Volume 13, Issue 6 ~ February 10 - February 16, 2005
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Where We Live
by Steve Carr

Finding the Right Track
Is there one? Are we on it?

I have never been a big fan of winter. As I get older I mind the cold more and more. And wearing lots of clothes is always a pain.

Trees are bare and the ground is brown and lifeless, like everything has gone south for the winter. Sure, the skeleton trees are intricate and dreamy, but can you honestly say you prefer a winter wonderland to blooming green?

With a head full of wintry thoughts, I ventured into our nation's capital for a Smithsonian lecture to hear Jared Diamond on his latest bestseller, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed.

Hitting the Rails
Boarding Metro at New Carrollton, I snag my favorite spot, the front seat of the lead car, where I can look through the driver's tinted window and see what he's seeing as the train bounces along a three-rail roller coaster. This route has great head-on views of the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument.

The side window of the train shows another world.

The Metro heads into the district following New York Avenue a few blocks to the east. The first couple of stops are in Prince George's County. Graffiti covers every flat surface, mostly junky industrial warehouses and crumbling parking lots. Trash hangs from the trees and litters the ground.

View from the Track
Every once in a while, the rail line passes a barren little wetland, looking like the tailing pond from an abandoned old copper mine out West. But at one spot, freshly chomped trees showed beavers had been at work damming up a ditchy tributary of the Anacostia River.

The train rumbles by an endless line of ancient and dilapidated railroad cars filled to the brim with small ingots of what looks like scrap metal, rusting orange in the setting sun, at the gates of wartime Washington.

The train fills up at District stops seeming much the same. Each shows a busy, rundown street filled with a maze of overhead wires, pawn shops, tire stores, flashing neon signs, fast food, liquor stores, dry cleaners, and lots and lots of huddled people waiting for busses. It's a world far different than the Chesapeake Country we call home.

As the train nears the Anacostia, the Pepco power plant looms into view. Reserve power in the form of coal-filled freight cars sits waiting. They're cut off from the back yards of working families by barbed-wire fences dripping with honeysuckle vines and wind-blown plastic. Black coal dust covers the ground around the tracks, slowly working its way toward the Anacostia and Chesapeake Bay.

Piles of government money to study the polluted Anacostia River have done little more than catalogue its steady demise. I have kayaked its entire length and found it one of the saddest rivers I've paddled.

The section of river near RFK Stadium, where the train crosses a rickety bridge into D.C. proper, was recently the site of a major wetlands restoration project. Big bucks were spent to create new aquatic grass beds, all nicely fenced in from the birds. If the tide is up, you might be fooled into thinking this river was actually still alive. But low tide reveals the bottom of black muddy goop, devoid of the benthic critters that feed fish and crabs.

Yet a great blue heron snags a fish from a piling near the shallows. Perhaps there still is hope after all.

The train does a big sweeping turn to the left, passing orderly brick houses overlooking the former home of the Washington Redskins. Fields once filled with game-day cars are now empty and faded brown. As we wind around the vast stadium parking lot, now home to pigeons, seagulls, crows and flea market traders, I wonder, How can people simply throw away a perfectly good stadium like RFK?

The Track to Extinction
There aren't too many non-fiction writers who could fill a big auditorium like Smithsonian's Lisner, especially on a Thursday night in a cold winter. But Jared Diamond struck a collective nerve a few years back with the publication of Guns, Germs And Steel – A Short History Of Everybody For The Last 13,000 Years. The book has remained on worldwide bestseller lists since 1998.

Diamond's latest book got instant home-run reviews, prompting the Washington literary set to venture out in full regalia, primed to hear the truth. They found in the author a straight-forward professor type with a trimmed beard and a dry sense of humor. In Collapse, he analyzes why cultures succeeded or failed.

There's a common thread, Diamond says, binding societies that ultimately collapse. They begin destroying the natural habitat. Over-harvesting soon leads to a loss of biodiversity and fertile soils. Fresh water gets scarce. Invasive species start taking over. Pollution fouls the air and water. And the population keeps growing until it overwhelms the land.

Sound familiar?

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