Category: Good reads

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.

Can you identify this fish?

You’d think that anybody with the time to read a book published n 1881 book about bass and bass fishing couldn’t have many options in life. Even if that book was written by a man remembered as “Apostle of the Black Bass,” a certain Dr. James A. Henshall.

Dr. Henshall: apostle of the smallmouth bass.

My first mistake was an old one—judging the book by its cover. Its green imitation leather binding looks like it belongs in the most remote and dusty corner of a library’s stacks. The leaping fish on its cover looks like it was drawn from the work of an amateur taxidermist. Then there’s the title: “Book of the Black Bass.” Clearly no marketing expert, Henshall probably came up it himself.

I turned to the frontispiece engraving and met a fine pair of handlebar moustaches and behind them, the author. He didn’t return my gaze, but instead looked resolutely into the distance. Clearly he is a man of probity, determination, and likely unshakable religious faith.

But can he write?

Sly jokes and admonitions. It turns out he can indeed. Henshall’s content-rich prose could only be the work of someone who has lived its subject to its fullest. He writes with a passion that others would reserve for fine Beaujolais or the organ works of J.S. Bach. And he’s witty besides, with a sense of humor that runs just under the surface of each page, occasionally to bubble up in sly jokes and tongue-in-cheek asides.

In one chapter, Henshall gives perhaps the best account of how the smallmouth bass was introduced into the Potomac. It was an event that would prove momentous for the river’s future as well as ironic in light of today’s debate about non-native and invasive species. His descriptions of fishing gear of yore remind me of how much we take our precision reels, graphite rods, and polyolefin lines for granted. I smile with pity when I read, “The line [back then generally silk or linen] should be thoroughly dried, always [his emphasis], after use.”

A companion drawing shows
how to cast to the left.

And then his final words of advice, so politically incorrect in this time of catch-and-release fishing: “Always kill your fish as soon as taken from the water,” he writes. “By so doing, your angling days will be happy, and your sleep undisturbed.”

Small fin indeed! Most of all, I was delighted by Henshall’s wry account of the scientific misadventures that eventually gave the smallmouth bass its scientific name. More than any ordinary farce, it turns out it was a Gallic farce.

The name game began about 1801 when French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède received a smallmouth specimen for study. He noted its diminutive dorsal fin, and called the genus Micropterus, which means “small fin.”

What Lacépède didn’t know was that several of the rays of this particular specimen’s fin had been bitten off when the fish was young. Comments Henshall: “Its scientific birth was, like Macduff’s, untimely; it was, unhappily, born a monstrosity.” And he followed with the barb: “Its sponsors were, most unfortunately, foreign naturalists.”

In his choice of a species name, Lacépède played it safe by honoring his friend Déodat de Dolomieu, a distinguished geologist. The full name would be Micropterus dolomieu.

One fish, 57 names. Matter settled? Not by any means. Henshall tells in page after mind-numbing page the deliberations and disputes of scientists―mostly French―who in the end delivered up some 57 pronouncements on the subject and offered up a minor lexicon of Latin names for this one fish.

Henshall was clearly amused by all of this, which he describes as Gallic people “indulging their national love of novelty.”

A citadel of scientific taxonomy.

He tells, for example, how the “versatile and eccentric Professor Rafinesque appeared upon the scene” and gave different scientific names to bass of different sizes. Then a M. Le Sueur, “with a lofty scorn for Rafinesque,” gave these same different-size fish a wholly new suite of names, again failing to realize they were all the same species.

Even Georges Curvier, the famous French naturalist, became the target for one of Henshall’s barbs. For some reason Curvier lumped the smallmouth bass together with the largemouth bass as the same species, and gave them both the genus Grystes, Latin for “howler.” Remarks Henshall: “I have never met an angler who had heard a Black Bass ‘“growl.’”

This goes on for many pages, some of them with interjections of text in French in the style of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which was written around the same time. In the end, Henshall votes for Lacépède’s original name, flawed though it was. “Priority, like charity,” he wrote, “covers a multitude of sins.”