I live on a lovely little bay off the Potomac River, downstream from Washington, DC. It’s alive with turtles and catfish and migrating water birds. Bald eagles nest in the woods nearby, along with osprey, woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks and many other birds.
But my bay, and the larger Chesapeake, is choked with foul rotting algae much of the year, the result of excess ‘nutrients’ from farms, sewage, run-off and lawn fertilizers. The sewage plant has recently had to absorb the waste outflow from a gigantic new development over 12 miles away, with more than 5,000 residents and 13 million visitors annually.
While National Harbor has brought jobs and tourist dollars to Prince Georges County, which has never benefited as much as surrounding counties from DC’s economic growth, this overwhelms the sewage treatment facilities resulting in more filth in my bay.
Few people consider how their toilet flushing, lawn chemicals, street run-off or local farm waste are affecting our natural environment.
And yet our river is quite healthy for an urban river, as the birds and the fish who still live here will testify. In many places the situation is much, much worse.
The voracious habits of the developed world, now exported to China and India’s millions of aspiring workers, are only accelerating the pace. In my lifetime we’ve destroyed most of the ancient forests on the planet, and killed half of the wild creatures that roamed the earth.
It’s right there, just outside your window: an incredible world filled with (magic, love, science, energy, mystery, god, light, LIFE). A world where the smallest thing is vital, integral to the whole. Where your breath is as necessary as air, where angels really do dance on the head of a pin.
Just step outside and let the modern din, as alluring as it is, fade back. Listen: bird, plane, crickets, another bird, grasses waving. Look: sky filled with clouds like wings, deepening from white to cream to gold in the lengthening light.
It can be so easy to miss, these things, what with all the worries in your world: hurry, money, late, bills, gallop through your day, always reaching further than you fear you can reach. No room for the moment when a Damsel Fly (some call them darners) lands on your hand. She chooses you as the stable place to unfurl new wings. To accustom her new body to air before lifting off.
See the rainbows in her stained-glass wings. See the green-gold scales, irridescent armour protecting her beating heart. See the bulbous insect eyes, comically large, that see your world through a kaleidescope. She’s tender, pulsing, driven by hunger, born to move in the world, alive. She lifts off your hand, ready to fly.
I met her while kayaking earlier this week on the Mattawoman River. Considered one of the last pristine rivers in Maryland, it’s a major nursery for sport fish and other wildlife.
Just a little ways away, right now, lotuses are furling for the night, their generous cups closing until dawn. Their velvet green leaves, big as dinner-plates, ripple, floating. Droplets of water beading like mercury. beads and rolls off the rich . The water is warm silk, the boat parts the way through the lotus forest, somehow not an intruder. Green frog with satisfied grin watches from a floating leaf island. His tiny cousin climbs aboard. Small as a fingernail and perfectly froggy in every way; his orange eyes blink, unafraid.
Froggy rides with us further upriver. This creature that swam below the surface just days ago now sails through the upper world. He lost his swimmer’s tail ashe grew strong legs, preparing to begin a new life above the mirror’s surface. Now he’s on the prow of our craft. vivid green-apple green, skin patterned with leaf-llke veins, fading to cool lemon-white on his belly, punctuated toes ready to grasp or release; dead useful.
We paddle against wind and current, a proud craft with figurehead on the prow. Somewhat later, scratching ashore on gravel bank, Froggy debarks into his uncertain future. Happy hunting, my friend.
Here in this water our life begins, our sustenance is generated, life arises again and again every moment. Sun spun to sugar, consumed by tiny creatures that feed the tadpole, destined to be frog. CO2 into oxygen, caterpillar to butterfly, jellied egg to trophy bass, muddy seed to transcendent lotus: the everyday miracles are countless, and everywhere you look.
Now the sun slips below and only the high wings of the sky still beam us light. Tree swallows begin their dusk ballet and we glide on the outgoing tide, motionless, while the birds fly low and fast over the water snatching their evening meal. They pass so close we hear the flap of feathery wings rustle, as if we were invisible to them.
The lifeblood of these creatures flows around us, buoying the boat, carrying food and messages, pulsing with a heartbeat of current and tide. What happens miles away will determine the story here.
One day when you mow your lawn and dump the clippings in that low spot behind the garage, you may notice a little water moving.The grass clippings, lush with fertilizer, send plant nutrients trickling down, from drain to ditch to creek to river and sea. En route, your contribution joins all the other small amounts of fertilizer and excrement ultimately fouling the River and Bay as they feed great green clots of algae that suck all the oxygen from the water, creating ‘dead zones’ where no fish or crabs can live.
It’s a messenger, the water. It carries your chemical story into their world, but returns a message as well. Listen: in that quiet little shimmer there’s a pulse, a movement not unlike your own. I’m heading to the sea, taking your messages with me. Don’t you want to come along?
River gets bigger, finally spreads out into shimmering marsh lands, whole worlds of wild rice, spatterdock, pickeralweed and lotus, where young bass grow up to be sport fish. Where green frogs grin and lotuses unfurl and soaring birds eat their fill of flying things over the sunset river. You belong here, too.
Yesterday was our first sweltering day this summer, appropriate, perhaps, on Summer Solstice. My mission was to fetch a friend from BWI airport, normally about a 75 minute drive. For some reason, traffic was jammed in all directions, and especially coming back. ugh!
The outside temp at 6:45pm was 97f/36c but ten minutes later, eight miles south and in the shade the thermometer read 84f/29c. What a difference a forest makes!! At peak summer, the change from urban heat island to rural cool is usually more like 10f/5c.
Cranky as all get out, I picked up the dogs and headed for the Potomac. They were ecstatic, of course, leaping from the car and racing down the shady trail. Lily was slurping cool water, belly-deep, when I finally arrived with gimpy Seneca, helping her climb over logs to get to the water’s edge.
The water was clear and cool, lapping the gravel beach. Branches hung down sheilding me from the view of the fishing pier. I shucked off my shirt and shorts and joined them, enjoying my first river swim of the year.
Where I grew up, the river was the stage on which life was played. In the summer, one would return from a hard day’s work, sticky and hot, and shuck one’s clothing en route direct from car to seawall. Depending on the number of observers and the time of day, one plunged in wearing some or all of one’s clothing. I remember standing on the sandy bottom and scrubbing the spagetti sauce and mayonaisse out of my uniform with a bar of ivory soap, the Harsen’s Island method of Pre-Wash.
Now, the embrace of the cool river as a reward for a hot summer day is not everyone’s cuppa. So many folks I know think of it as nothing but a filthy drainage ditch. Growing up in love with a river iss one of those things I took for granted, not realizing how extraordinary the rivery life was. Fast forward to Summer Solstice 2012 and find me in my underthings, paddling in the Potomac. Like a happy wet dog.
It’s a rare pleasure for more than just the obvious reasons. While the Potomac at Mount Vernon is healthy enough for bass and eagles and blue herons, it’s often choked with algae, a thick slimy green bloom of overgrowth, the result of fertilizer and sewage providing far too many ‘nutrients’ into the stream. The stuff gloms all over the native river grasses then dies and rots into a foul black stuff I call ‘dead spinach.’ Often this gunks up the river so badly I don’t even want to wade in it.
For whatever reason, this year the shore is relatively free of it, and thus the visible beach and the almost-clear water. So there I was, in bliss, the crazy lady swimming in the river. I could hear the murmur of conversation from the fishing pier and the laughing of water-skiers, fallen nearby. While I floated in the cool a bird came in low and landed on driftwood log near enough to see that it was a green heron.
So I float, weightless in a cool bath, spinning slowly under a hazy sky. What better place to be on a day like today?