A thin ribbon of water called Dueling Creek drains a corner of Mount Rainier, the inner-ring Maryland suburb where we live. The waterway got its name because its location, just over the District line, once made its banks an ideal dueling grounds for members of the capital’s elite. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr may not have fought here, but seemingly just about everyone else did, including Francis Scott Key’s son Daniel, and naval officers Stephen Decatur and James Barron, who killed each other over a conflict that had simmered for more than a decade. The 1838 death of U.S. Rep. Jonathan Cilley of Maine compelled Congress to strengthen a ban on the practice, but duels continued under the cover of night.
Today the place bears battle scars of a different sort. Soil erosion resulting from forest clearing long ago silted the creek into a shallow, unnavigable channel. More recently, engineers straightened the Anacostia River, into which Dueling Creek empties, and drained adjacent swamps to control mosquitoes. A landfill was built on one bank, then capped with fill from the construction of Washington’s Metro system. The land passed into the hands of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, an organization whose management style might best be described as benign neglect. Invasive plants moved in — bush honeysuckle, Callery pear, Chinese elm, kudzu, English ivy and many more — choking out native vegetation. Trash and chemicals wash down from the urban areas at the creek’s headwaters.
The latest blow is a rice-grain-size insect from Asia called the emerald ash borer. First detected in Michigan in 2002, the ash borer has devastated trees throughout half the continental United States. In just a few years, the green ashes that tower over Dueling Creek’s banks have gone from green and lush to brown and dead.
The Dueling Creek watershed is not by any stretch a pristine wilderness. It has been bruised and battered for so long that it’s hard to imagine the great swamp forest that must have once grown here or the wild rice and shellfish that likely crowded its banks. And yet, not all is lost — not even close. Native sycamore, cottonwood, maple and oak trees still rise from the soil to dominate the canopy. And in mid-May, the place is alive in a riot of birdsong. On recent walks, birders have spotted or heard more than 30 species of birds, from common sparrows and cardinals to migratory visitors such as the Blackburnian warbler, a small bird with a fiery orange throat, and the wood thrush, whose melodious song evokes a wooden flute.
What we see around Dueling Creek is ancient, wild, wonderful behavior. Migratory birds have been plying the Atlantic flyway for far longer than humans have been here to witness. Their feats of strength can be mind-boggling. For example, blackpoll warblers weighing just a half ounce hopscotch each spring from as far south as Peru to the upper reaches of Canada. During flights, they look down over the farmed and suburbanized Eastern Seaboard for patches of green where they can rest and refuel. The watersheds of Dueling Creek and the Anacostia make up one such haven.
Without a doubt, however, forests such as Dueling Creek’s are not providing as they once did. The loss of the ash and the seeds it provided and the insects it hosted is a major hit. The invasive plants that often replace the dying natives generally provide less nutritious food to migratory birds and the insects they eat.
The varied challenges involved in restoring small, highly affected pieces of ground such as Dueling Creek — from stanching the flow of trash to battling invasive plants and insects to replanting native vegetation — can seem overwhelming. Efforts to fight these species tend to be modest and ad hoc, relying on small donations and volunteer labor, and they often fail to have the desired effect. With competing priorities for public and private dollars and volunteer time, one might ask, why bother?
The warblers and thrushes suggest an answer. The Dueling Creek watershed is the setting for the natural phenomenon that is the annual migration of songbirds from the tropics to the temperate zone and back. That migration is every bit as spectacular and dramatic as the geysers of Yellowstone and the rocky layers of the Grand Canyon. The best part is, we don’t have to get on a plane and spend thousands of dollars to experience it. We just have to wake up early and head outdoors.
So, yes, we should better fund the amazing national parks out west, but we should also better manage the little pockets of green that dot our urbanized landscapes back east. Otherwise the silent spring that Rachel Carson famously warned of and, through her book, helped halt may finally arrive.
Gabriel Popkin is a science and environmental writer. Fran Toler is the founder of Friends of Dueling Creek.