warding off terror and panic. Later on, the manual advises, “It means to restrain your impulses.” For instance, the impulse to dive off the boat screaming when the vessel is bow-down in a 5-foot high breaking wave. I found another quote that is useful in this regard, the 1943 Navy’s definition of courage: “Courage is that quality which enables one to meet danger and difficulties with firmness and with ability unimpaired… It does not mean absence of fear.”

I can appreciate the manual’s advice on many topics, including how to get chocolate out of a uniform, though we don’t carry naphtha or chloroform on the boat, so I can’t actually try it out. I’m less interested in the advice that I should take a cold shower every day. And perhaps this is one bit of advice specific to a boat full of men.

As the sun rises higher in the sky I finish the last of my coffee, lay down my book, and get on with my chores for the day. I start by taking everything out of the V-Berth to find the source of an unpleasant odor. While Bill is at Captain’s Class, I’m working on a list of deeds that need doing to keep the SVMM in ship-shape. In the evenings, Bill tells me what he has learned, I outline what I have accomplished, we eat, head to our cozy berth and lay down betwixt sheet and mattress, betwixt wakefulness and sleep, betwixt gratitude and greasy hair. 

ONE LAST THING

One night in Annapolis, we happened to catch the very last race of the Wednesday night summer sailing season out of Spa Creek. Purely by accident we moored our boat right in the middle of one of the craziest sailing spectacles in the country. The boats race on the Chesapeake Bay, but the final race of the night actually ends inside the mooring field in downtown Annapolis.

There were hundreds of sailboats, small and huge, all heading straight for us at full speed, then dodging our boat on last-minute tacks, racing to the finish line a hundred yards away. The sun was just about to set, lighting this magical moment with golden hue as Bill and I watched open-mouthed and breathless. It was some of the most incredible maneuvering either of us had ever witnessed so incredibly close. Bills summary: “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” It was a good reminder, not all unforeseen events are bad. The future also holds unimagined and unimaginable surprise.

Thank you so very much to all of you who responded to my donation link on my last blog. And all of you who have supported this journey in any way. It is one of those unforeseen serendipities to find so much love and support in the world, my heart is chockablock.

Barnacle: An animal that is inclined to stick to a boat’s underside.

–The Bluejacket’s Manual

A Chesapeake Summer

Summer on the Chesapeake Bay, in five lines:

Hot, humid, thunderstorm.

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

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

Hot, humid, storm.

Jellyfish.

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

In a few more lines

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

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

“Am I seeing things?” Bill said. 

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

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

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

Osprey on an abandonner sailboat in Swan Creek.

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

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

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

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

Fishing boat in the Chester River.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Gratitude, Maryland

Where to start? Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland…all places I wasn’t expecting or hoping to to blog about at the end of June 2020, but that is the way of adventures.

I’m writing from the dining room table of my good friends, the Goods, who have kindly and warmly welcomed Bill and I to stay with them while the Maggie May is, again, being repaired.

After seven years of fixing up an old boat you might expect there would be nothing left to fix, at least for a while. But sometimes you have to fix the thing that a contractor just did a terrible job fixing, so bad that it failed utterly within a few weeks. (This is not the first time this exact thing has happened with the Maggie May.) And sometimes that thing that was fixed and failed is the bottom of the boat, arguably the most important part if you fancy staying dry. 

This is a long tale in full, and one that could benefit from a longer format and some emotional distance by the author, but in short, we had the boat hull completely redone over the past few months in Deale, Maryland, spent about three-quarters of a year’s boat-living budget, and within a week of setting out found that Maggie May’s bottom was covered with a half-inch or more of barnacles that could only be removed by power sanding the bottom of the boat and repainting.

 

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This was the failure of the paint we chose, or possibly the marine contractor who applied it. Or both to some extent. Or us for choosing the wrong contractor and/or paint. So far neither business is taking responsibility. So we are left holding a heaping handful of slimy barnacles (no offense barnacles, you are actually slimy in the literal sense), and the loss of another half-year boat budget, several weeks of time, and our crushed hearts. 

The added loss of savings may ultimately have the effect of ending our dream of a sailing circumnavigation. That is a hard pill to swallow after dreaming and planning for 15 years. But it’s possible that the global pandemic already ended that dream and we just don’t know it yet. 

I didn’t want to write this blog, have been putting it off, hoping we’d be back on the boat already and I could write with optimistic hindsight, with the perspective of someone on the ocean, looking back. (With any luck that will be the next blog.) So much of what I have worked on over the past decade (see the Borderlands Project ) has been sad or at least tinged with grief in some way. I liked the feeling of offering only hope in this blog, a documentation of discovery and joy. But the world is filled with sorrows much deeper than the travails of Maggie May, and resilience and gratitude are good offerings too so I’ll finish on this note…

A day or two after we found out that the hull paint had totally failed, Bill was feeling especially low, and we were talking about our options, when suddenly a Carolina wren started singing. If you know this little bird, you know that it has incredible pipes, certainly some of the strongest per-ounce in the bird world. But this was the loudest I had ever heard a wren sing. It was not because this particular bird was  so especially loud, but because it was so extremely near. Bill looked up the companionway stairs and saw the wren perched on our main sheet. About 5 feet away, the bird was belting out the sweetest, most determined song. It brought tears to Bill’s eyes and prompted him to say, “Ok, I get it buddy, message delivered.” Then, about five minutes after that, Bill got a text from our friend Maribeth who was asking how his back was (she had read my previous blog). Bill explained what was happening with the boat and Maribeth replied with a Mary Oliver poem, Just As the Calendar Began to Say Summer, about going to nature to unlearn society’s obsession with success, machines, oil and money. 

The poem ends with these lines: 

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,

the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny

in the bank,

the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.

 

Youghiogheny River in Western Pennsylvania, rolling its way to the Mississippi River and onto the Gulf of Mexico. We hope to meet these waters again one day far downstream in the SV Maggie May.

It’s impossible to say what will happen with this adventure. We hope to be back on the boat by next week and will proceed with a new dream of taking the journey as it comes, resting tired spirits and cherishing each moment for what it brings. It is a helpful reminder that the boatyard where Maggie May currently resides is just down the road from Gratitude, Maryland.

Garter snake in Ohiopyle State Park, PA

So far the past week’s detour has brought many things, including:

  • Moments on the Youghiogheny, Potomac and beloved Anacostia rivers, watching them rolling their pebbles, smoothing all hard edges as they make their water-way to the sea
  • A chance to hand off our car to Bill’s mom via his sister Laurie and her beau Bill on a country road in Ohio (Thanks Laurie and Bill!) 
  • Bill’s back fully healed!
  • A visit to the Double R creamery nearish to Cleveland for perhaps the best chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream I have ever had
  • A discovery of some weird larvae living inside a pitcher plant in an Ohio bog
  • A flock of cedar waxwings in a serviceberry tree
  • A visit to the largest remaining expanse of old growth hemlock in Maryland

    Wild turkey in Garrett State Forest, PA

  • An opportunity to grill asparagus 20-feet in the air overlooking the Haven Harbour gravel boatyard
  • The best cherry pie I’ve ever had, made by the clever hands of Michele Good
  • A chance to spend some time getting to know the nearly 1 year old Henry Good–oh boy what a charmer. 

 

At Home With the Gods of the Chesapeake

We made it. After 15 years of planning, 7 years of working on the boat, 2 months of pandemic lockdown, we are finally moving aboard Maggie May. Bill and I have spent the past few days carting carloads of stuff from our home basement and our friend Dave’s home, (where we were staying for the past few months), to the boat in Deale, Maryland. 

Bill and I have a bet as to how many carloads it will take to get it all here, and also whether there is any chance it will all fit aboard. I guessed 10 trips, Bill guessed 6. We are on 6 now, with at least 1 more to go. This is one bet I was hoping Bill would win. 

Our final trip from Dave’s house. Bill said we couldn’t get it all in one load. I begged to differ. As my reward I got to spend 45 minutes on the passenger side floor fighting off car sickness. Hooray.

 

Glad we were able to fit that sponge.

So far everything is fitting nicely on the boat, but we are already making some sacrifices, books, clothes (we won’t need those), backpacks, some tools and other things we can do without.

The process of trying to organize a small amount of space to contain enough food, water, clothes, gear, cleaning supplies, tools, sails, spare boat parts, medical supplies, charts and everything else we need for 3 years uses a part of my brain that I rarely access. But I find it liberating rather than constraining to think about what I actually need to be safe and happy. It’s not much really. 

The stuff we have on this boat represents about 10% of the stuff we had in our 700 square foot house. But it still seems like a lot right now.

The V Berth will be my office as well as guest quarters, sail storage, and scuba center.

One of the inspirations for this trip was to put myself in a situation where by necessity I had to live as simply as possible. I try to do this anyway, but it’s easy to be lazy about resource conservation when all the energy, water, space, and food you could want is a drive, walk or phone call away. And all of the waste from that way of living is carted away every week so I don’t have to look at it. On the boat, there is limited energy, water, space, food and everything that is a byproduct of my life—plastic, paper, metal, food scraps, human waste. Well now it’s all mine to deal with in a responsible way. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about how to do this. I’ll share some of this over the coming years. 

Dinner our first night aboard.

Yesterday the wind blew across Rockhold Creek with gale force. I’ve experienced gale force winds before, even on the boat while sailing. But never while living on a boat and it struck me yesterday as the angry wind howled around the mast, that this force will be ruling my life over the next few years. The wind is nothing to be trifled with. 

We live our lives generally with the wind as an afterthought. If it’s windy we may fly a kite, or maybe some of us get our energy now from wind power, or maybe it musses our hair, or cools us down on a hot summer day. But it doesn’t really play much of a conscious role in our lives. Yet, the wind is a god of this planet—a conductor of weather, a circulator of energy and moisture around Earth, a force as big as the oceans in the life that is lived all over the globe. I’m going to spend the coming years honoring this god like I never have before. My heart skips a beat at the thought of being enveloped in its power and spending every day thinking about what the wind is planning for the world at this moment, and how to I need to behave to live in concert with its whims, and what exactly will happen if I don’t. I’m already awestruck and no small amount scared. But also thrilled to my marrow. 

Another impetus for this journey was exactly this. To immerse myself in the natural world. Our species, (I can say our, because if you’re reading this, you probably are a member of that party) lost our humility in the face of nature ages ago, back when we decided to throw over the nature gods of early myth in exchange for ones that looked like us. And we have grown more and more estranged as industry and technology have further elevated our perception of ourselves. I have swallowed a sickening sense of this year after year as I watch more and more of the natural world succumb to our hubris and excess. It has been a poisoning of the soul to see this everywhere I look. And this journey is designed to extract that poison, even if it means cutting some deep wounds to get to that toxin. For me this means humbling myself to the elements, wind, water, sun, earth.

The first night on the boat after we moved in I couldn’t sleep. Excitement, anticipation, wonder over reaching this state of living after so much time and effort. I lay awake in the stern cabin, with less than an inch of fiberglass between me and the Chesapeake, listening to the gentle water slap against the boat. Living in the waters of Earth, this is what I have needed.

I am awash in gratitude, relief and contentment.

Coming up in my next blog, a tour of the Maggie May.

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.

La Parida: Where the Wild Things Were

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.

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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.

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La Parida – She who has given birth. A tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

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 ]

Kit foxes in Janos grassland, Mexico.

Kit foxes in borderlands of Chihuahua and New Mexico.

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.

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Javelina at border wall in Arizona

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.

Great kiskadee with a granjeno berry

Great kiskadee eating granjeno berry in Lower Rio Grande Valley wildlife refuge. (c)Krista Schlyer

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.

You can help.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Border Angels vs Excavators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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La Lomita Mission Chapel, Mission Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ay Santa Ana

Santa Ana and the battle for sacred ground

There are some places in this world where life and beauty effervesce from the ground itself, places we simply can not lose. There are landscapes where lines must be drawn in the proverbial sand and we must say, no, you will not take this from the world. Not on our watch. Many such places exist in the US-Mexico borderlands, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is one. Here is a place people will lay down their bodies to protect. It is that rare, that special. I want to show you why.

I wrote a poem about Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas, and worked with a talented group of filmmakers–Allison Otto, Jenny Nichols, and Morgan Heim–to translate it into a short film. Please take a look.

 

 

President Donald Trump has been banging his nativist drum demanding billions of dollars for a border wall. Congress has been deal-making and deliberating behind closed doors, preparing to bargain away the future of the borderlands in exchange for the Dreamers held hostage by the Republican Party. I don’t believe any of them know or care about what they are sacrificing to the altar of political power––all for a wall that will have no effect on human migration but will destroy one of the rarest eco-regions on Earth.

Please share this film with your friends and family, with your members of Congress. Pick up the phone and tell your Congressional representatives: the border is not a bargaining chip. The Dreamers must be saved from exile from the only home they have ever known, and the borderlands must be protected from border walls, fences and militarization. #noborderwall #saveSantaAna #cleanDreamAct #aysantaana.

The number for the Congressional switchboard is: 202-224-3121

The 75th anniversary of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is January 27. Many hundreds of people will be journeying to South Texas for a special rally for this endangered landscape. Santa Ana needs our help. If you can join us, here is some information about the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/419603675122981/ . If you cannot travel to South Texas, please take some action for Santa Ana the week of January 27.

For more information about the peril currently posed to the US-Mexico Borderlands, visit my web story: Embattled Borderlands.

 

Memoir about journey through nature inspires

Thanks for this review of Almost Anywhere Monica Lee-really appreciate your thoughts on the book!

Monica Lee

The only I didn’t really like about Krista Schlyer’s memoir was the title, Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks, and Nonsense, because that makes it sound vague and light-hearted.

And it’s really not.

almost anywhere.jpgAlthough at times it is funny, that’s true (one reviewer called it a cross between Wild and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened). But Schlyer writes about her husband who (spoiler alert) died, so hers is a story about grief, too.

She writes so beautifully and specifically about her husband, her dog Maggie and the wonders of some of America’s amazing national parks that I can’t recommend this memoir highly enough. My sister gave it to me for Christmas. And it was a great gift.

Schlyer is writing about a nearly year-long journey living out of a station wagon and tent-camping at every national park, historic site, forest and wilderness she and her friend Bill…

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New Film: Border Walls and Boundaries

The US-Mexico border wall boondoggle didn’t start with Donald Trump. Despite its exorbitant cost, wasteful, ineffective nature, and destructive impact, all of the current presidential hopefuls – on both sides of the political spectrum – have voted in support of border wall on the southern US border. Bernie in 2013, Hillary in 2006, Ted Cruz every chance he gets. There are many reasons why Americans could resent this reality: the waste of billions of our taxpayer dollars over the past decade; the useless, farcical nature of walls as a means of stopping people from moving across the landscape; the thousands of migrant deaths it has led to on our southern border; the environmental destruction it has brought to many national parks, wilderness lands and wildlife refuges. This film is about one reason, one very important reason why building a border wall is not worth the cost.