Plastic bags float downstream, and tests show dangerous levels of toxic waste, but the Anacostia still captures the imagination of those who see its beauty.
Among them are writers, musicians, photographers and artists who have ventured onto the water. They notice the wildlife that never abandoned the river, and take heart in the ever-growing movement to redeem it.
Politicians, environmentalists and other activists are spearheading this effort. But creative types are eager to contribute in a way that may — perhaps more than any clean-up plan — inspire others to reclaim the Anacostia for the flora, fauna and people who live in its watershed.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
Brent Peterson's "Anacostia Songs, Vol. 1"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The Anacostia meanders for nine miles through Washington and Maryland tracing a rich history that features the Native Americans, African Americans and colonists who lived along its banks, but it became most famous more recently as one of the most polluted rivers in America. However, cleanup efforts seem to be succeeding and more people are discovering the river's natural beauty and its economic potential.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAmong the river's boosters are those who appreciate it from a particularly, if you will, soulful point of view. The writers, the photographers and musicians, who look beyond the floating trash and imagine a river redeemed. Joining us to discuss the challenges and charms of the Anacostia is Krista Schlyer. She is the author of the recently-published book, "River of Redemption." Krista, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. KRISTA SCHLYERThanks for having me. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIAlso joining me in studio is Brent Peterson. He is the lead singer of Brent and Company. More about that later but, Brent, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRENT PETERSONKojo, thank you so much.
NNAMDIKrista, you spent seven years documenting on the Anacostia, what you saw with your camera. Why did you decide to spend so much time on what some people call the forgotten river?
SCHLYERWell, I started in 2010. I was working on a project on the Chesapeake Bay watershed and, um, I started focusing in on the Anacostia for the first time in my life, even though I'd lived in the watershed for about ten years. And most of my work up until then had been sort of all over North America and a lot of work in the west. And I went out on the Anacostia River for the first time in 2010 and I was just blown away by the beauty that I saw and also the challenges that we face. And I just thought I really ought to be focusing more on my home and this watershed that I live in.
NNAMDIWriting "River of Redemption," you took inspiration for -- from a classic of the conservation movement. Which book is that?
SCHLYERIt's "The Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold. And, yeah, Leopold looked at Sand County, Wisconsin in the 1940s and he basically sort of looked at this landscape through the seasons, the way that the life changed on the land and the way that human beings impacted that life. And I just thought how perfect -- what a perfect way to look at a landscape. And his book was such a beautiful inspiration that I wanted to look at the Anacostia in the same way that he had.
NNAMDIAnd it would appear that you succeeded. Can we hear a sample from your almanac of the Anacostia? Would you read to us from a chapter called Mallow Moon?
SCHLYERYes, I'd love to. "The solstice sun shrieks through a cloudless sky onto the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium parking lot and asphalt begins to boil with that intense malevolence it has on blue sky summer days. Yesterday the sun reached its closest annual angle above the Anacostia River hovering for one bright moment above the Tropic of Cancer and showering us with nearly 15 hours of daylight. Elsewhere in the watershed the solstice is greeted by the eager outstretched leaves of summer's living world. Insects awake to its warmth hopping, buzzing and climbing busily over stem and stock. Crimson cardinal flowers, pink bee balm and black-eyed Susan's unfurl pedals into a pollinator's paradise. Frog and turtles bask in the welcome radiance."
NNAMDII'm gonna have to think about that the next time I'm riding the Anacostia Trail. You paint such a vivid and beautiful picture. Your book also includes real pictures, photos of wildlife that some people may be surprised live in and near the river. What animals can be found on the Anacostia and which can no longer be found there?
SCHLYERIncredible diversity of wildlife which is one of the things that really originally attracted me to the river from more than 100 species of birds to beavers and deer and foxes. Incredible diversity of insect and small amphibians, you know, some really interesting characters from American oil beetles, who have this really fantastic life cycle, to cooper's hawks and bald eagles and little marbled salamanders and ground skinks.
NNAMDIWhat's no longer there.
SCHLYERWell, originally there were so -- you know, you could think about the eastern United States and basically every animal that was native to the eastern United States originally was here. So we had bears. We had wolves. We had cougars, bobcats, all of these different species that we don't have any more, many different fish species. There were even dolphins that went up into the Potomac and assuredly went into the Anacostia as well
NNAMDIYou write that it is possible that the DC Costco may be what finally causes the extinction of the marble salamander in Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia watershed. How come?
SCHLYERWell, marbled salamanders are these -- this little species of salamander that you would never see. They just sort of live outside of our eyes. And they need a very special ecosystem to be able to breed and that's vernal pools. And there's almost no vernal pools left in Washington, D.C. because most of them have been paved over. And one of the last large expanses of vernal pools in Washington, D.C. was the place where the Costco was built, that whole development.
SCHLYERAnd so the forest was cut down, the vernal pools were filled and this, you know, really one of the last spaces for marbled salamanders to be able to breed was lost. So if they're able to survive in the watershed it's unlikely the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment already considers them a very imperiled species, because of the lack of vernal pools.
NNAMDIYour book also discusses some not-so-beautiful images, trash along the shoreline and fish with lesions. But while many people may think of the degradation of the Anacostia as a recent phenomenon, you write that it goes back much farther. Fill us in on some of that history.
SCHLYERWell, it definitely goes all the way back to 1608 when John Smith sailed up the Potomac and that's really when we started to see a change in the economic system of the Anacostia River and this whole region. And that system was based on exploitation of resources. And so as soon as tobacco production began in the 16, 1700s, all of the forests began to be cut down. And when those forests were gone every time it would rain all of the silt, the land would just flow into the river. So this river that was nearly 40 feet deep is now something you can walk across. And all of those changes began, you know, when tobacco and large-scale industrial and military production began in the river.
NNAMDIOne photo at the very beginning of your book is of graffiti scrawled by the Catholic University Rowing Team. What's the story of that photo and why did you find its message, as you put it, arresting?
SCHLYERYeah, there's some graffiti underneath the Route 50 bridge and I'd seen it many times before. But there was one experience a few years back that I saw it just as the sun was rising. And it made this geometric highlight on the particular words, "make this river hallowed." And, you know, I think a lot of people -- I think the rowing team actually was thinking of it as sort of a fight song for their practice to kind of, you know, fire them up when they were practicing.
SCHLYERBut to me it sort of -- it sparked this idea that we -- this once was a river that was hallowed by the people, who lived here, the Nacotchtank people. It was everything. It was their whole lives. And we've created a situation where people are so disconnected from the river that it no longer has that sacred, that hallowed reality. It really was an inspiration for the book to see that sort of -- this beautiful morning light on that phrase, make this river hallowed.
NNAMDIAnd it was already, in your view, a hallowed place.
SCHLYERIt was. I mean, that is the essence of rivers. It's live. It's -- you know, they are hallowed, but we have forgotten that. And I hope that we're now at a point where we're remembering.
NNAMDILet's talk with Jonathan in Hyattsville, Maryland. Jonathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JONATHANOh, thanks for taking my call. I was just -- yeah, I had sent you guys a video that you had just re-tweeted that I did for the city of Hyattsville, who I work for. I'm the supervising videographer for the city and we did a video about the northwest branch and the Anacostia and working in conjunction with Lee Cain of Living Classrooms where they also work with Anacostia Watershed Society to bring in shad eggs to classrooms and second graders.
JONATHANAnd they actually raise the fish for a week until they hatch out of their eggs and then the kids all go for a field trip down to the Anacostia right at Bladensburg waterfront and dump the little tiny fish back into the water. And it was an amazing thing to be a part of and I think it was right in line with what you guys are talking about.
NNAMDIYep, it certainly is. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. If you have stories to share about the Anacostia, give us a call. Brent Peterson is the lead singer of Brent and Company. You and your band -- Peterson and Company it's called or is it...
PETERSONBrent and Company.
NNAMDI...Brent and Company recently released Anacostia Songs Volume 1. And we'll hear you sing one of those songs soon but first, what got you interested in the Anacostia.
PETERSONWell, I think my experience is probably similar to Krista's in that I live near the river. And so one day I thought it a pity I didn't spend more time on it. So I found a used canoe on Craigslist and went out and was absolutely captivated just from the first go. Once you get a chance to do the entire length of the tidal river from about Navy Yard up to Bladensburg, Maryland, it's a personal little paradise.
PETERSONYou don't see many people when you're out on the river and so I thought that a shame. I thought more people should -- to see the beauty, a lot of times it's synonymous with -- you know, people think it's just a polluted river, but there's still a lot of beauty despite all that pollution. And once you can see past it it's a real jewel that everyone should know about.
NNAMDIYour album is accompanied by a map which has a located dot for each of the five songs...
NNAMDI...on the album. The most northern dot in Bladensburg corresponds to the first song "Bladensburg Way." Tell us about that song.
PETERSONCertainly. Well, once you hit the river and you do a deep dive initially with some Wikipedia articles and maybe get a book, and now you get Krista's book as well, you start to appreciate the profound history. And really when the ecosystem began to change, and Krista summarized it beautifully, when Europeans started arriving and recognizing the monetary value so you take something that was a 40 foot deep river with an incredibly diverse and bountiful ecosystem. And then quickly Bladensburg, because of those natural resources, became one of the -- I believe the second largest port on the east coast, and that was for tobacco trade.
PETERSONAnd it didn't take long before cultivation started to silt in the river, as Krista mentioned, and the Port of Bladensburg had to close almost 20 years after it opened due to exploitation of the land. And so there's a real cautionary tale there that...
NNAMDIA port that was one of the biggest in the United States.
NNAMDICould you play some of "Bladensburg Way" for us?
NNAMDIBrent Peterson, "Bladensburg Way." Krista, you write, about Bladensburg, that standing on its riverbank there are few signs of the town's past, but you say, the river remembers. What do you mean by that?
SCHLYERWell, I think, you know, it's sort of this look at the way that we have forgotten so much about this river. But the land, the river, the riverbed, they never -- it never forgets. It's written in the soils. It's written in the water. It's written on the landscape. I mean, there in Bladensburg today we see there's some remaining, well, second growth forest, but for the most part it's bare turf, parking lots, you know. And this shallow river with water that's largely polluted running through it. And that is the memory of the land. It's the memory of the river.
SCHLYERAnd, you now, I think we tend to accept it, because we see it as it is today and we appreciate it for what it is which is in some ways fantastic and wonderful, but if you know the history of the river you have to also see the scars every time you look.
NNAMDIBefore we got to break let's hear from Tray in Washington, D.C. Tray, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TRAYHey there, I work for Anacostia Riverkeeper. I just wanted to thank Krista and Brent for all of the excellent work they've been doing telling people about our river. And I wanted to invite anyone listening to Anacostia Riverkeeper's MLK Day Cleanup. It's gonna be at Pope Branch Park at 10:00 a.m. on Monday, January 21st. People can go to AnacostiaRiverkeeper.org to find out more details or to sign up.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us, Tray. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation about "River of Redemption." That's the name of the book by Krista Schlyer. She is the author of that recently-published book. And we'll also talk with Brent Peterson, the lead singer of Brent and Company. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about "River of Redemption." That is the recently-published book by author Krista Schlyer. She joins us in studio with Brent Peterson, the lead singer of Brent and Company. Brent, you say track two "Dueling Creek" has the most interesting story of all the songs on your album. What's it about?
PETERSONThere's a fascinating piece of land right across the D.C. and Maryland border, what used to be called the dueling grounds of Bladensburg, Maryland. And essentially the "gentlemen of the district," we'll put that in air quotes, would settle their disputes by crossing the Maryland, D.C. border because dueling was legal in D.C. And so the dueling grounds of Bladensburg, Maryland was the closest place you could do that.
PETERSONAnd the song "Dueling Creek" is about two second cousins, who had a misunderstanding. And despite efforts to get them to find common ground, they found the best way to settle it would be on the dueling grounds and so one of them ended up dying. It's a very comically tragic outcome.
NNAMDICan you play a little bit of that for us?
PETERSONI can. If you give me one second.
NNAMDIThank you very much, Brent.
NNAMDI"Dueling Creek." Krista, there are very interesting people in Brent's songs, such as the people who were involved in duels, but so is your book filled with interesting characters. Tell us about some of the more noteworthy people, who have been moved by or lift them up on the river.
SCHLYEROh, so many. I think that a couple come to mind. Kelvin Tyrone Mock was the young boy who died in Kenilworth Dump in 1968, so just actually 50th anniversary of his death last year. And I think, you know, his death ended up ending the fires in that dump and ultimately that dump was closed, because of that despite, you know, many, many years of people protesting. That was finally -- it closed the dump and...
NNAMDIThe dump with burning trash close to an elementary school was it?
SCHLYERRight, close to two elementary schools and a neighborhood, a residential neighborhood and right on the riverbank. So all of this toxic stuff being burned...
NNAMDIHe was around, the wind whipped up and before you knew it...
NNAMDI...he was burned.
SCHLYERYeah, and he was with three friends and they ran for help, but ultimately could not save him. So his life, I think, is a really incredibly important story for the river and our community. And I think another one was Rachel Carson. Rachel Carson wrote the book "Silent Spring" on the northwest branch of the Anacostia River. And it wasn't necessarily about the Anacostia. It was about pesticides and toxins that were being spread all over the land, but, of course, all of those toxins ended up in our rivers and waterways.
SCHLYERAnd that book was a profound change, I think, in the way that we look at both these pesticides and these toxins that we unleash on the environment, but also whether the government, without some prompting by people, is going to take a really hard look at those things. And so she was incredibly important in the river history. Frederick Douglas, you know, just a huge, huge icon of this watershed and so many more, really so many more.
NNAMDIThe one that surprised me was Marvin Gaye.
SCHLYERYeah, Marvin Gaye. (laugh) I mean, you know, one of the things I wish I could do is go back and just sit and listen to him sing. You know, he used to sing under streetlamps back when he was getting his start in the Watts Branch. And I just, you know, can't imagine how magical that would've been to being able to hear that.
NNAMDIBrent, you're also very conscious of the injustices done to the mostly African American neighborhoods along the Anacostia, one of which you call home. But you say you want to make sure you're not, as a white person, Columbusing there. What do you mean by that?
PETERSONWell, it's a fine line -- this river's existed long before I moved to D.C. and many people have called it home for much longer than I've lived here. I've now called D.C. home for ten years, but it's really only in moving east to the river that I really became familiar with the river's beauty and began exploring it. So I try to be sensitive to not say, look at this thing I've found. Isn't this amazing? It's mostly -- it's highlighting a shared resource that we all have and singing its praises.
PETERSONAnd a lot of people initially discouraged me from, I don't know, going kayaking on the river 'cause it's dirty. And my goal is only to just push people's perception to realize that the river's changing. It's getting healthier and it's ours, it's everyone's to use. And encourage them to come to the river.
NNAMDILet's talk about another one of your songs, which you say is likely the only ode to a sewer tunnel ever written. Tell us about clean water.
PETERSONSo the song is called "Clean Rivers" and it is titled for D.C. waters clean rivers tunneling project.
PETERSONAnd that is the new tunnel system and these are subway size tunnels being built underneath the Anacostia River to solve some of the most persistent storm water runoff issues that we have in the city. And briefly effectively from a large swath of the city when it would rain more than half an inch let's say, because of the growth in the city the tunnels would just overflow and their release valve was just emptying right into the Anacostia River. So millions of gallons of untreated sewage over a century plus.
PETERSONAnd only last March did the first segment of this tunnel system open. They had expected an 80 percent reduction in the amount of sewage going into the river and actually after the rainiest years -- one of the rainiest years in records they had almost an 89 percent capture rate of the sewage going into the river. So the river smells different after it rains and the trash is being managed in a much more impactful way. So it's made huge impacts in the cleanliness of the river.
NNAMDI"Clean Rivers." Here is Mary in Silver Spring. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYYes, I'd love to have the guests talk about bogs in the area and the watershed, those that are threatened by development and those that have vanished. I'm aware of one in particular, which is the Suitland bog. Thank you.
SCHLYERYeah, I mean, the bog ecosystem was one that was very prevalent. You know, it's one of those ecosystems like vernal pools that are nearly lost. And, you know, I think the caller brings up a really good point that we make these decision to do developments, add infrastructure. And every single one of those projects that we do, whether it's for recreation, which has some really good impacts, or for economic development, has an impact on ecology of the river.
SCHLYERAnd these very special places, that there's almost none of it left. Bogs are one, vernal pools, meadows, the river forest. I mean, all of this is a part of the sort of living creature that is the Anacostia River. And every time we make a decision to add any sort of infrastructure it's gonna impact the health of this overall ecosystem.
NNAMDIYes. You have some concerns about how the people, who are charged to make the big decisions on the river won't make the right ones. So this would be an appropriate time to talk with Councilmember Donnie Bridgeman of Bladensburg, Maryland. Councilmember Bridgeman, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
COUNCILMEMBER DONNIE BRIDGEMANHey, good afternoon, Kojo. Love the show. Love the show. And I love what you're doing for Bladensburg to call attention to our watershed and our beautiful Anacostia River. And, you know, we're here and with any help we can get or programs or partnerships we're fortunate enough to be home of the Anacostia Watershed Society and the Washington Rowing School and other groups that are contributing to a better, cleaner river. So we're asking for all the help and attention we can get. We appreciate you giving us the time.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. And somebody who might be interested in participating in such activity is Max in Bethesda. Max, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTYes. Thank you, Kojo, for taking my call. And actually the name is Matt M-A-T-T.
MATTYes, thank you. I was just calling about accessibility to the river, because I was introduced to the river through my son's rowing experience at PCC High School. And if not for that I would've never probably ventured out there. And it's just incredible as your guests have mentioned, but I think that if more people know -- understand about the accessibility to the river and how you can experience it that can only do good things. For instance...
NNAMDII'm afraid we only have less than a minute left. If you were to give some advice to Matt and people like Matt, Krista, what would it be?
SCHLYERWell, I think that -- I think he's right that people being able to be -- start a relationship with the river is really important. But I do also think that we have to be really mindful that there are costs. Everything we do to create more accessibility for people has an impact on wildlife and river health. And I hope that going forward we look at the whole entire community of the river when we make decisions and think of it as an ecosystem of which we are a part.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Krista Schlyer, thank you for joining us. Brent Peterson, thank you for joining us. You can see Krista's photos and listen to Brent's music inspired by the Anacostia River on our website KojoShow.org. Today's conversation on the river was produced by Lauren Markoe. Our earlier discussion on Mandatory Reporting was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Tomorrow we'll get to know emerging local fiction writers and the people who help them shine. Until then thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.