Everyone's dream - a clear running stream, translucent, crystal-clear (we say), inviting us to plunge our hands for a sip of cool water; through whose lense we see pebbles, rocks, tadpoles, fish; on whose surface stride, as if by magic, insects, spiders; damsel flies circle. The traditional swimming hole, the rope wrapped round the overhanging branch, from which generations of adventurers swung and splashed on hot summer days. An archetypal memory.
The Anacostia River lost its charm when 25% of its watershed was developed. When its channels were wrapped in concrete. When sewage and stormwater overflows ran into the waterway. Development had trashed the River, so people dumped their debris too, thousands of tons of it. It will cost upwards of one billion dollars to restore the River to a semblance of its former glory.
It's the tremendous diversity of life in a waterway that makes it work. There is an automatic trade-off when human intervention changes the way nature works. The waterway begins to die.
The urge to build, to make nature produce money, to manipulate natural forces to our presumed advantage, to 'improve' the land - is a force that is strong in us, nurtured over centuries by scientists and philosophers like Bacon and Descartes who argued for mind over matter, who gave us a heritage of ruined landscapes, because we failed to acknowledge that we owe our existence to the interaction of natural forces we cannot control, cannot manipulate, comprehend, create.
We have reached a point, however, where we have sufficient understanding of the fact that nature's complexity, its diversity operates to our benefit. We also understand that we can discipline our impact by design. We can make more compact use of the land. We can use permeable paving which allows stormwater to infiltrate instead of running off. We can build raingardens in association with each house to catch and hold the water from the roof and driveway. We can use living roofs, cisterns, rainbarrels to hold water that we can then release in summer drought to make our gardens grow. We can build narrower roadways, less sidewalks, include swales along the roads to capture the rain. And we can leave trees standing instead of clearing the total acreage. We can plant less lawn, apply NO fertilizers, NO pesticides NO herbicides, create a natural woods-like garden bearing in mind that we need to recreate the diversity that was lost during development, recreate not impose our vision of suburbia.
But most of all, we need to KNOW the land, respect its intricacy, the character of its soils, how water flows within it, how the earth and forest and water work together. We need to respect these lifeways sufficiently so that as we live within the earth's embrace and allow it to continue to do its work unimpaired.