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“If gold has been prized because it is the most inert element, changeless and incorruptible, water is prized for the opposite reason -- its fluidity, mobility, changeability that make it a necessity and a metaphor for life itself. To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things.” ― Rebecca Solnit

The nightmare that comes to me while I sleep always begins the same way. I am standing next to Colesville Road in Silver Spring, Maryland, near where Northwest Branch creek crosses this highway. 

But instead of the small filtration station that once served the modest-sized dam a couple of hundred yards upstream, there is massive hi-rise development everywhere: acres of uber-modern condos and swanky shops cover the ground where I once pried off samples of translucent mica from the soft sandstone in the forest above the creek.

In the nightmare, the stream valley on both sides of the highway, once crowded with ancient trees, has been denuded and the resulting silt has turned the once clear waters a sluggish brown. The boulders and small waterfalls downstream are still there, but bake in the sun instead of being protected by the cool shade of an Eastern forest.


When I to hike down the creekside trail, it never leads to the house I once called home. I become lost amidst unfamiliar boulders and side trails that lead nowhere. When I awake I am filled with a deep and terrible sadness. This is a recurring nightmare of mine. It comes upon me frequently.

During my teen years I explored that publicly owned stream valley for miles in both directions, often hiking through the water in an old pair of tennis shoes. I came to know the sucker fish who swam in the shallows, the tadpoles of the vernal pools and the box turtles who would seek relief from the summer heat in the calm areas of small feeder streams.

Fallen logs across the creek provided easy bridges to the old suburb of Woodmoor, high on the other side of the valley, where the branch library kept me furnished with a steady supply of science and science fiction books.

In the winter, the half-frozen waterfalls became an ever-changing sculpture garden of icy surrealism.

In and around the Rachel Carson Greenway
Northwest Branch north of the small dam

Teddy Roosevelt visited Northwest Branch in 1904 and wrote to his son: ” ... there is a beautiful gorge, deep and narrow, with great boulders and even cliffs. Excepting Great Falls, it is the most beautiful place around here.”

Northwest Branch crosses the geological fall line between the Piedmont and Atlantic coastal plain regions which explains the small waterfalls south of Colesville Road.

Rachel Carson’s former home where she wrote much of “Silent Spring” is near Northwest Branch. The trail there is now called the Rachel Carson Greenway. Famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed her near the creek for a 1962 Life Magazine article.

Although the stream quality has been adversely affected by storm water runoff from the crowded suburbs that surround it, it is afforded some protection by government agencies of Montgomery and Prince Georges County. The Neighbors of Northwest Branch organization leads nature walks there and monitors its condition.

Rachel Carson photo Rachel-Carson-008.jpg
Rachel Carson birdwatching along Northwest Branch


So why do I have recurring nightmares about Northwest Branch instead of recurring dreams of its beauty, a beauty that has largely survived since the end of the last Ice Age?

Why? Perhaps because Northwest Branch is a part of the Anacostia watershed.

It empties into the dangerously polluted Anacostia River which flows past Southeast DC, a largely African American working class community. Much of the pollution comes from suburbs upstream or from the rest of DC across the river. A short distance away, across the bridges that span the river, are the EPA headquarters and the Congress that passed the Clean Water Act.


Trash in Anacostia River
Trash in the Anacostia River


According to the National Resources Defense Council: “Toilets in the Capitol regularly flush directly into the Anacostia -- our federal government needs to show leadership and contribute its fair share to cleaning up the District's rivers.”

Apparently Congress really does give a shit about our watersheds.  That contrast alone is almost too much to bear, even as citizens groups and official agencies work to slowly repair the Anacostia River.

But in the face of greed and misplaced priorities, official agencies and well intentioned citizens groups are an easily breached line of defense. Powerful financial interests do it all the time.

So despite its present status as public parkland, the eco-system of Northwest Branch remains vulnerable.

But perhaps these nightmares about a favorite creek also stem from other places as well. Three women I've met are in a Michigan jail for non-violently protesting an Enbridge company pipeline that would carry Canadian tar sands oil across the Midwest. Tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest petro-products ever. 

In 2010 leakage from an Enbridge pipeline caused the largest inland oil disaster in US history when it polluted Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

In both West Virginia and North Carolina, energy companies recently leaked toxins into rivers with seeming impunity. In Northern Alberta where oil and gas development has ravaged the traditional lands of the Cree peoples, Melina Laboucan-Massimo said this:

“My community has dealt with three decades of massive oil and gas development. And this has been without the consent of the people or without the recognition of protection of the human rights which should be protected under section 35 of the Canadian constitution, which protects  aboriginal and treaty rights.”
It is the reckless burning of coal, oil and gas that is accelerating climate change, drastically altering the hydrology of the entire biosphere.

Meanwhile, the snowpack of the High Sierras in California shrinks as climate change sweeps across the planet. What will become of those frigid fast flowing mountain streams whose waters I drank and whose rushing sounds lulled me to sleep as I camped near their banks.

And how many Californians depend upon that snow pack for their home water supply?

The UN tells us that,” More than 2.7 billion people will face severe shortages of fresh water by 2025 if the world keeps consuming water at today's rates...”

I can’t be the only person who is having nightmares about fresh water, the lifeblood for terrestrial beings. My prehistoric Scottish ancestors once designated pools, springs and other water sources as sacred places of worship, as did other peoples around the planet. 

But as social critic Karl Marx wrote,”... all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

I believe in neither gods nor goddesses. But the next time I visit Northwest Branch, my own personal shrine to water, I will offer a silent prayer.

May we please make water sacred again?


Northwest Branch 2
A small waterfall along Northwest Branch

------------------------------------------------------------------

A socialist since he was a child, Bob "BobboSphere" Simpson is a retired history teacher now living in Oak Park IL. 


Sources Consulted

Neighbors of Northwest Branch

Rachel Carson Greenway & Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park Trails

Northwest Branch  Subwatershed  Action Plan

Robert B. Morse Water Filtration Plant

Cleaning Up the Anacostia River by the National Resources Defense Council

Anacostia Riverkeeper

Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands

Report Warns Of Severe Water Shortages By 2025

Originally posted to BobboSphere on Fri Feb 21, 2014 at 04:54 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Excellent diary. (8+ / 0-)

    I rec'd this diary but my name didn 't show up under "Diary Recommended By."

    So many books--so little time. Economic Left/Right -7.88 Social Libertarian/Authoritarian -6.97

    by Louisiana 1976 on Fri Feb 21, 2014 at 07:03:45 PM PST

  •  Thank you for your heartfelt plea for sanity. (6+ / 0-)

    Water is surely above gold in real value. Yet, as you point out, we use our rivers for sewers. If we leave anything in them at all.

  •  Beautiful diary (6+ / 0-)
    My prehistoric Scottish ancestors once designated pools, springs and other water sources as sacred places of worship, as did other peoples around the planet.
    A wonderful idea. The Totonacs in the Sierra Norte de Puebla believe that their sacred springs are beings and that holy men need to "hold them in their minds" to keep them healthy. Modern industry has moved in, there are less holy men, less "presence of mind" and the springs are failing.

    I think in much the same way, you have this kind of connection to the water and you care for it.

    Natural communities have rights to flourish and maintain their natural systems just as surely as any person. Our ancients understood this, but we have forgotten to hold them in our minds.

    We have it within our power to make the world over again ~ Thomas Paine

    by occupystephanie on Fri Feb 21, 2014 at 08:40:45 PM PST

  •  Lovely images, important diary - thanks. (5+ / 0-)

    I try to figure out what "Northwest Branch" is a branch OF. It can't be Rock Creek, b/c "my" Rock Creek is west of Colesville Road. {Surely a quick look at Google Earth will solve this minor puzzle.} But it looks just the same - the eastern forest is so lovely - such a peaceful, meditative place. I grew up there, picnicking near Rock Creek, but now live in that place where the Sierra snowpack sends us our drinking water all summer. Maybe. There is a possibility of rain in the forecast next week...

    For those who like graphs, here are the temperature (top) and water graphs for the "water year," which starts in July. These are for San Francisco, which stands as a proxy for the Bay Area. In the water graph, the ochre shows what we should normally have by now, and the pale green shows what we've gotten.

  •  I’ve been drawn to the great outdoors (6+ / 0-)

    my entire life, and I can't help but notice the loss of open land and the corresponding decline in water quality.

    As a kid, I wandered the pastures and woods next to my parents' house in Missouri, and fished in the small creek in the nearest valley. The pasture is now a subdivision. The woods are full of houses. The creek is a pathetic channel. Someone even built a storage facility on the banks of the creek, even though it floods frequently.

    In my forestry work, I often see the interface between forests and developed lands. The streams flowing from developed areas are usually slimy, and their banks are overrun with invasive plants.

    The tiny streams that join together to form our creeks and rivers are the capillaries of the planet. They are often bulldozed for our convenience, making it difficult to maintain water quality downstream.

    What it ultimately comes down to is that there are too many of us. You'd think that being pro-life would logically extend to being pro-water, but that's not how it's working out.

    •  "The capillaries of the planet"--Love it! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      occupystephanie, foresterbob, KenBee

      When I was 13 and had just moved to the house near Northwest Branch, I was still very naive. As public parkland, it is long and narrow, a stream valley, but a deep one near where I lived. In the warm months you can't even see the houses at the top so it's easy to imagine that you are in a wilderness.

      I saw a beautiful feeder stream with clear rushing water tumbling over rocks, so I drank from it on impulse. Then I decided to find its source, imagining some kind of pool bubbling up from the rocks. When I got to the top of the valley, I discovered the source. It was a storm drain. I survived the encounter, but I was a bit sadder and wiser that day.

      "Don't believe everything you think."

      by BobboSphere on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 07:28:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Stewardship (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BobboSphere

    Bob, I was with you and in full agreement til you quoted Karl Marx.  Can't say I agree with you that socialism has the answers - in fact, socialism has an abysmal track record on the environment.  Capitalism isn't perfect and we have a ways to go, but our environment is improving because we as a nation have the wealth to be able to afford environmental protection.  IMHO, we must continue to find better ways for government and the private sector to work together toward a shared vision of environmental sustainability.  

    www.conservewfewell.org

    •  I rather disagree (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BobboSphere

      Government and private sector partnerships have brought us all the ills of polluted waterways, fracking, industrial agriculture and more. In fact, business coupled with government is a definition of Fascism.

      Capitalism views people as Labor Costs and the natural world as Resource Plunder.

      We need to have rights of natural communities as they do in Ecuador so a river has legal standing. My county has an ordinance we hope to be voting on this year that does that and also elevates people's rights over corporate rights.

      We have it within our power to make the world over again ~ Thomas Paine

      by occupystephanie on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 08:49:45 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  The socialist movement has come far... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NoMoreLies, peregrine kate, KenBee

      ...in its understanding of the environment and it might surprise people to know that Marx was aware of the environmental destruction wrought by the capitalism of his time.

      The record of 20th century state socialism was abysmal as a small elite ravaged the planet much like their capitalist counterparts.

      However I seriously question the ability of global capitalism to to prevent the continued destruction of the biosphere because it still depends upon the worst kind of primitive resource and labor extraction in its energy, agricultural and manufacturing policies.

      It is a global system and much of the worst destruction by global corporations (including ones based in the USA) takes place in the Global South and in areas where indigenous people reside, as in Canada today.

      Capitalist countries that developed more enlightened environmental policies  tend to be those ones with strong socialist and social democratic traditions, ones that were able though protest and governmental action to curb capitalism's worst impulses, at least within their own boundaries.

      Even here in the USA, where socialists are not numerous, they have played an  active role in the environmental movement, especially in the more radical wing. Some of the greatest advances in the US environmental movement came during the Progressive, New Deal and 1960's periods when socialist ideas were were at their strongest.

      Our public lands are at their heart, a very socialist concept and must be constantly defended by eco-activists from capitalist exploitation.

      It is my opinion that some kind of socialism could emerge out of the global environmental train wreck that 21st century capitalism seems to be headed for. But that is speculation as no one can predict the future with any degree of accuracy.

      I do know the 21st socialist movement has studied the failures of  socialism in the past so that hopefully a future socialism would be a much improved democratic version.

      Capitalism will survive much longer if it would honestly examine its many failures as well, both past and present.

      "Don't believe everything you think."

      by BobboSphere on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 09:26:15 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Public Lands (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        BobboSphere

        Bob, as a capitalist, I don't expect to change your mind on the value of capitalism and emerging environmental markets as offering a sustainable means for helping to resolve some of the environmental issues that face us.  Your point about public lands does not help advance your argument, as the federal government has demonstrated its own inability to properly manage national forests and BLM lands.  Having said that, I'm supportive of our public lands like national parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, etc., and will fight for their protection.   But that does not negate the fact of the government's own dereliction and history of mismanagement of public lands.  Regardless of our political disagreements, when it comes to protecting and wisely using resources, I dare say you and probably share more than not.  Regulations are as critical as the oxygen we breathe, but Government action often fails to evoke the right incentives.   http://conservefewell.org/...

      •  the original inhabitants haven't all forgotten (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        BobboSphere

        either.

        I went to a prayer meeting tonight accentuating healing the people and the planet...I kind of think modern white people are new to this 'movement'..typically 'we' think we invented it :>

        This machine kills Fascists.

        by KenBee on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 08:11:25 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  So glad to see this in Community Spotlight (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BobboSphere, Redfire

    Fine writing of substance needs to be highlighted.

    Following you now.

    We have it within our power to make the world over again ~ Thomas Paine

    by occupystephanie on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 08:51:23 AM PST

  •  what a beautiful diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    foresterbob, KenBee, BobboSphere

    Though I haven't hiked there myself, my son always did with our dog. Both love it there.

    Washington DC needs a Moral Heyday at the Capitol. All Your Moral Mondays Do Belong to Us! Connect! Unite! Act!

    by mimi on Sat Feb 22, 2014 at 06:05:32 PM PST

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