It exists because it exists – Bioregional activism in the Chesapeake watershed

28 Jan 2014 james

Mika Minio-Paluello, Anna Galkina and James Marriott travelled in North America as part of a tour over September and October to promote The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian to the City of London. The tenth of a series of blogs on the journey comes from Maryland …

St John’s Church, Baltimore, Maryland

St John’s United Methodist Church
St John’s United Methodist Church

“Crabs do not exist to feed tourists. The Bay does not exist to support a shellfish industry. The Bay is not a ‘natural resource’. It exists because it exists. It has a right to be allowed to be healthy”. In the cavernous and somewhat battered nave of St John’s United Methodist Church, Brittany articulates her understanding of ‘bio-centrism’ to the gathering of thirty-odd souls before us. The evening is billed as a Community Fossil Fuel Free Forum on The Oil Road, Global Lessons and Bioregional Resistance.

The Neo-Gothic church, built in 1900, stands at the crossroads of a set of streets that run up the hill of Downtown Baltimore. Rows of brick-built two-storey houses spreading out from the former dockside, their solid respectability reminiscent of an English town. To the east of the hill is the valley of Jones Falls, to the west that of Gwynns Falls, and away to the south Baltimore Harbour and Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake is an extensive but shallow sea that opens into the North Atlantic through the narrow straits between Cape Charles and Norfolk. Into the Bay flow six main rivers including the James, the Rappahanock, the Potomac and the Susquehanna. Together they drain a massive watershed of 64,000 square miles – and area substantially bigger than England and Wales combined. From New York state in the north to a corner of West Virginia in the south, every drop of rain ends up in the Bay, and down on this flood comes the petrochemical run-off of highways and effluent from cities, farms and factories.

In 1967, in the same period that Lake Erie was declared ‘dead’, the obvious plight of the Bay provoked a group of Baltimore businesspeople to establish the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. For nearly half a century the Foundation has battled to prosecute industrial plants that have polluted the streams, has taken legal action against construction projects and has struggled to raise the profile of the watershed. It has built up an extensive membership base, an enormous endowment, and strong connections with powerful individuals in politics, the law and industry. But many in the area feel that in the process it has become focused on maintaining itself as an entity, as an environmental non-profit, whilst the Bay continues to be in a perilous state.

cbfLogotype 0206Out on the Jones Falls Expressway, part of the Interstate 83 that runs into the heart of Baltimore, the SUVs, trucks and cars often carry a Maryland license plate emblazoned with a picture of a Blue Heron, white and grey plumage amongst green reeds, together with the slogan; ‘Save The Bay’. Each strapline is only a few inches from the very exhaust pipes that spew fumes and fuel, and create the petroleum run-off that flows into the Chesapeake. The irony is not lost on Brittany. Although she herself, as a child, was a happy participant in one of the Foundation’s school projects, she points out that after 41 years the Bay is still appallingly polluted.

Over those four decades ecological thinking on the American continent has evolved and expanded. The writings of Stephanie Mills, Peter Berg and Gary Snyder – to name just a few – have been wellsprings of the bioregionalist, or biocentric, thought that has flowed out in all directions. This new understanding sees that the Bay should be preserved not for the sake of the fishing industry, or for leisure, or even for the aesthetic pleasure of the human communities that live within its watershed, but for its own sake. ‘It exists because it exists’

Baltimore was named after Lord Baltimore, the Anglo-Irish peer, who in 1632 obtained a charter from King Charles I to establish a colony explicitly as a haven for Catholics and other faiths that did not conform to the Anglican Church. Initially it was quite distinct from the Puritan colonies of New England, and the Quaker settlement of Pennsylvania that followed it. However despite the religious divides, each of these communities carried a similar 17th century European understanding of the relationship between the Human Being and the Natural World. A sense of the clear division between the two and the domination of the former over the latter. It was a way of thinking that underpinned the clear felling of the Appalachian forests at the headwaters of the James, the building of cities such as Richmond, Washington and Baltimore, and the sinking of coalmines in the valley of the Susquehanna. It was a way of imagining the world quite distinct from that held by the Piscataway Native Americans who lived around the northern part of the Bay.

In the four centuries, or 14 generations, since the first English colony was begun on the banks of the River James in the southern Chesapeake, there have been constant shifts in imagination and philosophical understanding. Much of what was ‘common sense’ to the Protestant men and boys from London, Essex and Suffolk who established Jamestown, makes no sense to us now. In the span of just one generation ecological thinking has evolved dramatically from that which underpinned the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to that which underpins the ‘common sense’ of bioregionalism. The group which Brittany is engaged with, Patapsco Earth First!, takes its name from the Algonquin word for a river that flows through Maryland and enters the Chesapeake at Baltimore Harbour. The name Chesapeake itself is also an Algonquin word.

The philosophy of the Native American peoples, such as the Piscataway, so many of whom were remorselessly exterminated by the European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries is slowly, relentlessly, re-emerging. A river, long since buried is pushing its way back into the light. It bursts forth in all directions, and from it flows new ideas of settlement, of living in the land.

Another of the presenters at the event in St John’s Church is Bill Moyer, a whirlwind of imagination and action, he lives by the Salish Sea on the Pacific Northwest coast and campaigns against the threat of new oil pipelines and coal trains. He speaks of preventing the area being turned into a ‘Fossil Fuel Corridor’. He explains the need for American culture to “overcome the settler mentality”, a way of thinking in which the frontier is always calling and the land that we are on can be destroyed because new land can always be obtained. In contrast the thinking that fuels the work of Bill and his fellows draws upon the culture of the Coastal Salish peoples who have lived in the same forests and on the same coast for at least 3,000 years. As Bill says: “There is wisdom in aboriginal ethical systems regarding survival of the community in place that is in direct conflict with the American expression of post-Reformation concepts of the salvation of the individual and the idealization of the material.” 

The work of Bill and Brittany is part of the reappearing stream, but it battles against a torrent flowing in the opposite direction. Brittany describes the rivers of coal that run on rail lines to Baltimore Harbour – the third largest port for fossil fuels in the USA. Like the coal trains that rumble past Blacksburg, the wagons of the CSX company carry black ore from the Appalachians and further west to the sea port. She explains how a trainload of hoppers can loose a tonne of coal in the dust that is blown from the mounds that they carry, dust that scatters in the forests and rivers that the railroads pass alongside. CSX uses a chemical spray to suppress the dust, but a recent spill of this substance turned a stream white.

The tales of chemical dust links to words of the fourth speaker at the Community Forum, Destiny Watford, part of ‘Free Your Voice’ at Benjamin Franklin High School, a student-led human rights committee of Baltimore’s United Workers, whose vision is for fair development and environmental justice for the all in the city. The school is at the heart of the Curtis Bay community down by the dockside of Baltimore Harbour. Destiny shows a video (see below) created by herself and others in the group, it captures the life of the residents in the neighbourhood, the rows of one-storey houses, the community garden, the playground. The images on the screen show how that beyond the chain link fence that surrounds the latter lies a hill of coal delivered by rail, waiting for export by ship. And the chimneys of a power station. Curtis Bay has been designated as the site for the largest trash burning incinerator in the USA, a scheme that would generate electricity from waste, but also hang a toxic plume over the neighbourhood. A vibrant campaign is underway to stop this project, and ‘Free Your Voice’ is at its heart. As Destiny says, the problem is that “Power is not properly distributed”.

Free Your Voice from Free Your Voice on Vimeo.

Taken from “The Next Gulf: London, Washington and Oil Conflict in Nigeria”

Sixty odd miles south of Baltimore, down a peninsular projecting into the Bay, lies the industrial plant of Cove Point. In Platform we’d come across this name eight years previously when we’d included it on a map of ‘The New Atlantic Triangle: The flows of oil, gas and money in and out of Nigeria 1995 – 2005’. Back then Cove Point had been developed as a liquid natural gas terminal importing hydrocarbons from the port of Bonny on the eastern side of the Niger Delta. But the intended profit from the LNG import terminal had not been realised, in part because of the collapse of the price of gas in the USA. That fall in the cost was driven by the ‘Shale Gas Boom’. Now Dominion, the company that owns Cove Point, wants to develop it an as export terminal. The plan is that from here shale gas will be frozen into liquid form and shipped down the Chesapeake, out past Norfolk and across the Atlantic to Europe, or via the Panama Canal to Asia.

President Obama gave his approval on 11th September 2013 for this change of use at Cove Point, so now a battle royal has been declared. Groups such as Chesapeake Climate Action Network have begun a campaign: ‘Stop Cove Point – Yes to Clean Energy.’ The shale gas that the terminal plans to export would come from hydraulic fracking across the watershed of the Chesapeake and beyond, and there is powerful opposition to it. Up the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, in the headwaters of the James in Virginia and across Maryland, groups have formed to stop this new industrial incursion into the forests and farmland. Some of this resistance has arisen from concerns about climate change, but a lot of it is about preventing the chemicals used in fracking from polluting the streams and rivers. Opposition to gas exploration in George Washington National Park, Virginia, is partly driven by the fact that it is a source of drinking water, indeed it helps supply water to the citizens of Washington DC.


This is a new phase in the long struggle to save the Chesapeake. However this time most of those who oppose fracking want it to stop entirely, there should be no compromise, no accommodation, between industry and the rivers. The aquifers have a right not to be pierced by the drill bits, the streams have a right not to be contaminated by acroylonite, ethyl benzyl, styrene, tetrachlorethylene and toluene.

Diane Wittner, a former Platform colleague and passionate activist living in Towson near the head of the Jones Falls river, established the Chesapeake Citizens group, which carries the slogan ‘Creative Citizenship for our Watershed’. It was Diane who’d organised the Community Forum in St John’s Church. On the day after the event she tells a story of being in a small boat off Cape Charles and watching in breathless wonder as a Humpback Whale and her calf first surfaced from the ocean and then at the centre of a boiling ring of bubbles, as if in a dance, dived together back into the deep. In their wake they left two flat calm discs of sea surface, perfect circles known as fluke prints: one huge, the other noticeably smaller. The Humpbacks were on their late summer migration south from near the Gulf of St Lawrence to their winter feeding-grounds off St Lucia. The path of their journey crossed the shipping lanes of the coal carriers from Baltimore and Norfolk. And they crossed the lines of the proposed LNG tankers from Cove Point.

How remarkably our understanding of the whale has shifted. In the Bible’s ‘Book of Job’ written down in the 5th century BCE, the awe of the whale is described:

‘Leviathan …

Upon earth there is not his like,

who is made without fear.

Will he speak soft words unto thee?’ 

The song of the Humpbacks echoed through the walls of the wooden ships that carried the first English settlers into the mouth of the Chesapeake. In 1620 in New England, the Pilgrim Fathers William Bradford and Edward Winslow wrote: “Cape Cod was like to be a place of good fishing, for we saw daily great whales, of the best kind for oil and bone.” The first record of the colonists’ attempts to organize community efforts to hunt whales was in Southampton, Long Island, in March1644. By the late 18th century whale oil was being imported into Baltimore Harbour on a massive scale.

After two hundred years of the constant pursuit of ‘oil and bone’, of the slaughter of mere objects as a source of meat and fuel for lamps, the US East Coast, or Yankee, whaling fleet went into decline. This demise was not entirely due to a lack of whales in the world’s oceans, but also due to the redirection of American capital towards railroads, coal mining, and new resources such as the petroleum of Pennsylvania.

But the North Atlantic Humpbacks had been hunted almost to extinction. Commercial whaling was finally banned in 1966, when Diane was just a child. The mother and calf that she watched in awe at the mouth of the Chesapeake are protected, no longer a resource of ‘oil and bone’, but protected in their own right. ‘They exist because they exist’.

Chief Billy Redwing Tayac, of the Piscataway

On September 21st 2004, an extensive new museum was opened at the centre of Washington DC. As part of the Smithsonian Institution it stands on the National Mall, minutes away from the Capitol. There are many contradictions in this building, but here is a monument to the survival, and resurgence of the myriad peoples that for so long the European settlers treated with and contempt and hunted with fear. George Washington oversaw a war of annihilation against the Iroquois, whom he compared to wolves: “Both being beast of prey, tho’ they differ in shape”. Around the museum, there is a garden of native plants designed to provide habitat for insects, mamals and birds – and the animals are returning. ‘The earth is still here. The water is still here. And we are still here.’ said Chief Billy Redwing Tayac, of the Piscataway, at the ground breaking ceremony for the National Museum of the American Indian.

With thanks to Diane Wittner, Jon Acheson, Brittany Shannahan, Bill Moyer, Destiny Watford & Greg Sawtell

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