I CHECK OUT a ruby-red Capital Bikeshare bike and pedal my way past the White House (Obama is still in residence), past the Washington Memorial (still the largest, whitest phallus this side of anyplace), past the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture, past the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and out to the tip of Hains Point to check on the proposed site for the latest DC landmark: a Memorial for the Future.
In April of 2016, the National Park Service and National Capital Planning Commission, with the Van Alen Institute, launched the Memorials for the Future design competition. They asked applicants to create a landmark that would help us reimagine the role of Washington DC’s iconic collection of public monuments. Five months later the results were announced: Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter of Azimuth Land Craft had won for their Climate Chronograph proposal.
The idea behind the Climate Chronograph is deceptively simple: plant a graded field of cherry trees on low-lying land and, as sea levels rise, the trees will die, row by row, from saline inundation. When I read about the Climate Chronograph’s victory this past fall, I was intrigued: Partly because learning to see the slow-moving, place-based impacts of climate change is difficult when you change locations at the rate of the average American (once every four years) and thus have little experience from which to develop a sense of ecological normalcy. And partly because while hardwoods all along our coasts are already dying, their roots increasingly soaked in salt, more affluent areas simply replace them, erasing the message written in their prophetic limbs. Perhaps the Climate Chronograph will allow industrialization’s aftermath to finally become visible in the nation’s capital.
As I ride out to Hains Point, I begin to peel off my layers. First I remove my coat. Then I unwind the scarf from around my neck. I roll up the sleeves of my turtleneck and strip the thin wool from my body. It is the beginning of November, and the temperature is pushing eighty. As I sweat into my undershirt, I am engulfed by an all-too-familiar feeling—that something, or everything, is off.
A few weeks before my DC pilgrimage I called the designers to ask what had sparked the Climate Chronograph. Jensen described working on another coastal site and realizing that the grove of trees he purposed would not outlive him, as is so often the aim with trees in landscape architecture. “When you plant a tree you try to plant it well enough so that it flourishes for its whole life,” he said. “It was a surprise to realize that the trees I was proposing for the Port of Oakland would all be under-water in less than a hundred years.”
The closer I get to Hains Point the harder the pedaling comes. I am riding on a boardwalk that runs along the rim of East Potomac Park, the island on which the team has proposed to site the memorial. About halfway out to the island’s tip, the path is pocked with puddles, the concrete disintegrating. Then the sidewalk itself slips beneath the surface of the tidal river.
It isn’t raining as I near the end of the island and there isn’t a storm offshore. The day is as clear and as blue as the filigree on a porcelain plate. But still the sidewalks are covered in water. I have to dismount and push my bike because the concrete is slick with algae, an indication of how often this area floods already.
From Portland, Maine, to Key West, high tide, when coupled with something as innocuous as a full moon, increasingly floods low-lying areas. Sometimes the water simply rises above the existing seawalls and other informal barriers; other times it works its way in through the stormwater infrastructure that runs below ground. The very pipes that are designed to reduce flooding by ushering rain out act instead as conduits for saltwater to work its way in.
Out at the farthest edge of the point, I roll up the cuffs of my damp jeans, listen to the brackish water burble beneath my feet, and think about what it is that the Climate Chronograph will commemorate. We tend to think of memorials as celebrations of some achievement in the past. But perhaps the message of this one is written in the future perfect tense: by transforming the present into an object of future memory, the Climate Chronograph demands that we reflect, now, on whether we will have wished we had done more to slow the incoming tide.