Fire and Ice Moon

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

 

Anacostia 1-2014-7930

February: The fire and ice moon

An ashen cloud shrouds Kenilworth Park in cold, gray shadow this morning, casting an especially bleak pall on the asphalt moonscape that sprawls across the southern end the park. Winter wind strikes my face as I gaze westward across a field of pocked gravel and bare turf, toward the sliver of remnant forest that lines the river. The voice of a distant Carolina wren, perched across the river, rings out from the forested bluffs of the National Arboretum. His loud, sweet song lofts along the Anacostia, an optimistic note challenging the drear of the day. I take a few steps toward the little crooner then stop, gazing for one wistful moment in the direction of the quixotic bird. Would that I could go to the river and sit in quiet audience until he has tired of singing; that I could watch clouds dance to the tune of a jaunty north wind, capering along with the river as it rolls on ever toward the sea.

Instead, I force my feet to walk in the opposite direction, obligated by the singular reason I have come here on this particular morning. February 15. The anniversary of bedrock bottom for the battered soul of the Anacostia. What happened here 49 years ago today, the river will always remember.

I turn my eyes to a blank, recently plowed expanse of bare earth to the southeast, stretching 100 yards toward the mouth of the Watts Branch. This ocean of dirt, made heavy by the moist winter wind, and made tidy by machinery over the past week, cannot hide what lies beneath–the last immortal remains of the Kenilworth dump.

It will not be mourned.

For most, it is long forgotten.

Kenilworth Park is a National Park Service property within Anacostia Park.

Kenilworth Park, National Park Service land along the Anacostia River that served as the District of Columbia city dump from the 1940s to the 1970s.

But forgetting a hidden wound doesn’t heal it. No matter how deep we bury this place in the crypt of collective memory, it shadows us, a toxic emotional and ecological undercurrent of our river community, one of those deep hairline fissures set in motion when English settlers followed John Smith up the Potomac, bringing with them the seeds of the Anacostia’s destruction, quite literally.

Tobacco.

Introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers in the West Indies, tobacco had become a hallmark of social status with the ruling class, a superfluity whose sole purpose was to broadcast a personal dominion over the chains of fear and want.

Demand grew as renowned physicians began to lecture and publish articles about the health benefits of this new plant from the colonies—which, according to some was a medical cure-all; a solution to every manner of malady from headaches, constipation, snake bites, and joint pain, to “rottenness of the mouth” and “windiness.”

As news of its prowess spread, tobacco became the economic foundation of the struggling British colonies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. So central was this plant to colonial success, that setting a minimum price for the commodity was the first item on the agenda at the very first meeting of the first elected governing body in the North American colonies. That meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses took place at the Jamestown Church in 1619. That same year, the first 20 African slaves were sold in Jamestown.

Up until this time, British colonies had proved themselves hapless in both the growing of food crops and the building of relationships with native peoples. For the floundering colonies, tobacco offered a way out and a way up; a means of transferring wealth and power from Europe to the New World. Wealth would buy weapons for conquest and expansion, food for sustenance, and slaves to produce more tobacco and keep the cycle of wealth and power flowing. With a growing demand and natural scarcity of tobacco in Europe, sales were assured; and the production opportunity in the colonies was bounded only by the supply of labor and land, and a means of transport abroad. In the Anacostia, these bounds could be removed by slavery, suppression of the Nacotchtank, and the river.

Tobacco production in the Chesapeake colonies exploded in the 17thcentury, from 20,000 pounds in 1619, to 38 million pounds at the turn of the 18thcentury, just 80 years later. In the same span of time, the number of African slaves tending the tobacco economy grew from 20 to 700,000.

(c)KristaSchlyer Anacostia-11

Tobacco production in the Anacostia River watershed stripped the land of protective forests and led to silt pollution pouring into the river. Modern development and deforestation continues to add to this pollution. This site at Bladensburg was historically 40 feet deep and crystal clear.

By 1640, both Maryland and Virginia had made tobacco official legal tender–cash money. It’s really no wonder then, why forests were scraped clean off the land: they could be quickly transformed into money that literally sprouted from the ground. For 150 pounds of tobacco, a man might buy more land or a larder full of groceries; or he might purchase an English woman for a wife, or 5 years of the life of an indentured servant, or put a down-payment on the entire life of a slave–all of which would help the planter cut down more trees to grow more tobacco money to buy more land and people.

The tobacco economy that dominated the first centuries of European presence in the Chesapeake Bay watershed destroyed the natural ecology of the Anacostia and other sub-watersheds of the Bay. This once 40-foot deep site of the Anacostia River was polluted by silt runoff from clearcut land.

This tobacco cycle ripped like a cyclone over the Chesapeake Bay and into its sub-watersheds, including the Anacostia, leaving a waste of broken ecological and human communities in its wake. And like a cyclone, the ravaging of the tobacco economy could not be stopped until the forces that fueled it were spent: either demand for tobacco eased, or the supply chain was disrupted. Until then, the pursuit of tobacco riches would continue to scour the land and soil and soul of an embryonic nation, hardening the concrete of a European economic model in which wealth was defined by profits, land, and slaves.

How you define wealth, defines you in turn.

 

***

 

You can buy a copy of River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia at your local bookstore, online booksellers like Amazon, and you can get a signed copy in my online bookstore.

This is a rant, be warned

I took a few hours last night to participate in my local government by attending an input session for the Prince George’s County, Maryland, master plan for environmental, rural and agricultural conservation. There are of course many ways to get involved in the future of the little spot of Earth I occupy, but I think there is something especially encouraging and meaningful in understanding and trying to effect the land planning process.
Marbled salamander

Marbled salamander

These are plans that will affect the next decades of my county which spans the ultra-urban Anacostia River watershed, my great love, to the rural Patuxent River watershed, and south to the Potomac River. Some of my most favorite friends live in these lands, from the great blue heron and marbled salamander to spring peepers and northern brown snakes. For watershed health, wildlife habitat and ecosystem restoration, these plans could have a greater effect than anything else going on in my county, either for good or ill. Bad planning in the past has effected heartbreaking consequences, everything from the further devastation of the Anacostia River through the paving of the watershed, to clear-cut forests in the Patuxent watershed that make way for developments with names that drip with acrid irony like Forest Haven or Heron Bend (I made those up, but you all know what I’m talking about).

This forest was cleared to build a Whole Foods.

Last night’s input session was geared toward environmentalists and there will be others focused on hearing the thoughts of agricultural interests and developers. Some of the haggard enviros who attended last night looked as if they had been trudging to these same meetings for 40 years, and some probably had. And some of those expressed a tired anger, for being ignored for 40 years and having to go to another meeting and express the same thoughts about how the term “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, and how the best way to halt rural development and destruction of ecosystems is to stop incentivizing it by having taxpayers fund the extension of sewers and maintenance of new roads.
I can understand their frustration. This was my first planning meeting but I’ve seen things, ohhhh I’ve seen things, nonsensical things happening around the county that just make you think, whose in charge here and how is it possible they are still making all the same bad decisions we made 50 years ago? More parking lots in parks that never have full parking lots, rather than more trees and meadows. New roads that are not built with permeable paving, bioswales, rain gardens and bike lanes. We know how to do this people. We know how to be better citizens of earth, how not to pollute our rivers and air, how to create green spaces that provide homes for birds and cute little critters trying to make their way in the world, and for people whose lives and hearts are elevated by being able to see said cute critters and pretty winged things. Why aren’t we just doing it!!
I know, I know, things take time. This is true. Many of the incomprehensible developments we see have been in the planning stages for decades. There’s a particular Whole Foods development on a former forest that raises my blood pressure every time I see it, its been at lease a decade in the works (when finished it will have a big sign that says Whole Foods of Forest Haven – I made that up) .
This time delay means we won’t see the fruits of our current conservation-planning efforts for perhaps decades more. I have some hope about what those decades may bring. Some of that comes from seeing the spread of good ideas throughout the Washington DC metro area, in government, nonprofits, residents. Specifically last night it came from watching the residents and government planners engage, and continue to try to effect good outcomes, and perhaps specifically from the opening words of Adam Ortiz, director of the Prince Georges Department of the Environment. If he had been a random bureaucrat, I may have considered the possibility that he was blowing smoke up our asses (sorry Adam, I know some of the more haggard enviros thought that). But Adam is a friend, a much respected friend with a keen heart and mind. And he said something that resonated with me, something that inspired me to write all this down.
I’m paraphrasing…and embellishing, but he expressed the idea that along with a responsibility to protect our Earth this conservation planning effort was an exercise in connection. Connection to our space on this planet, our home, yes, but also connection to others who share or have shared or will share this space. What we see around us, what many of us lament as bad decisions and loss of something valuable, that was the work of those who came before us. They gathered in rooms like the one we were in last night, they talked about their vision for the future, and yes it was a shitty vision in many ways. But they put much of themselves into planning how to live in this land, and did the best they could with the information and knowledge they had at the time.
Now is our time. Our part in the story of this landscape, this ecosystem of people and rivers and wild creatures and loveliest flowers. We get to make different decisions, hopefully more thoughtful ones informed by all we have learned since those centuries of planners before us. And in the future, 30, 50, 100 years from now, there may be a room full of people cursing our name for making such pathetic decisions, but hopefully they will know we worked together and we tried our best.
And just in case none of my ideas make it into the plan, I’m setting them down here. (So that the future people in that conservation planning room don’t blame me.)
Guiding principles:
  • Net gain of forest canopy and native wildlife habitat.
  • Highest best use of government park land – turf, unless it is a ball field, is not the highest best use. All excess turf and any parking facilities that are not consistently filled to max should be converted to native meadows and forests.
  • All utility corridors should be native pollinator meadows, this will help struggling native pollinators, AND help the county agriculture system by providing little worker bees.
  • An incentive program that provides a mechanism for all new developments to contribute a meaningful amount of money to a land conservation and restoration fund.
  • Green infrastructure should be a mandate for new roads, development and anything that creates an impermeable surface, and a preference should be given to techniques that have the multiple benefits of providing stormwater retention, native habitat and beauty.
  • An end to taxpayer-funded incentives for development in rural, forested or other lands that provide important ecosystem services, wildlife habitat and green space. We should be incentivizing redevelopment only. There’s so many boarded up, broken down, paved places in this county, we could redevelop for a century and not run out of crappy dilapidated spaces to fix up.
We know how to do this people. Let’s not invite the scorn of our future selves.
Thank you to those who had the stamina to read this to the end.

Anacostia

The Wildest Part of Washington DC

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.

Meet more Anacostia neighbors in my photo gallery.

Anacostia Story

The Anacostia River was abused and neglected for more than a century, becoming one of the nation’s most polluted rivers, right in the heart of Washington DC. Today there is growing momentum for restoration of this watershed, but for a full recovery watershed residents must awake, and the Anacostia Story must be told. This slideshow represents a vision for a coffee table book about the Anacostia River, to be used to help elevate awareness and understanding of the watershed, and help more firmly establish the Anacostia’s central role in the quality of life of Washington DC residents.
Click on the first slide below to start the slideshow.

The Anacostia Project

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.

Anacostia 7-2014-7094 copy

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.

Learn more about the Anacostia Project here.