Reflections and Refractions on the Anacostia River

By Matt Kuniholm, Washington D.C. A Rocha Project Director

River Reflections

Like most things, rivers are reflections of the people and places surrounding them. The color of water reflects the mineral content of the bedrock and soils throughout the watershed. The taste of water reflects trace elements and the quality of water coming from upstream sources. The temperature of water reflects the watershed’s climate and the structure of riparian habitat. The oxygen content of river-water, an all-important requirement for aquatic life, reflects the slope and texture of the river-bed, temperature, biological activity and nutrient load of the river. Quite literally, the sight of water can reflect the panoramic and often picturesque beauty of the surrounding topography. And what would all these reflections be if they weren’t also perceived by people and all the other species which share the capacity of sight and the need for water?

Remnant of wetlands on the Anacostia River, Matt Kuniholm, 2013
Remnant of wetlands on the Anacostia River, Matt Kuniholm, 2013

If rivers are reflections of the people and places surrounding them, they can bring ongoing, seemingly endless joy as we see a tranquil, beautiful or awe-inspiring reflection renewed by the ever-steady flow of water. We may want to jump in and swim, floating and spinning around, enjoying the current’s clean pull. We may stand back, contemplate and create paintings or poems on the source and structure of the river. We may throw in a line or net to harvest and enjoy the river’s bounty. And all of these responses reflect our own character which values and enjoys the character reflected by the river.

But if rivers are reflections of the people and places surrounding them, it can become very uncomfortable to gaze out over a river and find an unwelcome reflection staring back. There’s no way to hide, except by looking the other way.  When thousands of tons of trash flow down and empty at the mouth of the river, there’s only one direction it could have come from. When fish are dying and their rotting bellies are floating in stagnant water, there’s only one direction that the contamination could have come from. When phrases like ‘the other side of the river’ connote dangerous and foreign worlds to people who use a river to divide and protect them from their fears, there’s only one reason that could be. And when rivers are dammed, diked, channeled and over-allocated, leaving a trickle of water where powerful rivers once roared, there’s only one direction to look to find the reason. In all these examples, it’s clear that the cause of any correlation flows in one direction: people, in one way or another, have the capacity to manage water, water resources and watersheds. Their decisions are reflected in the extent to which rivers maintain their character and contribute to the life and joy and peace of the people and places around them.

River Reflections in Washington

This dynamic reflection of a place on its people, and the people on their place, is true in many ways of the city in which I live, Washington D.C., and the closest river to my house, the Anacostia.  When it comes to rivers, there are dozens and dozens of agencies, associations, organizations, committees, conferences and workshops in this city which aim to project a positive influence on the nation’s waterways and water resources. From the clean water act in 1972 to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, to the EPA’s ongoing Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program applicable to the majority of the nation’s waterways, the United States has established a water management framework that has been replicated in many other countries throughout the world. But even with this myriad of environmental agencies, laws and organizations, the river closest to home – to the heart of our government and the city of Washington – has been recognized as one of the most contaminated rivers in the country and has historically been seen as a racial and socio-economic boundary segregating the city.

Aerial photo of the Anacostia river, National Journal, 1991
Aerial photo of the Anacostia river, National Journal, 1991

Having grown up in the DC area and lived, worked, played and worshiped within the city for the last several years, I’ve found it hard to avoid looking head on at the reflection cast by theAnacostia River. What does that reflection say about the character and characteristics of the city? Can our laws and regulations, advocacy groups and NGOs suffice not only to protect our nation’s waterways but also instill a deep enjoyment  and a desire to be good stewards? As I’ve looked into these questions, I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve found, but left longing for what’s still missing.

Let me explain:

I’ve been encouraged by the number of individuals and organizations working to restore the Anacostia River to the incredible resource it should be for the people and ecosystems of DC. For example, the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), a non-profit organization leading environmental education, stewardship and recreation activities throughout the watershed, has a straightforward mission: “to make the Anacostia River and its tributaries swimmable and fishable, in keeping with the Clean Water Act, for the health and enjoyment of everyone in the community.” It’s been a joy to meet people who are unified by this vision and who enjoy the river, even if it takes some imagining to anticipate what it would be like free from contamination and abuse.

The AWS, together with other local organizations such as Groundwork Anacostia River, the Anacostia RiverKeeper and Sierra Club DC, are also working together on practical environmental conservation projects and holding regulating agencies and those responsible for current sources of contamination accountable. These organizations, working with the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, recently assembled a great exhibit on urban waterways and civic engagement which highlights different community groups involved in reclaiming the Anacostia River.

The Anacostia Community Museum
The Anacostia Community Museum

I’ve also been encouraged that people of faith, particularly Christians from multiple churches throughout DC, are supporting what has too often been a secular environmental movement. For over a year and a half, a network of Christians in conservation and environmental science professions in the DC metro area has been meeting on a monthly basis to participate in environmental conservation activities in partnership with organizations working throughout the watershed, to pray, study the Bible and encourage each other in our professions in the environmental sciences.  The group, which is organized as a local chapter of an international organization of Christians in Conservation (A Rocha USA), is now working towards establishing an urban field center within the District of Columbia which would serve as the foundation for community based conservation projects, environmental education, collaborative community development and environmental research, all grounded in our Christian faith. The current plan is to establish the urban field center on a parcel of land overlooking the Anacostia River, adjacent to the grounds of a landfill that was covered over in the 1980’s and next to the Aquatic Gardens National Park.

Refractions of the River

Despite these encouraging signs, many people look at the Anacostia River and see it for what it currently is: a contaminated river full of trash and sewage that’s been dredged, degraded and largely forgotten. Those who still fish in the river do so despite the fact that approximately two-thirds of the popular brown bullhead catfish have tumors. Those who live on ‘the other side of the river’ do so knowing that the rates of poverty, crime and environmental contamination are all higher than in other portions of DC. And those who hope that the river may one day be restored to a river of life, do so knowing that the development trends and environmental indicators don’t provide much support for optimism.

Speaking as someone who works professionally in the environmental sciences, and who spends much of my time outside of work involved in community-based conservation and recreation, I can say that nothing could sustain my hopefulness for any type of environmental restoration except the promise of the river of life flowing from the Christian gospel. Throughout the Bible, this river of life refers to the Spirit of God which leads people to forgiveness and restoration through faith in Jesus. Were it not for this source of the river of life, my own ability to sustain this life, joy, and hope for restoration would soon run dry, leaving me a lifeless remnant of what life could be. And if rivers reflect the people and places surrounding them, I would expect the river to follow course as well.

So it’s with great anticipation that I look not to myself, or the laws, regulations, organizations and agencies doing good work to conserve and restore our rivers, but rather to the source of life and our hope for restoration. I join with the singer who sings:
O Lord, how manifold are your works!

In wisdom have you made them all;

The earth is full of your creatures (Psalm 104:24)

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,

though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

                There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,            

                                the holy habitation of the Most High.

                God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;

                                God will help her when morning dawns (Psalm 46:1-5).

No city, no river on earth could fulfill that expectation; but they can direct our attention to the God who can. In this way, the AnacostiaRiver is not just a reflection of the people and places surrounding it, it’s also a refraction of the true river of life. To borrow a theme from Makoto Fujimura’s book “Refractions:  a journey of faith, art and culture”, the Anacostia River and our stewardship of it is a refraction of the way God stewards his free flowing Spirit referred to throughout the Bible as a river of life. Stewardship of a broken creation can therefore become a creative art which gives glory to the Creator God.

River of Life, Tiffany Studios, 1921
River of Life, Tiffany Studios, 1921

In the introduction to his book, Fujimura, a Christian painter, writes:

“Via my art, I hope to create a mediated reality of beauty, hope, and reconciled relationships and cultures…. I have found that mediation of any kind is never black-and-white but prismatic and complex too. In order to find hope, even in the midst of the broken and torn fragments of relationships, in order to begin to journey into the heart of the divide, we must first wrestle with the deeper issues of faith. We must be willing to be broken ourselves into prismatic shards by the Master Artist, God, so that Christ’s light can be refracted to us.”

As I look out over the Anacostia River, I am forced to wrestle with my disappointment over its current contaminated state and its troubling reflection of our society’s character. Even so, as I attempt to be a steward of God’s creation, I see the refracted light of the Master Creator, God, and imagine the day when the entire world – the people and all its places – will be fully restored through the coming redemption and restoration in Jesus. It’s this hope that calls us to be good stewards of the river and the people surrounding it, to treat them not as the broken things they are now, but as the life-filled creations they were meant to be.

Source: Words Half Heard

Tags: No tags

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *