Water is the blood of the Earth, and flows through its muscles and veins. It is accumulated in Heaven and Earth, and stored up in various things of the world. It comes forth in metal and stone, and is concentrated in living creatures. Therefore it is said that water is something spiritual. (Chuang-tzu)
Sometime before 1658, John Morris, my first immigrant ancestor, sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and then into one of its major tributaries, the Potomac River, to make a new home in Maryland. Like many other English settlers of his time, he was probably convinced to make the trip by a popular account by Captain John Smith that described this lush world, with its unique intersection of land and water, as a place where oysters “lay as thick as stones,” and its rivers contained more sturgeon “than could be devoured by dog or man,” with “grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays, brits, mullets, white salmon [rockfish], trouts, soles, [and] perch of three sorts.” Smith proclaimed to eager English readers: “Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, Heaven and Earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.” To John Morris, Maryland surely sounded like paradise.
Three hundred years later, I was born about fifty miles from where he landed, to a family who stayed close to where their ancestors arrived many generations ago. Unlike most of my relatives, however, I moved. A lot. I have lived in many places, ten different states, including the far western states of Arizona and California. In 2000, my husband and I moved to a house just south of the Colonial town of Alexandria, Virginia, about a mile from the Potomac River, across the river from where my ancestors first settled. After years of wandering, I returned home.
But I never paid much attention to the river. It seemed mostly a barrier to Washington, a trial to cross during rush hour on one of too few bridges, and a sludgy, flooding mess during heavy rainstorms. The Potomac was something I drove by or flew over on my way to work. The river was nothing like what had once been described by Captain Smith – hardly a paradisial waterway to a land of pleasant habitation.
One day, after I had returned from a vacation, I complained to a friend: “I have writer’s block. I have nothing pretty to look at, no inspiring vista to gaze on when writing.”
She said, “You don’t live far from the river, do you?”
“That’s not interesting,” I replied. “The Potomac is so polluted. Ugly, really.”
For a moment, I bit my tongue and quietly reconsidered the remark. There had been many evenings when I had flown home over the river and witnessed surprising beauty from the sky. The waters were often hued orange and red and purple, mirroring dramatic sunsets, and the river’s multitude of creeks and streams reached into the land like a watery web. Tides and marshes formed a fluid vista below, almost as a reminder to the powerful and political flying overhead that the river will remain long after they are forgotten.
“You should write there some mornings,” my friend interrupted. “Take a journal and work at a bench along the river. It might change your perspective.”
I took her advice.
September 18, 2013, 10 a.m.
This morning, I’m sitting at the park where a creek empties into the Potomac and marks the south boundary of Alexandria. The main view is that of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, spanning the river and carrying a ceaseless flow of traffic to and from Maryland and Virginia. I’ve never sat here before. I always drive past in my car or fly over it to National Airport.
How different it looks form here. Less urban. Yes, there are cars and planes and multistory structures. But there are also trees and rocks and rippling waters. Blue sky. And birds. Lord of birds: geese, ducks, heron, and osprey. Their calls and quacks compete with the sound of automobiles and jet engines. Creation, as crippled as she is, still has power here at river’s edge. Things look different from the ground.
Day after day, page after page, the Potomac quietly captured my heart. I have learned to pay attention to the river.
Eventually, I moved downstream, exploring the riverbank on foot. Many mornings, I walk about two miles on a path along the river not far from my house. It is not John Smith’s river anymore – the trees are smaller, the water dirtier, the fish far fewer. But there is still something about this river, one of the major sources of the Chesapeake Bay. You feel its power, and you feel it fighting for its life. Its currents carry the memory of place, of the native peoples, of the many stories that unfolded on its shores. There are turtles and frogs. A few beaver have returned, as have the eagles. There are cattails, wild irises, and honeysuckle. Trash floats by too, especially plastic bags and water bottles, but there are human beings who are wildly protective of this river and who pick up after their more careless kin.
Walking along the Potomac has taught me many things. I learned that the place where water touches land is called the riparian zone and is one of the most significant ecosystems on the planet. From the Latin word, ripa, meaning “riverbank,” the riparian zone acts as a natural filter, cleaning water as it moves into the larger watershed, and protects surrounding soil from erosion by slowing the course of the river. In the process, the riparian zone actually creates new soil and provides vibrant wildlife habitats. The river’s edge may be a thin silver of land, a large marsh, a mangrove wood, or a cottonwood forest. No matter the particular form or location of the riparian zone, however, the place where water and land touch is necessary for life on Earth. What happens on the banks of the creeks, streams, and rivers is vital to the health of the entire watershed. And the watersheds, in turn, are vital to the health of the whole planet. Both the river itself and the marshy world at its edge are what one NASA scientist calls, “the sine qua non of life.”
On a walk one late winter day, I changed my path. The new route took me through a stretch of trees at water’s edge, over a small pedestrian bridge, and up a hill. Two things struck me that morning: first, how many trees had fallen in the river; and second, how the mud flats under the bridge appeared lifeless and polluted. A riparian world in crisis, hardly teeming with life. Everything was brown and gray, like a sepia print.
An unexpected movement caught my attention. A tiny turtle, a really small one, was meandering through the muck. Sometimes the turtle moved above the surface, sometimes just below. I remained transfixed, watching this determined fellow, the only detectable sign of life in the whole of the muddy marsh. The next morning, the turtle returned. And again the next. Then there was another one, larger this time – the mother turtle perhaps? Each day, I stood on the bridge waiting, watching for the turtles. Somehow they gave me hope for the water.
The native peoples who originally inhabited the Potomac’s woods believed the turtle represented the Earth and connection with the environment. Indeed, the natives called America, “Turtle Island,” the place of wisdom and peace. In some religions, turtles are considered divine – symbolizing that the way to Heaven is a deliberate journey through the Earth and along its waters.
And I started to understand that the river itself is sacred, the watery way of salvation.