Thursday, August 28, 2014
Of Rapture and Vanishing Species
One of my favorite places in the Washington, DC, area is the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which stretches almost 185 miles along the north Bank of the Potomac River. It’s the country’s longest and skinniest National Park, beginning in DC’s affluent Georgetown neighborhood, and ending in Cumberland, Maryland. There’s a tow path that runs along the canal, dating from the days when barges were towed by mules, and for several decades now I’ve hiked this path, alone and with friends.
I’ve had a couple of strange experiences there. Once, very early on a still and damp fall morning when the fog was still shrouding the path, the poignant sound of a bag pipe playing the Fallen Soldier Tribute filled the air. My hair stood on end. Out of the fog came a single Highlander in full regalia. He strode past me without a glance, and vanished back into the haze. I recognized the tune because the night before I’d been listening to a collection of Scottish military music and the tribute had been featured prominently.
Last year, as my pal Raoul and I were on the tow path, we noticed hundreds of Koreans walking silently and gathering in a hollow between the canal and the river. Hiking is a Korean pastime, and there’s never a day on the canal that I don’t see dozens of them, jauntily attired in pastel shorts and wide-brimmed tennis hats, lugging cameras, tripods, and coolers. This gathering, eerily quiet, was different.
They trudged past us empty-handed and eyes downcast. We stood at the edge of the clearing and watched the crowd grow. And then I remembered--a nationally known apocalyptic preacher had predicted the Rapture for this date. There were tales of believers giving away cars and homes, and some of the faithful had gathered by the waters for their ascension to heaven. We left them to their blissful journey. A few hours later, walking back to the car, we encountered the Koreans again, this time heading back in the direction they’d originally come from. Some were in tears, others seemed vastly relieved. That night, the news was that the preacher’s doomsday prophecy had been postponed. He apologized for any problems his miscalculation might have caused and enjoined his flock to gather a month hence. I don’t know how the flock responded.
One of the parks delight has always been its wildlife. Years ago, the C & O was rife with black and water snakes, the occasional copperhead, turtles of all kinds, beaver, heron, deer and an astonishing collection of reptiles and insects. Carps swam lazily in the canal, alongside endless sunfish, spots and crappies. Strange little shrimplike beings hid beneath rocks. Skinks clambered across boulders. Cormorants plied the waters, as did a multitude of green and great blue herons; butterflies and dragonflies hovered and flittered. There were paw-paw tree heavy with fruit and blackberry bushed lined the path.
Yesterday, as Raoul and I walked the path, we saw a grand total of two large birds, one tiny toad, one butterfly and one damselfly. A snapping turtle swam along the bottom of the canal. Everything else was gone. No blacksnake, no yellow and black box turtle. The largest fish visible were one-inch minnows. No paw-paws, no berries.
Blacksnakes, also called rat snakes, are vanishing all over the East Coast. Two decades ago, walking along the canal or the Potomac, you would see hundreds sunning themselves on the rocks and in the crevices of the ancient stone walls that once supported the Washington aqueduct. Their disappearance is blamed on the weather, pollution, insecticides, destroyed habitat and --I will get in trouble for saying this--a growing immigration population that prize snakes for their meat.
I’m not sure what all this portends, but it ain’t good. Could there have been an animal rapture?