We are a river town. From its headwaters in Delaware, our Chester meanders ever south and west for 43 tranquil miles, flowing past farms and fields, ever broadening, as it takes on more and more water from its tributaries, until it finally empties into the Bay just past Eastern Neck Island. What and where would we be without it?
Fortunately, that’s a question we don’t have to answer, at least for a few more centuries. That said, we take the Chester for granted at our own peril. Stewards of the river abound, but keeping the Chester healthy and thriving is a full-time job for everyone, not theirs alone. We all have a stake in the game. Agriculture, wildlife (fish, fowl, and game), and a variety of native habitats all spin a fine ecological web in which we humans play the greatest part. Nutrient over-enrichment, high levels of bacteria, storm runoff, and low dissolved oxygen levels are among the threats to our river’s health and sustainability; they are human problems that require human solutions. This must be the work of a river town.
But whose work is it? Town government? The business community? The College? Yes, yes, and yes. Yours and mine, too. I recently got a chance to read the draft report (never completed) of the disbanded Chestertown Revitalization Task Force that sought solutions to some of these problems. Although the purview of the Task Force was far wider than just the river and town waterfront, it seemed to me they were starting down the right track before the effort derailed. “Chestertown’s strongest physical asset is the Chester River,” the report states. Green infrastructure, appropriately regulated commercial development, improved public access and connectivity, thoughtful maintenance of historic character, and a creatively revitalized marina are all important themes in the symphony that is a healthy river. Where those initiatives currently reside today is a good question; like so many other important initiatives, they seem to be floating away downstream either for lack of money or political will. Whatever the reasons, it would be a shame if all the Task Force’s hard work and good thought simply evaporated, leaving the river and its stewards to keep fighting the good fight with one hand tied behind their back.
I started thinking about all this when I asked a friend of mine to render the Chester Watershed as an abstract painting. I wanted to see what our river looked like through her artist eyes. I love the finished work (a photo of her painting accompanies this Musing) because it blends the river, its tributaries, and its littoral into a fugue of harmonic tones. All too often we try to discern things only in black and white or we search for a realistic rendering that reveals any given subject in precise but finite detail. But a river isn’t like that. It moves with the wind and tide; it changes with the season; it thrives or fails as a result of its interactions with the humans who live and work beside it.
Rivers are works in constant progress and ours is no exception. It has a beauty all its own. That great philosopher, Winnie-the-Pooh, knew a thing or two about rivers: “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” That seems about right, but I’d like to think that when our river gets “there,” it will be the best river it can be.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”
Artist credit: Nicole Modica Seifert from Alexandria, VA