Posted on August 27, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
Support this journey and blog
My plan was always to do a free blog to share the journeys of Maggie May and any cool, interesting and important things we might find along the way. Even with all the setbacks we've had, I want this to be a free blog. But if you are enjoying the story, and have some funds to support this journey and ongoing storytelling, the funds will help us continue on this path. Thanks!
Category: Almost Anywhere, Anacostia, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, bioluminescence, boat, Chesapeake Bay, clean water act, envirnomental, environment, krista schlyer, Maggie May, maryland, nature, North America, sailing, summer, sv maggie may, swimming, water, water quality, watershed
Posted on March 11, 2019
The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press. 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.
February: The fire and ice moon
An ashen cloud shrouds Kenilworth Park in cold, gray shadow this morning, casting an especially bleak pall on the asphalt moonscape that sprawls across the southern end the park. Winter wind strikes my face as I gaze westward across a field of pocked gravel and bare turf, toward the sliver of remnant forest that lines the river. The voice of a distant Carolina wren, perched across the river, rings out from the forested bluffs of the National Arboretum. His loud, sweet song lofts along the Anacostia, an optimistic note challenging the drear of the day. I take a few steps toward the little crooner then stop, gazing for one wistful moment in the direction of the quixotic bird. Would that I could go to the river and sit in quiet audience until he has tired of singing; that I could watch clouds dance to the tune of a jaunty north wind, capering along with the river as it rolls on ever toward the sea.
Instead, I force my feet to walk in the opposite direction, obligated by the singular reason I have come here on this particular morning. February 15. The anniversary of bedrock bottom for the battered soul of the Anacostia. What happened here 49 years ago today, the river will always remember.
I turn my eyes to a blank, recently plowed expanse of bare earth to the southeast, stretching 100 yards toward the mouth of the Watts Branch. This ocean of dirt, made heavy by the moist winter wind, and made tidy by machinery over the past week, cannot hide what lies beneath–the last immortal remains of the Kenilworth dump.
It will not be mourned.
For most, it is long forgotten.
But forgetting a hidden wound doesn’t heal it. No matter how deep we bury this place in the crypt of collective memory, it shadows us, a toxic emotional and ecological undercurrent of our river community, one of those deep hairline fissures set in motion when English settlers followed John Smith up the Potomac, bringing with them the seeds of the Anacostia’s destruction, quite literally.
Introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers in the West Indies, tobacco had become a hallmark of social status with the ruling class, a superfluity whose sole purpose was to broadcast a personal dominion over the chains of fear and want.
Demand grew as renowned physicians began to lecture and publish articles about the health benefits of this new plant from the colonies—which, according to some was a medical cure-all; a solution to every manner of malady from headaches, constipation, snake bites, and joint pain, to “rottenness of the mouth” and “windiness.”
As news of its prowess spread, tobacco became the economic foundation of the struggling British colonies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. So central was this plant to colonial success, that setting a minimum price for the commodity was the first item on the agenda at the very first meeting of the first elected governing body in the North American colonies. That meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses took place at the Jamestown Church in 1619. That same year, the first 20 African slaves were sold in Jamestown.
Up until this time, British colonies had proved themselves hapless in both the growing of food crops and the building of relationships with native peoples. For the floundering colonies, tobacco offered a way out and a way up; a means of transferring wealth and power from Europe to the New World. Wealth would buy weapons for conquest and expansion, food for sustenance, and slaves to produce more tobacco and keep the cycle of wealth and power flowing. With a growing demand and natural scarcity of tobacco in Europe, sales were assured; and the production opportunity in the colonies was bounded only by the supply of labor and land, and a means of transport abroad. In the Anacostia, these bounds could be removed by slavery, suppression of the Nacotchtank, and the river.
Tobacco production in the Chesapeake colonies exploded in the 17thcentury, from 20,000 pounds in 1619, to 38 million pounds at the turn of the 18thcentury, just 80 years later. In the same span of time, the number of African slaves tending the tobacco economy grew from 20 to 700,000.
By 1640, both Maryland and Virginia had made tobacco official legal tender–cash money. It’s really no wonder then, why forests were scraped clean off the land: they could be quickly transformed into money that literally sprouted from the ground. For 150 pounds of tobacco, a man might buy more land or a larder full of groceries; or he might purchase an English woman for a wife, or 5 years of the life of an indentured servant, or put a down-payment on the entire life of a slave–all of which would help the planter cut down more trees to grow more tobacco money to buy more land and people.
The tobacco economy that dominated the first centuries of European presence in the Chesapeake Bay watershed destroyed the natural ecology of the Anacostia and other sub-watersheds of the Bay. This once 40-foot deep site of the Anacostia River was polluted by silt runoff from clearcut land.
This tobacco cycle ripped like a cyclone over the Chesapeake Bay and into its sub-watersheds, including the Anacostia, leaving a waste of broken ecological and human communities in its wake. And like a cyclone, the ravaging of the tobacco economy could not be stopped until the forces that fueled it were spent: either demand for tobacco eased, or the supply chain was disrupted. Until then, the pursuit of tobacco riches would continue to scour the land and soil and soul of an embryonic nation, hardening the concrete of a European economic model in which wealth was defined by profits, land, and slaves.
How you define wealth, defines you in turn.
Posted on January 6, 2016
Posted on May 29, 2014
Posted on March 25, 2014
We all have a stake in what happens to our rivers, but perhaps none more so than the wild neighbors who share our urban waters and green space. They go unnoticed most of the time. They’re not present in the meetings where decisions are made to cut down urban forests, or pave over vernal pools.
In the Anacostia watershed in Washington DC and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland, thousands of wild animal and plant species depend on the decisions we make. If we are going to choose wisely for them, and for us, we need to get to know our neighbors.
Posted on March 18, 2014
Posted on March 11, 2014
The Anacostia was once a river teeming with fish, turtles and aquatic mammals that nurtured a rich biological community including native peoples descendent from the Algonquin tribe. But history descended upon the Anacostia when the Chesapeake Bay became one of the first centers of European colonization. First deforested and polluted by agricultural runoff, then forgotten and polluted further by urban runoff, the Anacostia diminished to one of the nations most denuded river ecosystems.
But change is afoot.
A growing grassroots revival and renewed interest by municipal and county governments to restore this river has brought hope to the Anacostia and the many people and wild species that live along its shores. This river has the potential to be a natural gem supporting improved quality of life, economic improvement and habitat for plants and animals of the region. Surprisingly, there remain long stretches of the river, (which lies almost entirely within the Washington D.C. metropolitan area), that have not been developed.
The Anacostia Project aims to help local non-profits and governments build a campaign of community support around the river, to document current efforts to restore the river, and encourage local leaders to both recognize the great value of the river, and then make the Anacostia a priority.