The Voyage Has Begun

Chesapeake Bay: Rockhold Creek to Chester River

6-14-2020

Last Tuesday, June 8, 2020 we cast off lines at Town Point Marina in Deale, Maryland, and headed out into the Chesapeake Bay for what we hope is a 3-year voyage around the world. Dear friends began arriving around 8 am and we said a few words, read a poem of blessing, and sprinkled some champaign on Maggie May’s bow. The surge of emotion that accompanied all of this, caught me off guard. There are just some times in life when you have worked so hard on something, given everything you possibly have to make a dream become a reality (or stave off some catastrophe), when past, present and future well up together for a moment. All this to say, I barely got my words out, they were choked and garbled with raw relief, joy, apprehension and possibility. I think my friends understood. Here is the poem in full:

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blessing the boats
by Lucille Clifton

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

may you kiss

the wind then turn from it

certain that it will 

love your back may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that

Several friends sent this poem to me over the past few months, knowing our departure was imminent. It is so perfect in so many ways. 

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I looked back for a long time at my friends Margaret, Valerie, Dave and Anne waving goodbye from the dock where we spent so much time preparing Maggie May, and at our friends Tom and Emily who had brought their canoe to see us beyond the jetty. I looked back as long as I could, to remember that moment forever, to feel that love and the waves of gratitude for the life we have lived up to now. When I turned finally towards the bay, I turned to the great unknown I have longed for for all these many years, through so much grief, anxiety and inner turmoil. I turned toward fear and wonder and adventure and a life scoured to its barest elements.

The first leg of this voyage will be northerly so we headed the boat up the Bay towards the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The wind was light, 5-7 knots, but we managed to sail most of the way up to the bridge. I’d never passed under this immense span before. I’m not one to find awe in infrastructure, given all the damage it does ecologically, but passing under the Bay Bridge was something to remember, in part because of its mammoth imposition on the entire viewscape, and also because it was further than I had ever taken Maggie May to the north.

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Beyond the bridge we made straight for the Chester River, where we planned to anchor for the night. This river, the longest navigable waterway on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay, is home to the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, where we hoped to spend most of our time for the next days. But the wind was not favorable for an anchorage near the refuge, and the wind decides and we abide, so we headed deeper into the river to a little cove near the Comegys Bight. It was a good thing we did, because the weather grew nasty over the next few days. 

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Before the storm we had a few trips out in the dinghy to explore the nearby wetlands, beach and forest, finding many surprises, including the largest concentration of brown water snakes I have ever seen. Bill, terrified of snakes, vowed he would never set foot in this water after we made this discovery. We poled the dinghy into a shallow stream through thick wetlands and on the way out I noticed a little snake face staring out at us from the reeds. And then another and another and then, when we reached the mouth of the stream, a snake swam in right front of the dinghy with a fat, pale yellow fish with bewildered eyes, clamped in the snakes satisfied but anxious maw. The fish was easily three times the size of the snake’s head. I didn’t know they hunted for fish, and it was incredible to see this in action. 

Bill did not experience the same delight over this discovery as I did. 

As we got back to the Maggie May Bill was trying to secure the dinghy (Minnie May) and he wrenched his back painfully. His back had been bothering him for weeks, but I think the terror over the snakes and the jolting movement of the boat pushed him over an edge. And he probably had not been allowing his body to rest over the past weeks leading up to launch. Now his back has said, you will stay put for a while. So we have stayed anchored in this same Chester River spot for many days longer than we would have. Storms rolled over us and rolled on. Weekend boaters tubed in circles around us, their wakes tossing Maggie May about. Sun set and rose, casting its light and darkness upon the world. (c)Krista_Schlyer_-05688

I am content, wherever we are. I’ve spent the past 5 days learning how to live this life. I have learned many things, some important and some not so much. Here are 5:

  • Clothes are a nuisance, I shan’t be deploying them very often.
  • Peeing over the side of the boat (with the assistance of a she-wee, a tinkle-belle or other device) is liberating. Women of the wild, you must get one of these if you have not already.
  • Flies are obnoxious on land, intolerable on a boat.
  • Beer tastes delicious on land, on a boat the trumpets sound and the angels sing.
  • Being able to produce all of one’s own energy without dirty fossil fuels or industrial scale renewable energy is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. (I’ll do a blog on our systems one of these days.) We have met or exceeded our energy needs for the past 5 days with our solar panels and wind generator. 

 

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.

Waking Moon

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

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Fog envelops the upland forest of the U.S. National Arboretum this morning, where a monochromatic quilt of chocolate, café-au-lait, pale beige, and khaki cloth, blankets the woodland floor. Stitched in the shapes of oak, beech, poplar, black gum, and tupelo, they are a memory of November’s final act at the end of last year’s growing season. When the autumn curtain fell, it landed ever so softly here–and here it stayed to gentle the hand of winter; to give warmth to the roots and tiny creatures that slumber through snow and ice in the tired heart of the forest. These leaves are proof positive of things coming up before they fall, of what was and will be again. They blanket a promise the land is hiding under air alive with intrigue, under this watchful fog, November’s guise, a beguiling disguise for a wakeful land.

I crouch low to the ground and lift a corner of the leafy quilt. At first I find…soil. Just sleepy soil. The record of autumns past, of leaves rummaged by little bird feet, sorted and tossed by the busy hands of squirrels, chewed up by ant and worm and an unseen menagerie of insect oddities.  These characters, alchemists all, transform the spent and fallen leaves, the discarded solar collectors of the forest, into growing season gold. They transubstantiate sun and leaf, into life!

Just soil.

And upon it I find no insects crawling. Not one. No tiny skink, or ant; millipede or spider. Just soil–rich waiting, portentous, expectant earth. Soil is nothing. It is everything. As John Burroughs wrote: “The soil is marrowy and full of innumerable forests. Standing in these fragrant aisles, I feel the strength of the vegetable kingdom, and am awed by the deep and inscrutable processes of life going on so silently about me.”

It should be enough to find soil, to rejoice that, in fact, the dirt is right here where I last saw it. But today I seek something else, soil in its next form, transformed by sun and seed. There is no visual evidence, no sign on the forest floor of what lies below, this hidden hope, but I know it is there buried in the brittle brown pages of forest history.

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I lift another hem of the leafy quilt and there it is, my quarry: a small, determined cylinder, the size of my pinky finger and the color of alive; a nascent, newborn green digit, pointing itself with unbreakable determination toward the sun. This coil of leaf is wound so tightly around itself that the only visible evidence that it is not a solid mass are tiny lines that spiral round the outside of the sprout. The coil protects the tender plantling from the guile of winter’s last grasp, from the inescapable uncertainty above the warm earth; leafy layers harbor heat at the heart of the matter. The coil also creates a rigid structure strong enough to part the soil from which it must emerge. Such effort! Though my eyes cannot detect upward movement, I can almost hear it groaning with the strain. This taut, perfect package pushed its way from root through compressed earth, through topsoil and into humus, adding girth to its green self along the journey. It began as a germ. Using the rich decay of millennia of forest life it grew into a pregnant idea of a plant, a thought for a future life unfurled in the sun as a pretty little frog parasol planted in the forest floor.

Mayapple.

I knew you would be there, little green soldier always standing at the front lines of winter’s last stand. You see, war rages in the Anacostia watershed this morning. Noiseless and nearly imperceptible, it is the battle of two epic forces meeting at the boundary of their temporal domains.

Winter has staked an early, decisive claim over this March day, holding an icy hand over the land, bidding tree, insect, and amphibian to sleep…sleeeep. But spring entrenched itself into the soil yesterday and now rises up to meet the dawn calling flower, bird, and fox to wake! Wake! For the moment, neither will give ground and the clash spreads an enveloping fog over the land. I walk upon this misty precipice between restive winter and frenetic spring, imagining I might pinpoint the exact moment when frost surrenders to fecundity.

A week ago we had our first snowstorm of the strangely mild winter, along with bitter gale force winds raging through the watershed. Freezing rain formed icicles dripping like glass from the first rosy buds of redbud trees. The entire river landscape seemed dipped in glimmering liquid crystal.

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Transitions in time and thought, great battles between epic forces, do not come easily.

But now the sun lingers longer every day, melting ice from bud and coaxing the first blush of spring onto the fingertips of bare-armed maple trees. In the marshes, red-wing blackbirds and cattails grow bolder: the one flashes ever more fiery shoulder patches and ushers chattering challenges to rivals; while the other begins to push new green spikes through wetland earth. From within the lowland forest at the edge of the river, spring peepers have begun to chorus haltingly, their song charms water snakes, who begin to peek out of their cozy winter holes.

The robins are singing, the redbud has unfrozen, and the osprey has returned to the Anacostia sky. I spied him from my kayak a few days ago and such joy I felt when I recognized his far-off form, to know that against unimaginable odds he has survived his grueling odyssey to South America and back. Anacostia born and bred, his biology dictated that he make a life-or-death gamble on a three-thousand mile journey upon wind and wing. He had to find a safe winter haven, then gamble once again when he took flight for home, that spring would beat him back to the Anacostia. If by chance he had landed here on a city still covered with snow, a river whose fish were locked beneath a sheet of ice, death would have greeted him at the door of his lifelong home. He could not go back to Brazil, weary as he would be. He would have to simply lay down upon the Anacostia earth and melt away.  When the osprey arrives home in March, I know there is no going back to winter. As Aldo Leopold said of the Canada goose’s return to Sand County: “His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”

Every year, when the osprey returns and the hours of light and darkness are poised in near perfect equilibrium, winter’s pale chill lingers despite spring’s onrushing radiance. When the forest remains asleep but with eyes aflutter, I come to this forested bluff at the edge of the Anacostia, searching. Ostensibly, I am searching for a particular sign of the coming spring, a very small electric green sign that signals the land has marked the approaching angle of the sun.

But I am also looking for something less tangible, something entirely insubstantial but enormous; a pathway of memory to an elusive portal leading to the Anacostia of old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

From every slumber there must be an awakening.

***

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.

River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia

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

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

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

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

Reviews of River of Redemption

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

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

 

RIVER OF REDEMPTION SYNOPSIS

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

A bald eagle on the Anacostia River, Washington DC.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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.