Bring a Book to the Beach, or Bring the Bay into Your Home with these Books

Anacostia River On My Mind

By John R. Wennersten

Anacostia's waters flow through Washington, D.C., the nation's capital; and after a heavy rain the river becomes a garbage and trash-laden waterway. Our political leaders can observe the tragedy of our rivers and watersheds by merely gazing through their windows. The fact that a polluted junk-strewn river runs through one of the world's wealthiest capitals and coincidentally through the underprivileged black neighborhoods in the region, only adds to the poignancy of the Anacostia's impairment. The Anacostia River from the colonial period to the present has been a manipulated environment; one altered, transformed or planned by agricultural and corporate elites, politicians, and real estate developers. Historically the Anacostia has been a dumping ground for dispossessed populations, rubbish, sewage and toxins. The Anacostia has not figured largely in the public thinking of either the United States Congress or the State of Maryland, and in the District of Columbia, the Anacostia has always been a problematic afterthought. Yet the Anacostia River gives us a point of entry for thinking about Washington, the watershed and regional and local networks of power. It also enables us to think about the environmental and cultural facts that help people make sense out of the place in which they live. The Anacostia is a river story of colonial and federal power that involves people still waiting for political and environmental redemption.

The Anacostia is a story that links the river with the plantation culture of antebellum Maryland and Virginia and to the creation of Washington, D.C. Rivers provide a sense of place that shapes a city's social and economic life. Rivers are also political markers. The Ohio was a marker for anti-slavery during the antebellum period and the Mississippi demarcated the westward march of Americans into the territories. Historians have noted that painters and mapmakers used the rivers as more than decorative objects. Rivers were powerful symbols that often depicted the boundaries between civilization and frontier, between settlement and empire. And so has it been with the Anacostia and the capital: a marker for power and poverty, racial supremacy and racial oppression.

Washington D.C. came into existence as a river city. Its landscape has been freighted with a host of symbolic meanings, not all of which are understood by the local populace. As a socially constructed entity, the Anacostia River, in particular, is differently construed and interpreted by whites and blacks. The Anacostia in the early days of capital-building, for example, figured largely in Pierre L'Enfant's vision of Washington as a political and commercial center. The Civil War transformed the Anacostia into an urban river and sewage conduit whose problems continued into the modern era. The river also became a metaphor for regional racial problems that extended from slavery days through the public housing controversies and urban discontent of the twentieth century.

Washington is a special place - outside of the direct control of a single state or administrative unit. Washington is both a federal city and an international city. It is a city controlled by the United States Congress and its citizens lack full political representation even though they pay federal taxes.

Since the 1980s the river has been much in the news because of its high fecal coliforms and dangerous toxic waste. Environmental groups are currently trying to rescue the river while concurrently city planners and developers are hoping to transform the Anacostia waterfront into a pleasant locale of parks, shopping centers, offices and residences. Meanwhile, racial issues connected with the river and urban transformation scarcely enter the public discourse. It remains to be seen if urban progress can take place without the social and economic uplift of the city's African American population. Sadly, one can argue that at this writing, L'Enfant's plan for the active development of the Anacostia River as a center of democracy, commerce, and culture continues only as the cant of development.

The Anacostia River is part of a vast tributary system of the Potomac Basin. It courses through the Maryland suburbs of Washington to its mouth at the Potomac River near downtown Washington. The Anacostia is a tidal river and its watershed is home to 1,113,802 residents. The Anacostia watershed covers 178 square miles with a drainage area that is 49 percent in Prince George's County, 34 percent in Montgomery County and 17 percent in the District of Columbia. Its river head is just outside the District in the vicinity of Bladensburg in Prince George's County. The Anacostia in its tidal component is 8.5 miles in length; and it is hardly a major river in the sense of the Mississippi or other lengthy rivers. But then, neither was Thoreau's Walden Pond a great lake in the sense of other lakes. The Anacostia at its best has been a sanctuary of bird lovers like John Burroughs and the cradle of the Audubon Society. It has nurtured fishermen, free blacks and unfettered capitalism. It represents in microcosm the conflicted spirit of the American union.

The typography of the Anacostia region has been created out of swamps, marshes and waterfronts continuously destroyed and remade. Land speculators and modern developers have paid little heed to the values of architecture, history and neighborhood traditions. In Washington real estate investors and public officials have been far more dominant creators and shapers of landscape than conservationists and community residents. In the modern age, argues ecologist Richard Brewer, government as a bureaucratic entity is no more likely to be on the side of conservation as on the side of the despoiler.

Until recently, the concern for the esthetic quality and health of the Anacostia watershed was a concern limited to black leaders who lived in the region and a small minority of conservationists. The majority of citizens passively accepted the deterioration of the region into what historian Joel Tarr has referred to as an "ultimate sink."

The notion that the current social and environmental problems of urban areas might be examined through the history of rivers is a recent one. Until a few years ago, scholars used a land-focused thesis of urbanization and industrialization to explain the causes of social disruption in the United States. They did not factor in the role that rivers played in this process. Now historians are looking at rivers in new ways and the study of the interplay of environmental and social problems that befell urban regions.

Adding rivers to this frame of historical reference gives the urbanization-industrialization model a sharper focus. The Anacostia River, I contend, has shaped the social identity of metropolitan Washington and is at the center of its historical development. Similarly, political and economic events over time in Washington have shaped the Anacostia's destiny.

Further, the Anacostia in our current time demonstrates that environmental burdens like pollution and resource depletion are not shared equally; and there are compelling ethical grounds for remedying this river's environmental problems. Meanwhile, the mainstream middle class environmental model itself needs to be rethought because it often does not include protection for unrepresented minorities.

Washington is also in many respects a small tidewater town. Until recently, Washington was a city defined by plans and monuments, a city that sought to affirm democracy even while keeping its people in slavery and poverty. It was a city that cared more for its architecture than its residents. It was a city that turned its back on its history and environment. The Anacostia flows through Washington, D.C., and thus the story of this river is a social and environmental chronicle of our nation's capital and our political ethos.

It would be easy to address the Anacostia as a localized environmental conundrum. But it is much more than that. The problems facing the Anacostia are the problems that confront just about every river in industrializing world society. Approaches to these problems may vary from India to Jordan to Florence. But the problems of sewage, rampant population growth, antiquated public policies; pollution and toxic poisoning of low-income populations transcend the boundaries of culture, language, politics and geography.

We are dependent upon our rivers for our drinking water and the maintenance of Nature's life cycle. Today the demands that we place upon our rivers are relentless. If we want to survive on this planet we need to come down to our rivers and see how dependent we are on water for our heritage and sustenance.

In 1911 George C. White wrote in the "American City" "it needs no apology to say that the greatest need of any community is a supply of good water." This was a revolutionary vision in its time by a prominent sanitarian. Sad to say that for the Anacostia in 2008, it is still a revolutionary vision. For too long the Anacostia River has been a business in environmental liquidation and this needs to change. Real democracy and real capitalism value people and nature.

We all need to have rivers like the Anacostia on our mind.

John R. Wennersten is the author of numerous books on the Chesapeake Bay and regional environments in the mid-Atlantic.

Voices of the Chesapeake Bay
By Michael Buckley
Photography by David W. Harp
Geared Up Publications, 2008

Think of it as a crash course in everything Chesapeake. The history, the science, the fish, the crabs, the people.

It might sound more like a textbook than summer reading. But here's the surprise: "Voices of the Chesapeake" by Michael Buckley delivers this big package of insight in short chapters and in an easy flow of spoken words.

"Voices" is the printed record of approximately 60 radio interviews that have aired on WRNR in Annapolis, mining the depth of human experience on and around the Chesapeake Bay. Each interview reads as a short personal narrative. Speech rhythms lift off the page as islanders and fishermen tell tales. Science and history arrive by way of conversations, not lectures.

The interview format is ideal for browsing-you can read the book from start to finish, but it works just as well by reading whatever catches your eye.

Interviewees include those who have worked the Bay, studied it, played on it and fought for it. Waterman Earl White recalls hurling a wood stove into the Annapolis harbor (captain's orders). Author Lucia St. Clair Robson talks about crafting historical fiction from the Bay's past.

Kayaker Jake Flory explains how flood waters left him paddling unexpectedly over houses on the Susquehanna's flood plain: "You didn't know, but then you'd look over and see somebody's chimney or the top of a flagpole. We kayaked over the top of all these people's lives, is what it felt like to me."

You'll also hear from people devoted to making the Bay better, discussing underwater grasses, the mysteries of salamanders and the ways in which state legislators work across borders for the restoration effort. Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, canvases topics like climate change, growth and development, and a definition of "ecosystem" that includes the actions and impacts of humans.

The interviews are a reminder of the personal ties that people of various ages and life experiences have forged with the Bay. "Saving the Bay" often draws attention to the more watery parts of the ecosystem, but these interviews evoke a highly peopled landscape that is sometimes lost in abstract reports of dead zones and nutrient loads.

John Rodenhausen of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for example, discovered the Bay by attending summer camp in Chestertown. "When I came here, it was like someone had opened the floodgates and it was a huge playground."

Pete Lesher of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum recounts the adventures of his teenage grandfather on a steamboat that ran aground and sat empty for a brief time. "They made their way out there and explored the whole thing. There was hardly anything better for a 12- or 14-year-old boy."

Daniel Firehawk Abbott, a Nanticoke descendant on the Eastern Shore, laughs when describing the roaring engine on his grandfather's workboat-and also recalls an overwhelming sense of life force while standing alone on a Chesapeake beach. "It's incredibly strong...It speaks to us and teaches."

All of which makes "Voices of the Chesapeake" not only a good read, but a gentle reminder that saving the Bay may help save something in ourselves, too.

- Lara Lutz

John Smith's
Chesapeake Voyages 1607-1609
By Helen C. Rountree,
Wayne E. Clark &
Kent Mountford
University of Virginia Press, 2007

Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown and brought new attention to John Smith's exploration of the Bay. But this year marks the 400th anniversary of the bulk of Smith's Chesapeake voyage of discovery.

From June 2 through Sept. 7, Smith and a handful of colleagues made two voyages which together took them from Jamestown to the Susquehanna River and back, venturing up major tributaries such as the Nanticoke and Potomac along the way. What they saw would be nearly unrecognizable to modern residents: clear water with diverse fish life, and a thickly forested landscape filled with now-vanished species, from the American chestnut to the passenger pigeon to the Carolina parakeet.

This book is an essential addition to the bookshelves of historians, Bay enthusiasts or modern-day explorers who want to retrace the journey. It is not only a day-by-day guide of the expedition-even detailing the winds, tides and currents they likely encountered-but authoritatively describes the Native Americans the explorers met (even providing modern archaeological evidence about their diets), and the abundant natural wonders of the New World.

The book concludes with a summary of what's happened to the Chesapeake since then-an all-too-familiar story to Bay Journal readers. But its power is its re-creation of the Chesapeake that once was, providing a frame of reference for modern restoration. As the authors sum up: "Only a few people alive today remember the bounteous bay of clear waters and oyster reefs. History must supply what memory can no longer give us. Thus may our future depend on the past."

- Karl Blankenship

A Natural History of Quiet Waters:
Swamps & Wetlands of the Mid-Atlantic Coast
By Curtis J. Badger
University of Virginia Press, 2007

The next time someone offers to sell you a swamp cheap-take it!

Curtis Badger's "A Natural History of Quiet Waters: Swamps & Wetlands of the Mid-Atlantic Coast" debunks swamps' reputation as dark places to be feared or filled in by illuminating the mysteries of the wildlife that make their home there.

The first few chapters can be quite ugly: But the ugliness is not found in the swamps-but in people's attitudes toward these places and their wanton destruction. Badger points out that there were an estimated 80 million acres of swamps in the region in 1780. A 1980 inventory found only 33 million acres, a loss of almost 60 percent.

To put this figure into perspective, he asks readers to reflect on what if we had leveled 60 percent of our mountains, or drained 60 percent of our lakes, killing all of their plants and animals in the process.

After a brief history of man's relationship with swamps, including commercial ventures, Badger's later chapters focus on these wetlands' natural history.

The chapter, The Green Sea, discusses the grasses, plants and trees as well as the adaptations that have made it possible for them to survive in swamps. It also examines their role in the food web, from periwinkles and crabs up to clapper rails, raccoons and eventually, bald eagles.

Migratory birds, perhaps more than any other creatures, know the importance of these wetlands. Their lives depend on their being able to stop here to refuel. The early birds find plenty of food and are soon on their on their way north and south. Bird banders are discovering that those arriving later may have to spend more time replenishing their energy amid the ever-dwindling resources before departing.

The chapter on dragonflies and damselflies will have readers wondering along with Badger, why most of us can readily identify many birds and several butterflies yet are almost ignorant when it comes to distinguishing the distinct families of these insects, let alone some of the individual species.

The Nature Conservancy's Nassawango Creek Preserve in Maryland and Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp each merits chapter of their own.

The more Badger learned about swamps the more he wanted to make his home near one. He eventually finds a place to call his own and to preserve, but it wasn't easy and it wasn't cheap.

It's about time we realized how valuable these wetlands are.

- Kathleen A. Gaskell

Starting at Sea Level
A Memoir

By Terry Noble
Foggy River Books, 2007

In the 1970s, while serving as a biologist on a major Chesapeake power plant project, I worked with a bright young woman, Aileen Noble. Her husband, Terry Noble, an Eastern Shore veterinarian, lived and worked close to sea level in low country surrounding the Manokin River off Tangier Sound, hence the title of his memoir almost a third of a century later.

Noble grew up in the communities of Oriole and Champ on the Manokin; "the center of my world" as he describes them.

His tale is that of an ordinary youth for this part of the Eastern Shore in the mid-20th century: building a crude boat, crabbing, fishing, oystering and getting into some scrapes. His childhood is deeper than most of ours, much closer to nature. He lived much closer to the bone in an extended family dependent on the water and with little extra money.

Noble's father, Captain Tom, was an officer in Maryland's Oyster Navy. In one dramatic incident on the Potomac River, he was shot in an action against oyster poachers and seriously disabled. John Wennersten recounts another version of the event in his "The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay," and tells how it ended "his promising career as a marine police officer."

Terry Noble attended the University of Maryland without much in the way of financial assistance. His trip to College Park occurred just as a new major highway was being built around Washington, D.C. That road become the Capitol Beltway.

- Kent Mountford