Thursday, March 26, 2009

With Thanks to William O. Douglas

Sau and I took a walk on the Canal near Old Angler’s Inn on Saturday, where the tree branches are still bare and the only true sign of spring was the number of us homo sapiens out digging the sunshine.

‘The Canal’ I’m referring to is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal on the north bank of the Potomac River, which begins in Rock Creek Park, Georgetown in Washington, DC and ends 184.5 miles later in Cumberland, Maryland. Built in the early to mid-19th century, it was used to transport goods on barges pulled along by mules on the bordering towpath and guided through a series of locks that closed and raised the water level 75 times to bring the barges up to grade. Ingenious!

It nearly vanished, between the many floods that have washed over it and the plans to convert it to a parkway-- but was saved in 1954 by the conservationist Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and eventually became a National Historic Park.

Douglas believed in the concept of legal standing for nature. He talks about ships having legal stature in maritime law, and says,

“.... So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes - fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it."

From the landmark environmental law case, Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972)

Don’t worry! I looked up ‘water ouzels’ already, and found out that this is another name for the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) reported on the website Yosemite Explorer to be John Muir’s favorite bird. There is a charming description of the bird’s unusual behavior—apparently it dives straight into rushing water hunting insects—and includes videos and still photos if you are eager to see:

Sau and I walked on the Canal towpath for hours, laughing and discussing our dreams, as only dear sister-friends can. We saw a blue heron flying, striking with its unusually wide wing span and long, skinny legs trailing out behind.

Sublime day!

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