A Good Hard Look at the Anacostia

Our River: The Anacostia

Anacostia Idyll. Photo: Krista Schlyer

Just in time for the holiday season, a beautiful and powerful new book about Our River has been published. It is “River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia.” It is the latest in the River Book Series published by the Texas A&M University Press. The author is Krista Schlyer, a conservation writer and photographer who has won many awards and who lives in the Anacostia watershed in Mount Rainier. And are we ever lucky to have her!

The book weaves together three separate elements – photography, wildlife and history – in a way that they all support each other and set each other off. It is organized in a manner inspired by the great early conservationist Aldo Leopold, author of the classic Sand County Almanac. Each chapter tells of a month along the River, but taking the name of an imaginary moon – starting with the Deprivation Moon for January, when days are short and food for wildlife is limited. In each chapter are tales of walks along the River and its branches, observations of the wildlife, relevant historic moments, and beautiful photos of that time of year.

The photographs are uniformly stunning and carefully selected to reflect the text. They are enhanced by the 9”x10” book size, small enough to hold comfortably, but large enough to provide for great displays. There are over a hundred photos, some covering a full page; they were taken by Krista over a seven year period. While a number are spectacular views of water and landscapes, this is not a travel guide or a picture book. The photos also include many shots of wildlife and even artful pictures of trash, weed-choked riversides, development sites and other things that will delight you with both their beauty and their hidden messages.

A Fox Volunteers for the Clean-up. Photo: Krista Schlyer

The descriptions of life along the River are woven into each chapter and often are tied to walking along various streams and the River. One learns a lot about not only the mammals, the birds and the fish, but how long they have been around and how well they have survived the intrusions of man. There are also great explanations of important roles played by shellfish, insects, plants and micro-organisms in keeping the ecosystem healthy and recovering from the abuses and intrusions of humanity. The overall message is that this is a remarkably productive and resilient watershed despite a history of interference by mankind.

History provides a context for this abuse by starting in prehistoric times and tracing the history of the Anacostia watershed over the past four billion years. There is not much to report until the appearance of the first native settlements, which fit in well with what nature was providing. But then the author does not mince words over the impact of the European settlers and their progeny, from the first boats bringing slaves to grow tobacco that caused the River to fill with sediment to the Corps of Engineers destroying the wetlands to channel the River, and DC burning trash 24/7 at the Kenilworth Dump. There is even mention of one of the local residents, Rachel Carson, at home along the Northwest Branch writing about DDT in the classic “Silent Spring.”

Despite all this abuse, some saw the potential for the River to recover. Krista believes that we probably hit bottom in the 60’s and have been struggling to help it recover since then. Not that success is yet guaranteed by any means. As DC Department of Energy and Environment Director Tommy Wells is quoted on the rear cover of the book, “She leads us on a moving expedition of human failure and the miracle of nature’s renewal”.

But she also makes clear through her photos, her walks and her histories that we all are essential parts of making that renewal successful and long-lasting.


Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.