Wade Through Deep Water: An Introduction to D.C.’s Watershed

Tevyn East as Miriam and Jay Beck as John the Baptist in “Wade Through Deep Water”

By Rose Marie Berger
Introduction to “Wade Through Deep Water” presentation held at the Festival Center in Washington D.C.

In the Roaring Twenties, the WWI war profiteers were enjoying unprecedented prosperity, while rural landholders were losing their farms to debt and moving into the cities looking for work. The war had displaced millions of refugees who also were pouring into the cities.

Along with immigrants came the Chinese exclusion act of 1923 and National Origins act in 1924. With the rise in urban population came the “modernization” of the city, the rise of tenements, streets for automobiles, and rudimentary cisterns and sewers. The Roaring Twenties are also sometimes called the Jazz Age. And Jazz captured the frenetic, complex energy of a city in the way that Mississippi delta blues never could.

In March 1923, Robert Frost published a poem in The New Republic titled “A Brook in the City.” In it creates a snapshot of the once solitary farmhouse nestled into fields swallowed by new urban sprawl. Frost meditates on the stream that used to identify the watershed in that place.

A BROOK IN THE CITY by Robert Frost

The farm house lingers, though averse to square
With the new city street it has to wear
A number in. But what about the brook
That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
And impulse, having dipped a finger length
And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
The meadow grass could be cemented down
From growing under pavements of a town;
The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.
Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
How else dispose of an immortal force
No longer needed? Staunch it at its source
With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown
Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
In fetid darkness still to live and run
And all for nothing it had ever done
Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
No one would know except for ancient maps
That such a brook ran water. But I wonder
If from its being kept forever under
The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
This new-built city from both work and sleep.

Tonight we gather with members of Holy Fool Arts as they present “Wade Through Deep Water,” a Ceremonial Theater event “tracing the soggy footprints of a people through the wombs of the Red Sea and Jordan River to birth an Exodus thirsting for collective liberation. Come near to hear the voice of water’s lament as told by Miriam, Moses’ sister, and John the Baptist—two of God’s prophets whose water-logged lives kept them swimming in transformation.”

But before this ancient narrative can well up in our own, we have to learn about where we are. Here at the Festival Center on Columbia Road in Washington, D.C. we are guests in the watershed of our country’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay. The bay was formed 35 million years ago when a speck of stardust was flung from the hand of God into Delmarva peninsula, punching a hole that slowly filled with water. For 10 million years, the estuary spread. It sprouted rivers—the Anacostia, the Susquehanna—in the fissures opened in rock by melting ice. Twenty thousand years ago the Anacostia settled into her riverbed, creating this watershed, this basin of biotic relationships (see Brock Dolman).

For more than 10,000 years, Native peoples have created thriving societies along the Anacostia and her tributaries: the Powhatan, the Piscataway, and the Nanticoke.

The Piscataway had about 8,500 members in 1604 when the English arrived. Within 100 years only 300 remained. And they remain still. We give honor here to the Tayac family to Chief Billy, Gabrielle, Sebi, and the community. The Piscataway Nation continues to offer prayers for the Cheseapeake bay, for Anacostia river, for the streams and tributaries. They serve as sacred water protectors here.

These rivers, like this city, were weaponized during wars—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II—with bases and armories built on their silty backs. Until 125 years ago, this city was known for its artesian springs—like Rome today There were more than 50 public wells and hundreds of private springs that provided fresh water.

Here on Columbia Road we sit on Lanier Heights, the very western edge of the Lower Anacostia watershed. This neighborhood is held in the arms of two abandoned and buried tributaries—Reedy Branch and Moore Spring.

All the wells and springs were backfilled in the 1920s. A system was devised to divert water from the Potomac for public use.

Only in the past 10 years–with the pressures of climate change–are we reversing the way this city uses water and looking at how to revive and protect our underground streams. The most stunning example of this is the project to return the Broad Branch tributary that has been piped in and concreted over back to the surface in a process called “daylighting.”

As Robert Frost wrote, “No one would know except for ancient maps / that such a brook ran water. But I wonder / If from its being kept forever under / The thoughts may not have risen that so keep /This new-built city from both work and sleep.”

This is where we are. Now we ask: What does it mean? I hope these underground streams will delight and disturb your dreams.

—Rose Marie Berger (9 June 2017, Festival Center, “Wade Through Deep Water” ceremonial theater). Find out more in Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, edited by Ched Myers (Cascade, 2016).

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