Yes, there really is a Trump brand softball. But wait! There’s more.
I spotted this particular ball yesterday evening while kayaking on the Potomac River maybe a half mile downstream from Trump National Golf Course. The ball was barely visible on the shoreline in a swampy mix of mud and decaying leaves. My feet made a sucking sound as I went to retrieve it.
Back at a gravel bar I washed the mud and algal slime off the ball and took a picture. Then I checked into CNN: The House had just taken its vote to condemn the president for his racist comments.
Clearly the river’s idea of a joke.
A couple of additional items of interest. For one, the ball was made in China. It says so in small type on the reverse. Also the name of the model of the ball, the “stote,” is the obsolete form of the word stoat, aka weasel. This stealthy and highly effective carnivore belongs to the genus Mustela, whose members have pungent scent glands used for marking territory and attracting females. Maybe the river knew all this.
So far it had been a quiet afternoon on the river. I was pretty much alone as I poled my canoe up to the Seneca Breaks rapids. The heft of the cedar shaft felt good in my hands as I thrust it against the rocky bottom to drive the boat ahead.
Nothing much was happening. The temperature hovered in the low 90s, and the fish were sheltering in the stargrass or under rock ledges. Except for an eagle that mobbed an osprey and stole its fish, even the birds were taking time off.
It was getting dark when I turned back into the creek. I entered the tunnel that carried the creek under the C&O Canal. Made back in the early 19th century, its walls are lined with rocks, except where they’ve fallen out. It’s a magical place, a little eerie even. I heard water dripping up ahead, and then felt the drops as they trickled icily down my back.
I headed for the semi-circle of light ahead of me. A barred owl called nearby. Was that a sign?
On shore, I checked my emails. There was a message from the local Canoe Cruisers Association (CCA). It hit me like a punch to the stomach.
The subject line read “Closing the Potomac at Violettes and Rileys.” This was the section of the river just upstream from where I had spent the afternoon.
Was the closure due to a pipeline spill? Toxic chemicals? Gobs of decaying algae or carcasses of rotting fish. Any of these would be bad enough.
It turned out the reason for the closure was much worse: Donald Trump.
I stood there by the creek reading the Coast Guard interim rule. It said that federal and local law enforcement would have the authority to kick boats off the river fronting the Trump National Golf Club when Trump or other high government officials were at the club.
Public comment on this Security Zone plan would be taken until August 9. Here is the excellent set of comments from the Canoe Cruisers Association that includes a map of the closure area proposed by the Coast Guard and the CCA alternative.
The Coast Guard will probably scale back their original Security Zone, according a guide for Team River Runner outfitter I spoke with later (and in fact the Coast Guard commandant has since testified verbally that it intends to do just that). The guide said that riversports businesses and non-profits hope that they will win over the feds by taking a “respectful approach.”
But respectful was not how I was feeling that evening at the creek.
Trump gets personal. Like millions of others, I loathe Trump for who he is and what he is doing to our country. But up to this point he was someone out there, the tragic-comic buffoon of the nightly news. Now my loathing had notched up to a new and much more personal level.
As I brought my canoeing gear to my car I mulled over the implications of the Coast Guard plan.
The section of river targeted for closure is heavily used and much loved. It’s a place where outdoor schools teach young kayakers to roll before heading down the rapids. Canoeists and kayakers cross the river here reach the start of a tree-canopied channel on the opposite shore where George Washington had built a canal to create a water route to the Ohio Valley.
Here also is where fishermen and duck hunters put in their camouflage jon boats and head for spots they had carefully scouted beforehand. Even the detestable jet skiers would be left sputtering and fuming at the launch ramp while Trump played golf.
Imperial golfer. The Coast Guard rule said closures would be announced by VHF radio. Really? The rule makers clearly don’t know much about canoes and kayaks. VHF radios on the upper Potomac are about as common as Coast Guard cutters.
Or maybe they had a bigger boat in mind, something more like a landing craft.
The environmental impact statement said that the rule would not negatively affect the “human environment.” It didn’t say anything about the paradox of a human environment where the humans are removed.
Why should one man who wants to play golf deprive many others of the right to spend their hard-earned free time on the river? It all sounded arrogant and reeking of imperial privilege. It was not America and it certainly wasn’t fair.
River of ironies. But while it may not be fair, it is ironic. First there’s the issue of the trees.
The closure plan is aimed at protecting Trump from threats coming from the river. The rule also refers to protesters, such as the “kayacktivists” at the PGA Competition earlier this year.
And it’s true—boaters on the river have an unimpeded line of sight to the golf club. And why is this? Because in 2010 Trump ordered the removal of all the trees along the 1.5-mile shoreline to create a river view for his club patrons (although his “environmental” consultant claimed the removal was to prevent erosion).
Glorious non-battle. The next irony is about truth and integrity, two fundamental qualities of the river but not of the president.
After Trump cut the trees, he erected an enormous American flag. At the base of the flag he placed a plaque commemorating a Civil War battle that turned the river red with blood. No surprise: There was no battle.
Then there’s the massive river cleanup effort now being jeopardized by—guess who?
In the 1960s the Potomac was befouled by raw sewage and toxins. President Lyndon Johnson called it a “national disgrace.” One hundred years earlier Abraham Lincoln would retreat to the highlands on summer evenings to escape its stench. The 1972 Clean Water Act marked the start of a dramatic turnaround.
A federal-state partnership is now working to meet ambitious pollution reduction goals by 2025 in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Potomac. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is heading up the cleanup with $73 million earmarked for this current year.
Trump has proposed to eliminate this funding as part of his push to gut the EPA.
Kayaks vs. golf carts. The final irony is the person the security zone is aiming to protect.
Most people who get out on the river are physically fit and love being outdoors.
In contrast—as we remember from last year’s outbreak of naked Trump statues—the president is in terrible physical condition, even borderline obese. He rides his golf cart onto putting greens—a serious golfing no-no—to save a few steps. He even opted to take a golf cart for the quarter mile to a G-7 photo op while the six other world leaders walked.
Nor has Trump ever shown the slightest interest or curiosity in the natural world. His world is defined by manicured golf courses, office towers, and gambling casinos.
Now thoroughly depressed, I lifted my canoe on the roof rack and tied down the straps. Another owl had joined the first, and they called back and forth, growling and hooting like TV pundits. As I left I rolled down the window to hear if they had found some kind of resolution.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
A search for fact and fable in the Potomac River watershed