Breaching Waterways: Along the Anacostia

Kingman and Heritage Islands Park, Washington, DC

Sunday, May 5, 2019
An Art & Science inspired walk Katie led with leading climate scientist, Dr. Jagadish Shukla; also featuring an interactive performance by Heloisa Escudero
Presented by Provisions Research Center for Arts and Social Change at George Mason University in conjunction with City as Living Laboratory, NYC.

On Sunday May 5th, we assembled as a group of around 20 in the parking lot adjacent to Kingman and Heritage Islands Park in Washington, D.C. Those in attendance came from a variety of backgrounds – scientists, artists, academics, students, activists, community members, family and friends. It was cool and raining. In fact, the night before there were flash flood warnings for the region, which is significant given we were assembled to reflect on flooding and discuss how the area is projected to flood with a rise in sea levels. I arrived early to walk the path and ensure it wasn’t already flooded; pulling logs and boards over muddy sections, hoping to make them more passable. Participants were encouraged to dress for the rain and wear boots – thankfully! I was wearing a wetsuit and carrying a bodyboard I’d made out of salvaged materials. 

The walk started with the following exercise: walk in a pairs – one person talks while the other listens – the subject is flooding, participants were encouraged to say anything that came to their mind with respect to flooding, and after walking for about 5 minutes, they switched roles.

We crossed a bridge to Heritage Island and I announced that should sea levels rise by 6 feet, this island would be entirely flooded. Life jackets had been preset and spanned both sides of the bridge. Alexis, one of our production assistants, and I demonstrated how to put on a life jacket and then handed them out to the participants.

We stepped onto the island, breaking off in to small groups to chat as we walked down a narrow rustic path. I had the pleasure of meeting Wendy Sittner, an artist, who told me about a portrait she made out of straws collected from the Anacostia river.  Soon we happened upon performance artist Heloisa Escudero, who was stationed on the southern tip of the island. As we assembled under the tent Heloisa set up to offer participants some relief from the rain, she invited us to speak our anxieties related to sea level rise and then perform a walking ritual that would symbolically block them. 

Once ready to move on, I invited participants to reflect on what keeps them afloat – in their life and work or literally, on the water. We walked on. The path was muddier and people offered hands, helping each other cross rough patches. We came to a wooden platform that had a life ring placed on it, and ties to moor a boat to – a raft on land – I asked everyone to step onto it and invited people to share what keeps them a float – to this there was a variety of responses – family, hope, research, community – but in more words than that.

We then walked to a look out on a second bridge – taking a moment to observe the natural beauty of the islands. And returned to the “raft”; I introduced Don Russell, Director of Provisions Research Center for Arts and Social Change. Don spoke about the history of the Islands and his personal connection to the site. Then we introduced Dr. Jagadish Shukla, George Mason University’s most senior climate scientist who spoke about some of the science behind sea level rise. After which time, he introduced his colleague, Dr. Barry Klinger, another esteemed climate expert GMU who shared some of his research and thoughts on climate science with the group. This evolved into a casual conversation – with participants freely asking questions of Shukla and Klinger.

The rain quieted as we walked back

– Katie Kehoe

Photo Documentation by Yassmin Raiszadeh