Month: May 2017

Meet the Potomac River’s ‘environmental hero’

Book gives new meaning to
the term “environmentalist.”

Just when things couldn’t get crazier, I stumbled upon a book titled Donald Trump: Environmental Hero.

That’s right. Trump, the man who is dismantling the EPA and trying to turn national monuments over to the oil companies. Trump, the embodiment of Woodie Allen’s immortal phrase, “Nature and I are two.”

Try for a moment to even imagine Donald Trump wearing a plaid shirt. Stepping into a canoe. Walking on actual dirt.

Yet this is a book worth skimming for two reasons. First, one of its protagonists is our own Potomac River. And second, in this world of alternative realities, you could make the case that, while Trump is not an environmentalist in the conventional sense, his environmental vision has a depth and timelessness that most of us can scarcely imagine.

Shoreline epiphany. The book’s Potomac River segment unfolds in 2009 on an 800-acre tract of land called Lowe’s Island, the site of a fixer-upper golf course Trump had just bought. It would need a lot of work before it could claim its title as Trump National Golf Club, Washington, D.C.

Trump and another man drove along the shoreline discussing what had to be done.  That second man was Edward Russo, the book’s author.

A self-described “passionate environmentalist,” Russo has helped Trump and his organization navigate the intricacies of local zoning and environmental regulations for the past 15 years. He has also held local planning and environmental posts in New Jersey and he presently heads the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition (FKEC.org) in Key West, where he now lives. He was also a finalist in an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest.

“Golf, especially the way Donald does
golf,is a significant environmental
asset,” write author Russo.

“He [Trump] was very concerned about storm surges [sic] that could wash away all the improvements he’d planned for the club,” Russo writes of his conversation with the real estate mogul. Trump’s idea was to build a bulkhead along the entire shoreline. But Russo countered with a solution that would be cheaper and more natural.

Russo proposed to cut down the trees along the river and replace them with grass. He argued that the trees were ineffective for controlling erosion because their roots were undercut by the action of the river’s current. The trees also cast shade, which prevented the growth of ground cover that normally would stabilize the soil along the shoreline. Planting grass would hold the soil and prevent erosion, he said, and as an added bonus would provide habitat for birds.

“Donald loved it,” Russo writes.

‘There’s nothing like it.’ The local authorities at first were skeptical, but they ultimately gave in, continues Russo. This was a major achievement, he said, because Virginia has high environmental standards.

Trump crews ultimately cut some 465 mature elms, ashes, and black locusts along the 1.5 miles of shoreline. The trees were replaced by Russo’s grass as well as an enormous American flag with a plaque at its base commemorating a bloody Civil War battle that never took place. It was, Russo wrote, “another example of Donald using golf to improve the environment. Everyone was impressed.”

Most impressed of all was Trump himself. “Originally we had massive trees — you couldn’t see anything,” he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. “And through lots of hard work, and lots of environmental impact statements and lots of everything, we were able to clear the area and now we have unobstructed views of the Potomac River. There’s nothing like it. You can go 20 miles up and down the river and there’s nothing like it.”

If you don’t want to take his word for it, you can see for yourself. From the Virginia side the view will cost you $100,000 to join the club and a monthly fee of about $700.

A view from the Maryland side is cheaper. You drive down Rileys Lock Road and stand on the remains of the C&O Canal aqueduct over Seneca Creek. From there you can see the American flag at the downstream end, the imposing clubhouse on the rise, and the grand sweep of denuded shoreline. You can just make out the tiny golf carts as they move about in fits of stopping and starting, like beetles.

Of course local environmentalists seethed at what they viewed as yet another assault on a river that has struggled against so many. They saw his claims—and those of Russo as well—as absurd and contradictory.

The beauty of golf courses. I myself seethe every time I see that shoreline. But the Potomac River and its trickster have taught me to look beyond the obvious, especially when they involve fellow tricksters such as Trump, and trickster apologists such as Russo.

As it turns out, there is indeed more to the story. Russo gives us a hint:

“Golf, especially the way Donald does golf,” he writes, “is a significant environmental asset. A golf course is irrigated open space. The next time you fly over an area during a severe drought. . . look out the window and look for green patches. They are all golf courses. Where do you think the wildlife will go to survive?”

Losing a few trees is nothing. The golf course is everything.

I thought I despised golf and golf courses. But now I’m not so sure. Through my window I see that my property looks a little like a golf course, albeit a very small and scruffy one. It has grass (sort of) and clumps of trees and shrubs. It even has pool of water in the form of a birdbath. For me and for most people, landscaping means making your property look as much like a golf course as possible.

Where did we all get this notion of an ideal landscape? Maybe from the same place as Trump and Russo. Maybe we’re all in this together.

A painting by 10th century
Chinese master Dong Yuan.

Landscape of memory. One of the recurrent themes in field of environmental psychology is that this ideal landscape is somehow embedded in our psyches. All around the world, when people are shown pictures of landscapes, they prefer open savannah with its clumps of trees and a lake or river.  So do landscape artists, from the 10th century Chinese masters to their 19th century European counterparts.

According to scholars, our affinity for this genre of landscape comes from a shared experience that dates back to mankind’s very beginnings: life on the African savannah.

God’s golf course: a view of the
African savannah.

Over many thousands of years of human evolution, our savannah-dwelling ancestors would sit on hills, their spears at the ready, looking out across the grasslands. They would follow the movements of prey animals while keeping an eye out for enemies. Very likely they could see water too, perhaps just a watering hole, but also lakes and rivers.

Fast forward to the present and we have the golf course, the theme park equivalent of our African Eden. If we are drawn to this ancestral environment, Trump is mesmerized by it.

Imagine Trump emerging from his hilltop clubhouse on Lowe’s Island and standing next to his artificial water fountain. With a furrowed brow and pursed lips he surveys the expanse of grass and clumps of trees stretched out before him. His eyes pause momentarily on the golfers and golf carts, stand-ins for the original African fauna.

He then lengthens his gaze to take in a slender ribbon of water. He recalls that drive with Ed Russo eight years ago, and how those trees along the shoreline would have obscured the river. He pulls the corners of his mouth into a grin. By chopping down the trees, he got nature out of the way of his environment.

It takes a man of powerful urges and primitive sensibilities to recreate the African savannah along the Potomac River and on 17 other sites around the world. This man is Donald Trump, environmental hero.

From Potomac trash to Southwest border art

They race down the river in floodwaters. They bob about in rafts of debris. They lie half buried in a muddy shoreline, and even hang strings from overhanging branches. They are plastic water bottles, the Potomac River’s iconic trash.

Two thousand miles away, in the desert along the Mexico-New Mexico border, artist Jami Porter Lara also keeps an eye on plastic water bottles.  These are big two-liter ones, not the 16-ounce size generally found in the Potomac.

Most of the Potomac’s plastic bottles had been swept off curb sides or parking lots and into creeks, and eventually ended up in the river. A few may have been tossed directly into the current by fishermen or picnickers. Either way, they number in the many thousands, a never-ending downstream migration of plastic.

The bottles on the desert border were also the product of a migration, but in this case of people from Mexico and Central America heading north. For them, water in plastic water bottles is not just a convenience, but a necessity. Without it they would perish from thirst. When they cast aside an empty bottle, they aren’t littering. It’s part of their fight to survive.

For Porter Lara, the plastic bottles stand as a testimony to a human drama of hope and perseverance, and this is one reason why she is drawn to them.

There are other reasons, as I discovered in her exhibit called “Border Crossing,” which is now in its final days at the National Women’s Museum in Washington, D.C. For her, these humble, everyday objects have inspired her to create art that invites us to cross borders of human perception and understanding. Her vision is something that our own Patowmack the Trickster—himself a master of shape-shifting—would appreciate.

Porter Lara’s pots fuse the past with the present to create what she calls “contemporary artifacts.”

Crossing borders. One of these borders is time. Many of Porter Lara’s bottles, with their twisting, organic forms, evoke mankind’s early use of gourds to transport water. Others recall ancient amphoras. Her works also reference the pots made by pre-Columbian peoples, shards of which also lie scattered in the Southwest border desert. But all are unmistakably representations of plastic water bottles, with their threaded tops and the five radiating indentations that lend rigidity to their plastic prototypes.

Another is the border between art and trash. Porter Lara makes her pots the traditional way. She digs the dry, crumbly clay out of the side of a stream bed, laboriously mixes it with water, and strains out the impurities. Then she molds the bottom of the pot in a plaster cast she formed from the bottom of a plastic water bottle.

She forms coils between her palms, which she then presses to the molded base and spirals up what will be the sides of the pot, pinching them together as she goes. After the pot dries she burnishes the surface to a sheen with a smooth stone. Lastly she fires the pots in an outdoor pit of smoldering wood, which she covers to reduce oxygen so that the clay surface turns black.

She calls her pots “contemporary artifacts,” combining ancient material and technique with present day interpretations. “By making plastic bottle forms out of clay, making them appear more like what we perceive as artifacts, my purpose is to hasten our awareness of the inevitability that these, too, will belong to the past,” says Porter Lara in materials prepared for the exhibit.

Man and nature. The final and perhaps most elusive border is that between nature and human artifice. Porter Lara’s pots express the idea that nature is not something apart from people. It is not pristine, nor should it be. Her pots invite us to view humankind is a part of the natural world.

“Saying that humans are only pollutants is a failure of imagination,” she says. “Yes, we’re destructive, but we’re also creative. . . . I want to create the possibility that we can see things differently and contribute to the world.”

I agree with Porter Lara about the ambiguity of trash. For a long time I have resisted condemning the flotillas of plastic bottles and other man-made detritus in the Potomac River. Instead, I look at it with interest.

A two-liter bottle, not on the border
between Mexico and the US, but
between Maryland and Virginia.

Of course I wish there was no trash, but not because it makes the river less lovely—that would take an awful lot more trash than what we have now. Mostly I don’t like trash because of what it says about the people who live in the river’s watershed. We are—as Porter Lara says—a part of nature, an idea which I find both uplifting and depressing.

Why do weed warriors love to hate the garlic mustard?

The garlic mustard: From potherb
to invasive species of choice.

This is the time of year when weed warriors armed with shovels and pruning shears do battle with that subset of the plant kingdom called Invasive Plants. They march into woods and fields, fearless in confronting any leafed alien that poses a threat to our native plants. They emerge at the end of the day exhausted from their pulling and hacking, often with arms bearing badges of honor in the form of nasty scratches and cuts.

Clearly not all weed warriors fit this heroic mold. There are many others—perhaps the majority—who also believe fervently in the crusade against alien plants, but not so much in hard physical labor. They opt to express their beliefs in symbolic acts, a little like casual church-goers or Earth Day marchers.

A devil’s nursery. I recently came across what seemed like an illustration of this idea at a place near the Potomac River called Hughes Hollow. It’s a kind of “natural” area, favored by birders, where a system of canals and sluice gates control the water level of two artificial ponds covered with lily pads.

A dirt road runs across a dike at Hughes
Hollow, an unnatural area brimming
with life, both native and exotic.

A dirt service road separates the two ponds. Alongside grows a tangle of plants, nearly all of them non-native species. For a weed warrior, I’d imagine it’s like walking down the aisle of a devil’s garden nursery.

As for myself, I admired the exuberance—if not the purity—of this plant profusion. Bumble bees buzzed past my head as a yellowthroat warbler went “witchety-witchety-witchety” in a stand of willows.

A modest experiment. I walked along for a short distance, and then I came upon something curious. It was a neatly laid out stack of withering plants, followed by another, then another.

A withering bunch of garlic mustard
lies on a bed of more fortunate invasives.

The plants were garlic mustard, widely distributed in the Old World. It was brought to our shores in the middle of the 19th century to perk up the salad bowl and vegetable pot with its garlicky flavor.

Out of all of these invasive species it appeared that the weed warrior only pulled out garlic mustard. I found no sign that any of the other invasive plants along the roadway had received similar treatment. Why ?

I had a suspicion, but I needed to confirm it by performing an experiment. My method of analysis would be straightforward, requiring no replication, peer review, or even any actual data. I would simply walk down this service role and pull on every plant I encountered. I set off on my botanical adventure.

Death to dandelions! I first approached a dandelion. I admired the fierce yellow of its blooms, rivaling the sun itself. Italian immigrants once used its bitter leaves in salads. I knelt down and hooked my forefinger around the plant’s stem, right at ground level, and gave it a yank. All I came up with was a rosette of leaves oozing white sap from their base.

My next intended victim was vetch, a plant of slender vines, purple flowers, and delicate compound leaves. The nodules on its roots contain bacteria that convert nitrogen from the air into a form usable to other plants. Again I knelt down. With my fingers I traced the plant’s sinewy stem through the neighboring plants until I found where it entered the ground. This time I pulled more gently. But the results were the same.

Equal-opportunity invasive. I tried uprooting one non-native plant after the other. Some were tiny and delicate. Others were thorny and prickly. In all cases, try as I might, their roots refused to give up their hold on soil from which they sprang.

With one exception. As you have already guessed, it was the garlic mustard. I found a small patch that the weed warrior had evidently missed when he passed through earlier.

Their stems were tall and easy to spot and substantial enough that I could get a firm grip on them. I didn’t even have to kneel down to do so. I pulled, and as I knew would happen, out they came, roots and all. It was almost like these latter day pot herbs welcomed their demise.

I lay my first bunch down on the side of the roadway. I pulled up several more and lay them over the others, noting how naturally they seemed to nestle into a state of repose, like cordwood or neckties in a bargain bin.

This was all the proof I needed. Weed warriors love to pull out garlic mustard because, well, it’s easy to pull out. Science doesn’t always have to be complicated.