The Grace of Sharks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nurse sharks at Staniel Cay, Exumas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andiamo’s Gift

Fort Pierce, Florida, Birthplace of Maggie May

Everything tastes so much better when you have reached the far side of an unexpected ordeal. My coffee this morning. The new box of Walkers shortbread I just opened. The breakfast eggs and potatoes Bill made. Some 16 hours ago I thought there would be no more breakfasts on the Maggie May. Just for about 60 seconds, or maybe 10 minutes, it’s hard to gauge this precisely when each second stretches and stretches beyond the theoretical elasticity of that particular unit of time. 

Stillness in the Camache Cove marina, the night before departure in St. Augustine, Florida.

We cast off lines in St. Augustine geared up to get south of West Palm, Florida, where we planned to take a relatively short, straight line across the Gulf Stream to reach the Bahamas. But first we would sail offshore to Fort Pierce, then get back on the inland waterway to travel another day south to the Lake Worth inlet. In central Florida the space between the Gulf Stream and land narrows to almost nothing. Fort Pierce was about as far we could go in the ocean before the current would be against us. For a sailboat whose max hull speed is 7.5 knots and average speed of 4-5 knots depends entirely on the generosity of the wind, a 2-4 knot current can send you backwards. So, we planned to go to Fort Pierce offshore, then head in for the last stretch on the Intracoastal Waterway. 

When we arrived at the St. Augustine inlet, we started to head out toward the ocean but the narrow channel looked rough. We had timed it for high tide slack, but getting timing right on tide and current, especially in unfamiliar inlets, is one of the biggest challenges we face. If you get it wrong, things can go oh-so-very-wrong. And we haven’t had a lot of experience. We checked tide tables and weather and even asked for advice from a local TowBoat US captain, who said something to the effect of:  Its a weird inlet. Days I think it is going to be near impassable and it’s calm as a pond. Other days I think its going to be easy and…

Not super helpful.

We hesitated at the entrance to the inlet, then turned the boat around and went to the mooring field in town. While we were talking over our options, we saw a sailboat about our size moving toward the inlet. We decided to watch them and then hail the boat on the VHF to see if it was a reasonable time to go. I made note of the boat’s name: Andiamo Two

We followed and watched their passage through the inlet. It looked a bit rough, but they managed it and made it to the ocean side. Meanwhile another sailboat much smaller than ours was also heading out. Bill followed that boat and I hailed Andiamo Two on the VHF.  “Andiamo Two, Andiamo Two. This is Maggie May,” I waited for an answer. Repeated. No reply. 

We then noticed the smaller sailboat had thought better of the thing and turned about. In a few minutes we saw the wisdom of their choice as there were 6 foot very steep waves that began to crash over Maggie May’s nose. It was too late to turn back without risking a hit broad side and getting knocked down in that narrow space between two jagged rock jetties. The entire space between the jetties consisted of a cement mixer of steep and breaking waves. Wave after wave rushing toward us and on every hit Maggie May’s bow would bury in the chaos. As her nose came up, water would crash over the boat toward the cockpit and over our dodger and bimini (cockpit covering). Maggie May had never taken such a pounding. I just kept my eyes on the waves and on goddam Andiamo Two beyond the chaos. If they could get through…

Finally the waves began to subside a few feet and we began to breath again. We both looked a little bitterly at Andiamo Two, now with her sails happily up and heading south. 

Andiamo. We should have known from the name not to follow them,” Bill said.

“Who is the greater fool: the fool? or the fool who follows him,”  I offered, referencing Obi-Wan. “And Andiamo Two? I think we know what happened to Andiamo One.”

With that out of our systems we began raising the sails. The waves were still somewhat steep and unpleasant, and I had gotten a good head start on some seasickness, but with the sails up Maggie May handles these conditions better than under engine. I was, since we had made it through, relieved that Andiamo Two had helped make our decision for us. We might still have been deliberating on the mooring field, or have decided to stay and wait out the cold fronts, or travel the ICW all the way to West Palm, and I was eager to be out on the ocean again.

We started our watch schedule. Two hours at the helm, two hours resting. I took the first turn at the helm. 

Conditions were not what we had hoped. The forecast called for wind going east, but it stayed north/northeast. Since we were headed south, that meant we were near dead downwind much of the time with waves frequently rocking the boat side-to-side as well as hobby horsing us when the wind would slacken. The wind was also lighter than expected, 5-10 knots rather than 10-15, which makes a big difference for a boat like Maggie May when running downwind. With so little wind to fill the sails, and with the main often blocking wind from getting to the genoa (that’s the big sail at the front of the boat), the genoa would frequently flap around wildly. The waves were disrupting the angle of the wind on the sails, making the boat want to jibe wantonly. We had a preventer rigged to keep the main from jibing accidentally, but the genoa was a wild card, herking-jerking with ill timed wind and wave. At one point the unpredictable motion knocked Bill against a teak corner down below, hurting his back. Had it not been for that we would have used our new gib pole, designed to make the genoa behave in just such conditions. But it takes some effort to set up and Bill’s back together with my seasickness made us disinclined to tackle this. 

Sometimes sailing can be the most beautiful, peaceful thing. Wind, sails, hull and waves in perfect connection. The best feeling, flying over the ocean quietly, as a living part of it, rather than as a machine plowing through. 

This was not that feeling. 

When you need to go one way and the wind strongly suggests you go another, you may be able to do what you want, but wind and water will make sure you suffer for it. We had to go our way. The wind wanted us to head toward the Gulf Stream, with a cold front blowing in from the north. That is the worst possible scenario. We were not going there. So we sailed on as best we could until the wind wandered off altogether. We also needed to get where we were going at a certain time. Inlets are often challenging for boats, as evidenced by our exit from St. Augustine. We hoped to time our arrival at the Fort Pierce inlet for slack tide the next afternoon, so we wouldn’t be facing the rage of an outgoing current against a wind coming from the east, or heading into the unfamiliar inlet in the dark. Rather than toss around on the ocean until the wind returned we switched on the engine. There was an upside to this. With just an hour of daylight left, I spotted a dolphin near the bow, and then another and another. They were following the boat, surfing our bow wake. I scrambled up to watch them darting in and out of our wake, a confluence of effortless power, speed and grace. Like creatures built of nothing but water and light, chaperoning Maggie May into the night.  

When the dolphins moved on I suggested to Bill that he go rest his back, while I take back-to-back watches. He protested.  But I reminded him that he had done that for me on the last passage and it was my turn. 

I was on watch when the sun went down behind the Florida coast and shortly afterward, when Sirius and Orion became visible on the southeastern horizon. These two guided the boat through much of the night, with a third companion surfacing from the east shortly thereafter. It appeared first as a strange irregular orange pinpoint on the horizon. Earlier Bill had pointed out an endless line of cumulus clouds to the east and said, “I bet that’s the Gulf Stream.” That white band had become a dark band and within it was a strange orange glow, not very large, which I mistook for the light of a ship. Then it dawned, no, that’s the moon mostly hidden within a wall of moisture risen from the world’s largest ocean current. I felt a sharp pang in my chest. On reflection, it brings tears to my eyes. We haven’t come that far, relative to our initial goal, but every inch was hard won physically and emotionally and this sight is a dream. 

I hadn’t expected the moon to rise quite so soon and before long it had risen above the cumulus wall and was fully visible, deep orange and enormous. Just a tad waning but fully gibbous. My mind went immediately to a memory from 25 years past of my boyfriend Dan telling me about the moon illusion. We had seen a full moon rise over Tucson, Arizona, a giant of moons it seemed. He explained how its apparent size was a trick of perception because in fact the moon remains the same size and can even be measured to show it occupies the same space regardless of where it is in the sky, but our eyes cannot see it as the same size. “You can take your finger and cover the moon from view on the horizon. Then take the same finger at the same distance from your eye and cover the moon anywhere in the sky. It is the same relative size. But your eyes see something different,” he said in awe. There are many hypotheses as to what causes this illusion, but it remains somewhat mysterious, he told me. 

What a gift to have such a moon bookending memories throughout a lifetime. Dan has been gone for more than 20 years now, cancer took him from my life and the world at age 28, but he was so present with me as the moon ascended, chasing Canus Major westward across the sky. 

I almost went down and woke Bill so he could see it, twice I got up to do so, but figured he should rest. After the moon had fully risen and shrunk to half its size in my eyes, he came up the companionway stairs. 

“You can still rest, I’m doing fine,” I said. 

“I can’t sleep, I may as well be on watch.” 

So I went down to record my watch log (weather, lat/lon position, sea state, observations, etc) and then climbed into my sea berth. (This is a special bed with high sides, or in this case a lee cloth, to keep one from tumbling out as the boat rocks and rolls.) It took a while to fall asleep, and as soon as I did, it seemed, Bill was shaking my shoulder gently. I looked up at him, “My turn?” 

I gathered my stuff under a red night vision light. When I climbed up the companionway into the cockpit, it seemed like a pale blue version of daylight had descended. The moon was now nearly overhead, just to port of the mast. On the starboard side, off the bow, Sirius and Orion. This orientation guided me throughout the watch. My seasickness had now ebbed almost completely. In the moonlight I could always keep sight of the horizon. I can see why so many sailors are inclined to start a passage on a full moon. The full dark can be so disorienting until you get accustomed to it. With the moon I could see everything I needed. Maggie May continued to be bounced by the ocean swell, but we were on motor through the night so at least the sails weren’t banging and thrashing with every wave. I dislike the sound of the engine, there is something troubling and tiring about the grind and vibration of it, so we try to sail at every possible moment. But if we missed our chance to enter the Fort Pierce inlet at slack tide the following day, we risked be caught outside the inlet for days without a safe window to enter. Such was the doom of the weather forecast.

Bill and I traded watches through the night and at dawn I rose and made myself some tea before taking over. When I got on deck there was already a faint glow to the east and a strange line of shadows all along the horizon, very near. The sight took me aback. For a moment I was sure I saw an impossible dark forest stretching the length of the Atlantic Ocean, with the sun about to rise behind it. In fact, while I slept we had come to our closest approach to the Gulf Stream. 

“Wow, the Gulf Stream is so close!” 

Before long the sun had broken the cloud forest spectacularly, the clouds fracturing its piercing rays into diffuse beams of yellow and orange. For the rest of the morning Bill and I sat watch together. When we were about 2 hours from Fort Pierce, the wind began to pick up so we were able to turn the motor off and sail the last stretch. The wind continued to increase to a steady 20 knots and we arrived early to the inlet, about 2 pm, with low tide forecast to be 3:08. We needed slack water, so we turned around and headed back out for 45 minutes before turning around again and sailing back in. 

At this point we should have hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF and inquired about timing on entering the inlet. With the strengthening wind, the ocean was beginning to heave. We were torn between getting through the inlet before it got worse, or making sure the ebb current had gone fully slack. We each had read that the number one thing is not to go into an inlet when there is a current opposing wind, especially the ebb current (the current created by the tide going out). But it can be hard to judge when the current will shift in inlets, and we did not know these waters. We waited until 3:25, thinking the tidal current had surely slackened or reversed at that point since we were well past low tide. But we had seen no other boats going in the inlet, a sign it was not yet a good idea. Just then, several boats arrived and appeared to enter successfully. (Though we were still a mile out and couldn’t see the details). 

We started our approach. Another boat, which seemed to have been playing the same waiting game, was following about 10 minutes behind us.

At first it seemed all was fine. We had about 3-5 foot ocean swell behind us, but it was manageable. I took the binoculars and looked at the inlet, rough, but it didn’t seem worse than what we were in. We continued on past the outer channel markers. I looked again through the binoculars at the narrow channel between the jetties. There were waves crashing occasionally against the rocks but the conditions in the channel appeared to be about what we were experiencing, I thought. I said as much to Bill. But doubt nagged me. Who am I to say? I don’t know what it should look like through binoculars. I know I’m looking at a distortion but is the real better than the distortion or worse? And if we wait does this get even worse and so is this our chance? 

Bill interrupted my inner dispute. “Keep a lookout behind me for big waves on the stern. I can’t see them and a big one could cause a broach.”

I looked behind him and the waves were not large but one hit us on the port quarter and threw MM’s nose to port. 

“Like that one,” Bill commented. 

“That didn’t look large, but ok,” I said. 

The waves remained constant for the 8-10 minutes it took to get the second set of red and green channel markers. It was clear the ebb current was still running against us, but so far it was only a knot or two. I could see the other boat behind us at the entrance to the channel, pacing back and forth indecisively, perhaps watching to see how we fared. And then I saw the wave sets between us begin to grow measurably, 5-6 feet now and increasing speed. 

“You have a bigger one coming on,” I said to Bill. It lifted Maggie May and twisted us about. “And another one.” Bill struggled to keep the boat straight. Thankfully, just behind us there was a lull, the waves 4 feet and not as steep but also not relenting. 

“You have a little breather, no big ones just now.” 

His face was focused, intent. 

Ahead of us the sea was heaping upon itself, marching in relentless battle-formation battalions toward the beach that lay south of the port side jetty. In the channel ahead, a melee of whitewater peaks and valleys awaited. The water broke violently over land and rocks. Perhaps 50-100 people were gathered on the jetty, fishing, wind surfing and perhaps as spectating at the inlet coliseum. We were still 500-1000 yards from the worst of it. I knew it was going to be hairy based on two things: the current was now 3.5 knots against us, and the waves were mounding up in front of us in a way that made our bow look improbably small. But it wasn’t until I turned around that I realized hairy didn’t begin to cover it. The lull had given way to 7-8 foot and higher waves as far as my eyes could see. 

Every soft thing inside my ribcage lurched and then plunged into a bottomless pit. I looked at Bill, steadied my voice and said, “You’ve got some big ones coming. Not too big, but bigger.” This was a lie. They were too big, but that didn’t seem like helpful information. 

When the first one hit it twisted Maggie May 40 degrees to port while pushing the whole boat some 10-20 feet to starboard. There were buoys marking the channel and wave after wave was tossing us to starboard and toward the red buoy and the rock jetty beyond. To compensate Bill would turn the helm to port and then starboard, the big danger being that every turn put us for a moment at least partially beam-to the waves and a direct hit broadside could knock us down or pull us under. Not compensating was not an option. Timing was everything and it was going to have to be impeccable if we were going to get through this. 

I looked forward and saw massive waves, lines of them mounded higher than our decks and heads, ceaselessly breaking from the weight of themselves. This was beyond my capacity to process. I’ve never wanted to not go somewhere so much in all my life. (This is saying something, because I’ve had to go many places I really did not want to go.) But options were limited to one. There was no way out but through. Beyond the middle of the jetty the water calmed to such an extent that there were people in small skiffs fishing peacefully. But I had almost no hope at that point that we could arrive there safely. I was certain that, if not this wave then the next, would hit us just wrong, sending the SVMM hurdling out of control and that here, the very place we bought Maggie May (then known as Vilkas) 7 years ago, was where she would end. I could above all else feel my heart pounding within my chest, or stomach or somewhere, trying to pump wave upon wave of blood, trying to keep pace with the angry ocean. I looked back at the waves charging behind us, thrashing against stern and beam and I looked at Bill, fierce determination, concentration, or was it blankness? This could be the beginnings of catatonia. Or, he is in that place of focus where it’s just him and the boat and the water. I hoped for the latter. I had stopped telling him about the giants behind. It seemed redundant. 

At one point, at the crest of a wave, I saw that the sailboat behind had followed us. This answered my question about the distorted image one sees from afar. Definitely worse. I wanted to hail them and say ‘don’t do it!’ but just then I could not move. I noticed then that the waves behind us were slightly smaller. I wanted to tell Bill but I didn’t know if it would last and didn’t want to break his focus. I looked ahead to an unbroken line of wave that reminded me of a hydraulic in a class 5 rapid. We entered, and when it spit us out, we were out, just like that, the end. But thankfully not The End. 

I looked back at Bill and gave a little whimper before turning back forward as we passed a man in a small skiff serenely willing a fish to bite his line. 

At anchor in Fort Pierce, Florida

We headed to the nearest anchorage, watching the sailboat behind us navigate the inlet, ready to call the Coast Guard if need be. When the boat was safely inside it pulled past us as we were anchoring. Bill read the name on the stern aloud “Andiamo Two.”

Breakfast the next morning offered time for calm reflection. We did not arrive at Fort Pierce unprepared. We did our best to find the right information. But local knowledge is key to inlet passage, and we didn’t have all the information we needed. We know now what more we should have done, including more in-depth research into tide and current stations for this inlet and more voices giving us local insight. We won’t make the same mistakes again. But having faced the worst conditions we have yet encountered with Maggie May, we have a confidence we would not have otherwise attained. Bill has some experience at the helm in handling seas that one hopes to never have to handle. His mind went to focus, not panic. For that alone the experience was priceless. And we were never truly in danger, with so many people and the Coast Guard nearby for a rescue. But the boat and this dream was.

Less tangibly, the passage at Fort Pierce gave us this: fear, want… these emotions connect us to all living things, and to the hardships that forged us each to our own kind. Challenge, terror and survival seem to pluck a string that resonates those universal tones, making colors seem brighter, food taste tastier, each breath seem sweeter. This is what adventure gives us that a vacation does not. Not just a rest from hard work or the usual sights and sounds of life, but a passage beyond the safety and security we intentionally build around ourselves, a fortress with no visible boundaries but which makes life smaller somehow. Longer, but smaller. I’m not a person who craves danger, I do my very best to avoid it. But having lived with death or danger nearby on many occasions in life—some inadvertently sought and some that came barreling over me unawares—I understand what nearness to this threshold offers the creaturely mind. Ineffable awe for the mere fact of being alive with lungs for breathing, hands for holding a coffee cup, and taste buds that spring to life for a cookie. 

We now plan to savor this life for a while in the land of manatees before crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. There is a tricky dance we will need to do in order to align the demands of Covid restrictions with the implacable force of the Gulf Stream and ill-tempered winter weather. We will wait out the worst of the cold front season in Cape Canaveral, lessening at least one of the trifecta of hurdles between us and the Exhumas. 

Donuts in the Desert

ST. MARY’S RIVER, 11-5-2020 — Yesterday afternoon we sailed up the St. Mary’s River on a light wind from the southeast. This river, which we have returned to several times over the past months, runs southward from its headwaters to its mouth at the lower stretches of the Potomac. Along the way it twists and turns making for good Maggie May protection from any weather surprises. (As well as some great birding and one of the best bakeries I have ever been to. (ENSO mmmmmm))

Golden-crowned kinglet in St. Mary’s River

The gentle winds of yesterday allowed us to sail into anchor, rather than switching the motor on. Bill handled the helm, steering us into the watery nook where St. Mary’s College is located, nosing Maggie May into the wind, dropping her mainsail, and waiting for the wind to settle the boat’s forward motion. Then, my turn, I dropped the readied anchor. There is such a poetry to floating into anchor, rather than grinding to a halt with the engine. We can’t always do it, but it always feels good. 

After checking the anchor and tidying up the boat, I set to trying to capture on video a wondrous event that had, I suspect, happened when we were cowered inside the boat during the frigid gale of a few days past. Some thousands of spider balloons had become entangled in our rigging and now flowed like streamers of pure light from every vertical surface. Their spiders were showing up here and there, but most were utterly unseen, or perhaps had perished in the violent cold.

Spider balloons streaming from the shrouds.

I became caught up in the life of these spiders for quite some time. At one point I said to Bill, “It’s crazy. I only learned about spider ballooning a few years ago (from Charle’s Darwin’s journal “Voyage of the Beagle”) and now I see them all the time. But my whole life they must have been streaming past me, only my eyes never knew enough to see them.”

There is so very much my eyes don’t know.

Bill and I sat down to some beers and sunset watching, then Bill went downstairs to make dinner. He had recently gathered the ingredients to make his favorite soup, Tofu Kimchi Soup, and was setting to it.

I drank my beer and thought about spiders, elections, and bird migrations. I felt calmed by the sail and the spiders and the loons, surf scoters and mergansers we had seen on the water. But the night was about to take an exciting turn.

“I’m 100% Clean!”

Krista Schlyer

“I’m 100% Clean!”

Such was my declaration to Bill after dinner. He jolted a little. I must have startled him out of some thoughts he was lost in. But the moment called for it. I had just brushed my teeth. As a rule, I don’t consider the brushing of teeth to qualify me for such a strong statement of personal hygiene but this time it followed a bigger deal that had transgressed an hour earlier: I took a shower. 

When life is whittled down to the bare elements: heat, food, personal safety, water and health, each comfort that goes beyond this becomes like a gentle rain of donuts from the sky, or a waterfall of donuts in the desert, or something else where donuts are involved. 

Such profound personal and bodily delight from the simplest of things: a hot shower.

It was hot because on the passage from Lower Machadoc Creek on the Virginia side of the Potomac to the St. Mary’s River, on the Maryland side, we had very little wind and it was coming from the wrong direction. (Note: Wrong for us, not wrong in the metaphysical sense.) So for a portion of the trip we had to have the engine on. Thanks to a heat exchanger, our diesel engine quickly heats a tank of very nice hot water.

A hot shower these days does not mean what it used to mean when I lived in a house. Does not mean 10 minutes of luxuriating in a constant stream of heated water, stretching out wherever needed, all soaps, washcloths, shampoos, conditioners, a little combing of my hair, a little humming here and there, perhaps a facial scrub. No. A shower on the boat means a half gallon jug poured in strategic places while sitting naked in the cockpit (unfortunate term in this context), or dinghy, or in the very tiny head where there is barely enough room to stand up and none to stretch an arm or leg in any direction. 

Gratuitous fog photo

Last night, feeling the need for a little extra comfort and cleansing, I showered in the head and used the sink shower-head, which pulls out nicely on a hose. I had to stop and start the water over and over to limit myself to a gallon of water–still an egregious use of water by Maggie May standards. 

We have a 110 gallon freshwater tank. We are never more than a day’s sail from refilling the tank at this point, but because we are trying to test out living independently, in case we get to do some long ocean sails or tarry in some remote island chains, we are trying to limit ourselves to 4 gallons a day, TOTAL. One gallon each for drinking, one gallon for cooking and cleaning, and one gallon for miscellaneous uses. ( The average American uses 88 gallons of water per day according to US EPA. In our land-life Bill and I had gotten our daily consumption down to 20 gallons, with much effort.) 

So taking a shower that uses 1/4 of our daily water is outrageous. OUTRAAAAYYYGEOUS. Given the events of the past few days, I felt I needed it. 

And, given that it had been five days since my previous cleaning, Bill was not complaining. 

I blame the long dirty stretch on the divine Zephyrus, god of the west wind. For much of the past five days, 30-50 knot winds from the upper latitudes chilled the region, dropping temperatures inside the boat to 40-55 degrees. This is not showering weather. Thankfully Zephyrus has exhausted itself for the time being and Maggie May’s belly is now ranging from 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit. I call that showertime in the days of plenty.

Self-certified 100% clean, last night I lay down with my sleeping bag, refreshed the election results page, and breathed in some fresh air. Feeling clean, content, and ready to face whatever comes next. 

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Some october sights on the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac

Into the Abyss, and other fun things

One of the hardest things about this journey—beyond the heat and cold, the financial stress, fear and self doubt, the trying to live in a confined space with another (albeit lovable) human being, the banging my head on the bulkhead every damn time I go to the aft cabin—has been the absence of a mission. I anticipated that Bill and I would both be challenged living a life without clear purpose—without trying to do something intensely meaningful every day. But I didn’t know or guess what it would feel like, or how long it would last, or how I would plan to get past it. 

It feels like this: a void. A hungry void. An airy abyss of emptiness where the idea of food, fullness or sustenance hasn’t any meaning. It feels like a tightness and a looseness at the same time. It disorients, like you are in the middle of a vast body of water with no clue as to where you are or why. Rudderless, Bill says.

Bill had worked for 20 years in the environment and sustainability profession. First he wrote stories about wildlife and wild lands for Defenders of Wildlife and National Parks Conservation Association magazines. Then he built green houses of various hues with a visionary architect, Bill Hutchins. Then he installed solar systems…and finally began a long stint crafting energy and building policy for the city of Washington DC. All his life was geared toward one goal: helping to lighten the footprint of humanity so that other creatures would stand a chance. I did the same in my way.

This gave our lives a rudder, strong and deep. But also heavy. We decided not to have children guided by this same rudder and reason, to lighten the footfalls of humans on this already overburdened planet. Most adult Homo sapiens get much of their meaning and purpose from their kids. We had our own work-rudder-kid, but we dropped it when we stepped onto this boat, just dropped it, on purpose. We know where it is. We can go back and pick it up one day perhaps. But it was becoming too heavy and our souls too tired to carry it. We had a new rudder, hard but light, aiming us toward a new goal to sail around the world. A squirrel, some shysters, and some real bad luck broke that rudder. We may one day repair it, but for the time being we are drifting in the void.

I have days when I feel the hunger as a vibration in my bones, like restless leg syndrome of the soul. Those days I sit on deck all day watching the water, listening to birds and leaves, reading about wind, stars, weather, and meditating on some good old fashioned Mary Oliver: And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire–clearly I’m not needed, yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value.

And then I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire–clearly I’m not needed, yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value.

Mary Oliver, The Buddha’s Last Instruction

This is one of those days. Today the wind approaches with obvious intent from the north, pushing the boat toward a forested shore within a deep cove in the St. Mary’s River, just off the Potomac, near the mouth. Bill sits beside me eating oatmeal while I practice my eagle call, hoping to approach the genius of John McCain’s 2008 rendition. (Sorry, this doesn’t actually sound like an eagle’s cry, but Bill does an imitation of McCain saying Ahmadinejad that sounds exactly like an eagle).

Crows fly out of the forest bluff as a dark cluster, a Gang of 8. Three of them break off and dive swiftly toward the water, then level off a hands-breadth above the sparkling surface. I can only presume they are wanting to feel the wind as it glances off the waves, pressing up against their bellies and shining, sun-warmed black wings. With little fetch the wind can only stir the water into low peaks, but they are insistent and serious as they march toward me, pass by without a glance, and continue ever on toward land. One after another, they take my every thought with them. Sparing only one. That as the juvenile bald eagle circles round and round on thermals that rise along the forest edge, he is engaging in something pointless, perfect, meaningless and a complete distillation of all the meaning the world has ever held: he is practicing his communion with all that is within, and all that is without. He is learning how to soar like only an eagle can.

SV MMMotivations

Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA.

The virus has offered lots of unbidden time for reflection. Time is a coin I was yearning for, if not in this manner and upon dry land. But it is valuable and I spend a lot of it thinking about what has moved me toward SV Maggie May over a 15-year period.

Bill and I hatched the circumnavigation idea after our last big journey, a year-long road trip around the United States in 2001. We both felt that the time spent away from human-structure was important, fundamental even to our long-term health. And so we had a conversation about what our next adventure would be and when. Within minutes we had settled upon sailing the world within 5 years time. Sailing has stayed constant, the time element elongated considerably.

I wasn’t a sailor when we started thinking about this but I had always had sailing around the world somewhere in my mind. (I’ll have to try and unearth a first-cause back in my brain folds.) I was drawn to some intangible something of sailing life. I now have a more specific sense of what that something is, a sense that has become stronger over the years as the 5-year-plan stretched into 10 and 15.

Sailing, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, has a way of making you feel small and insignificant, but also powerful and eternal at the same time.

I’ve spent most of the past decade working on a project in the US-Mexico borderlands, witnessing destruction of land, decimation of wildlife and plants, desecration of culture, all of which made me feel small and powerless for years on end. This project prevented me from making faster progress toward SV Maggie May, and it also made her transform from an idea, then a desire and finally into a necessity. The borderlands kept me from the ocean, even as they pushed me toward it.

Desert cottontail near border wall, San Pedro National Riparian Corridor, Arizona.

I’ve worked on other projects, including extensive work on one of America’s most degraded rivers, trying to give voice to urban wildlife, documenting the British Petroleum oil spill. But none has been a driving motivation in my life for as long as the borderlands, and none has caused so much self doubt and undoing as fighting the border wall.

My motivations at the border grew out of a desire to make my life mean something. Not…just a desire, a compulsion, born of the greatest disappointment of my life in March 2000. I’ve written a whole book about those events, so I won’t go into it in this blog. But in essence I lost a good part of myself and afterward set out on a path to find what I had lost and find some grip on life again. I found a focal point in conservation photography, and a specific anchor on the US-Mexico border. I’ve also written about the borderlands extensively, so I won’t cover it here, except to say that by spending time with the wildlife of that landscape I felt I had made a compact with them, that I would do everything I could to be a voice for their future.

I stayed true to that commitment for more than 10 years, and over that time I went from feeling I was certain to be able to help turn things around, to feeling I had no power to even help, to feeling I could make a difference over a longer period, to feeling I had made no difference at all despite trying everything I could think of. And now, just feeling tired and destroyed, laying on a battlefield, eviscerated but somehow still living.

I’ve tried so many times to come to terms with the fact that I am small, just a person. And the forces that compel people to build walls are far beyond my scope to heal. And that the best I can hope for in any such endeavor is to open a window in people’s minds to see what they otherwise could not, something beautiful that might instill some responsibility for lives they will never encounter, but nevertheless impact gravely through direct action or passive complacency.

Kit fox in the Janos Grasslands, Chihuahua.

This is wisdom, but it requires a balance that I have always struggled to maintain. Instead I have often found myself on a roller coaster of belief in myself and my ability to make a difference, and despair over my insignificance. Teeter-totter-teeter-totter. And inevitably when outcomes are not what I have worked for, I am overwhelmed with guilt, and more acutely, grief, over what we are doing on the border, and so many other places.

My only true relief from this rollercoaster is on the Maggie May, where these two opposing forces merge peacefully. I am nothing, I am everything. Minuscule, microscopic, but connected to the very forces that make this world and everything in it. Wind, sun, water.

Mostly, I’m just alive.

***

Bill just came to tell me our Maggie May contractors called.  The last of our major boat projects is finished.

I’m coming home 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.

untitled-3769

 

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.

untitled-3937

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.

Anacostia 3-15-17-3061

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.

untitled-9902

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.

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.

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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.

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.