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River Of Redemption

Krista Schlyer shines a light on the forgotten Anacostia
Image of the Anacostia River

Despite centuries of abuse, Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River offers a wellspring of beauty and hope for urban restoration.

During the morning commute to Washington, D.C., thousands of cars stream over a handful of bridges that cross the Anacostia River, the drivers oblivious to the story below. Born of fire and ice, the river was once the realm of dinosaurs, mammoths and wolves. In the geologic blink of an eye, it was transformed from a thriving artery of life to a waterway too toxic for people to swim in or eat fish from. Overshadowed by the U.S. Capitol Building, monuments and ambitions of those in the world’s most powerful country, the Anacostia was abused and forgotten.

And yet, life persists. Great blue herons soften the graffiti-marked concrete channels constructed along the river. Cottontail rabbits nibble grass at the edge of forest remnants, and skinks and snakes slither among fallen leaves and cigarette butts. Cicada songs and the hum of automobile traffic fill the summer soundscape, and beavers—once wiped out from most of the East Coast—swim past floating plastic trash while searching for food.

Where some see a polluted river beyond rescue—or worse, see nothing at all—Krista Schlyer sees hope. The photographer and author of River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia (Texas A&M University Press, 2018), Schlyer wants others to view the river as an opportunity.

“We’ve already done the worst we can do to the Anacostia watershed,” says Schlyer, “Now we’re at a moment where we can redeem ourselves and reclaim our relationship with this place.”

For Schlyer, the Anacostia is more than a place. It’s her home. And it includes land, water, air, birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and insects—what ecologist and author Aldo Leopold defined as a “land community” in his groundbreaking 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac.

“If we think of ourselves as members of a land community, then there’s thoughtfulness and justice in everything we do,” says Schlyer.

In order for other people in the Anacostia land community to know their river and see value in restoring it, Schlyer says they must first remember it. Borrowing Leopold’s almanac format for her book, Schlyer documents the Anacostia through the seasons of a year and the ages of time, revealing what the river was, what it is now, and what it could be. For most of its existence, the place was unimpeded and home to a community of plants, animals and streams that fed the river. Around 10,000 years ago, small groups of humans arrived, living within the means of what the forest and river provided. It’s only been in the last 400 years that the Anacostia was drastically altered from a natural ecosystem to its current broken self. Buried in layers of sediment are the stories of African slaves, tobacco farms, a Navy shipyard, a burning garbage dump, sewage waste, weapons of war, toxic chemicals and plastic.

Image of beaver in Anacostia River

Pollution remains a persistant problem for the Anacostia. But there are signs of hope, like the return of the American beaver. Beavers were hunted to extinction on the river, but have been repopulating the river over the past decades.

But Schlyer’s photographs tell another story, one of resilience, renewal and restoration. By revealing the beauty and sheer wonder of what they didn’t know exists in their midst, Schlyer shows people that they are as much a part of the Anacostia land community as the bluebirds, red foxes, bees and box turtles that persist here.

“People need a beginning. Maybe they start looking at birds in their backyard, and then they go for a walk, and every new member of the land community they meet—deer, beetle or flower—links them to the next,” says Schlyer. “If people understand the roles that these members play—pollinators, carnivores, plants—maybe they will ask what our role is in helping them have a place here.”

While Schlyer invites people to discover the Anacostia through her photographs portraying its beauty, she doesn’t shy away from reminding us what happened here. Images of stumps where a forest once stood, dumped tires and floating plastic trash are reminders that while people have failed this land community, there’s always a moment where they can decide they’re going to be different. And that it’s possible to make the community more livable for all of its members, including those with wings, tails, scales, roots and fins.

“We can make up for what we did in the past,” says Schlyer. “We know how to do this, and there are a lot of people trying hard to restore this place. It’s my hope that in 50 years, we can bring back enough wetlands, meadows and riverside forests, and everything we do benefits the ecosystem and the community.”