In River Time: The Way of the James


One of the oldest riddles goes something like this: "What keeps running down and out but never stops, and is much older than man is!" The answer--"a river"--looks simple. Still, the riddling continues in one form or another, as people keep finding words to name whatever river they depend on, trying to pin down its fluid realities as they come to see them. So it has been on the James River in Virginia, just it has been on every other river.

On a map, the James looks much like any other coastal river. Thousands of small streams, often fed by underground mountain springs, repeatedly converge as they move downhill, growing into larger streams sometimes called rivers. Finally each merges into the giant stream now labeled as the river James, which flows in a general southeasterly direction--sometimes straightaway, sometimes winding. Names have been given to most of the turns in its shifting shape. The river begins at Iron Gate, between the mountains of the Alleghenies, heading southeastward through the Great Valley of Virginia past Buchanan, edging northeast along the base of the Blue Ridge, cutting through at Glasgow and downhill to Lynchburg, swinging northeast again for forty crooked miles to Scottsville, then abruptly turning back south, winding to Richmond, dropping through the granite of the Fall Line, and curling seaward, past Hopewell, past Jamestown Island, opening into a mile-wide flood to Newport News and Hampton Roads, where it scoops out the base of the Chesapeake Bay. En route, it turns from fresh to salt water. Then it drops underwater, coursing invisibly until it is finally swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean at the edge of the continental shelf.

Unlike most great rivers, the James River itself manages to remain within the confines of a single state, even though its network stretches over more than 10,000 square miles of "basin" in three states. It marks many kinds of boundaries, but it has been spared the troublesome name of state border. Instead it links the commonwealth of Virginia from its mountains to the sea, slashing from its northwest peak almost to the southeast corner.

The James also behaves like every other river. It flows in one direction, persistently taking the easiest route to the sea. It gathers and carries the soil and anything else that washes down with each rain, and then, wherever the current slows, it deposits its load, shaping banks and islands and raising its own bed. It can rage with flood when its headwaters are swollen by rains, or slow to a trickle under dry, blazing skies. But even in the driest of seasons, it keeps on flowing from mountain springs that never cease. Always the same but always changing, sensitive to every mood of weather, its uplifting bed, and rising sea levels, it shapes itself as it flows. Like every other river, it seems almost alive.

Beneath its surface, any river is a self-contained world, for its waters sustain numerous creatures who live by feeding on each other. When that river has both fresh and salt water, as the James does, it supports many living communities, including some whose life cycles demand a periodic change of habitat. Fish which prefer cold, deep, or saltier water may not seek the James, but many other kinds of water-loving animals have come, including human beings. Though they too are occasionally part of the food chain, their dependence is actually on the river's flow--to help provide clean water to make up two-thirds of their body weight.

The story of civilization is closely tied to tales of how these upright, two-legged creatures figured out how to take advantage of the gifts of fresh running water. Archaeologists know that any remaining artifacts or bones of the earliest people will be found along the banks of ancient streams, even though long dry or diverted to other courses, for this is where humans came to drink the water, trap the fish, and harvest wild grains from the floodplains. When they learned to invent ways to harness the water, perhaps lifting it to irrigate or forcing it through mills, then civilization as we know it was under way. So it was on the James, as it had been centuries earlier on the Ganges, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Yangtze, and the Nile. People first came to and up rivers, and there many of their descendents have remained.

The James is a fairly typical stream with few claims to rivery honors. Although its origins are ancient, it is not the oldest river in North America. The New River, its southern sister in the Appalachians, is older, once furnishing the headwaters of the giant Teays which spanned the continent. The James stretches over 335 miles--434 miles if its doubled headwater streams are added, but that is not particularly long for a major river. It cannot compare with the Mississippi in the amount of sediment transported to build new land downstream, though its burden of soil has greatly enriched its floodplains and earned it the affectionate nickname of "old muddy Jeems." It never etched dramatic canyons as the Colorado River did, for its rocky bed is tough and its banks long bore thick forests. Since its basin is water rich, communities have not yet needed to struggle for water rights, and engineers have mostly been able to restrain their damming ways.

As a river, the James is distinctive only because the timing of its floods is so unpredictable; they are liable to come in any season. It is now exceptionally "flashy," able to go from drought to flood level within weeks, creating over time a water level profile with the jagged peaks of an electrocardiogram tracing. Yet this makes the James more rather than less representative a river, for the promise of changes in level and shape is the essence of all rivers. To see this river, then, is to see all rivers to a degree.

Any special distinctions the James bears date from the arrival of people on its banks, especially that of the white man. Perhaps it was an accident that the James was the first river to be permanently settled by enterprising Englishmen, but its history has included a series of other recorded firsts. It has continued to reveal, both early and dramatically, what has happened as Americans approached their wild rivers with love, with hate, but most often with indifference. And its working definition as a river has shifted repeatedly, reflecting the ways it has been seen.

Some people believe that the best way to see a river in its complicated entirety would be to isolate it completely from all human influence. But that would result only in a deep silence since, to be consistent, one would also have to reject the words created to describe the river's processes. Each word necessarily says as much about the perspective and frame of reference of those persons who speak it as it does about the river they seek to characterize. These two realities, subjective and objective, are inseparable. Photographs, too, fall short of depicting the truth of rivers, for they must halt and distort, especially when they try to capture the river's motion. I know of a few persons who understand this, who have become so entranced with the truths spoken by the river that they abandoned both cameras and language to sit beside the river in silence, day after day. There are moments when I too find that kind of contemplation of the river a tempting occupation. But it is a dead end. For better or worse, the river must be mediated by people. To see the river whole, one must review that twisting story of how the river has woven through and shaped the lives of people and, in turn, been defined and changed by them.

Most of the histories that purport to be about a river, however, tell instead of events and people, perhaps even of the houses on its banks and ships on its surface. As for the river itself, it might just as well have been paved, for they neither look at its processes and life nor detail the role it has played as a river in the culture developing on its shores. Natural histories, on the other hand, focus on the generic river as a mobile ecosystem or shaper of land and rock, but the people whose lives it affects are kept at a distance. Recent books which do present the human impact on rivers tend to become horror stories or soap box sermons, condemning those who degrade rivers as well as those who fail to protect them. These works can also offer worthwhile perspectives, but none really shows all the dimensions of a living river surrounded by people.

The story of a river and its people is neither tragic, comic, nor historical, but contains elements of all three. Its unities are not exactly those of time or action, even though some of the actions have had consequences over time. It includes numerous isolated and sometimes repeated or cyclic events which do not always fit a historian's neat scheme of cause and effect. What the events do have in common is setting--a river which flows continuously though constantly changing shape--where people keep naming and responding to its processes. The plot complications are all rooted in how people have and have not seen or tolerated the realities of their river, and how they have disagreed about them. Characters come and go in this story, each with his or her own way of seeing and separated in time, but all caught somehow by the magic of the river. In supporting, but not necessarily minor, roles are nonhuman creatures of the river who tend to be victims rather than heroes. The dialogue lies in the words, pictures, or maps which wait in libraries for later generations to read. All in all, a river's story is a strangely structured drama, full of conflicts, revelations, and ironies, that is hard to replay because the script is blotted and sketchy.

Nowhere else, perhaps, is this script more clearly written than it is on the James. Of all the rivers in the world, this is one that educated men approached as a brand-new world and described for those who could not see for themselves. Their eyes were open and their pens poised to record their developing romance with this river. The Spanish who preceded them up the James probably also wrote of their first encounters, but their accounts are still lost in uncatalogued boxes in the Spanish archives. Even if they could be found, they would tell little of the river's subsequent story, since it was the English, not the Spanish, who went on to build their version of a civilized culture there, one which was shaped to a degree by their first impressions and attitudes toward the river. In retrospect, their view of the river may have been even more partial than that of the Indians they displaced; yet what they chose to see has become the heritage of the people of Virginia and even of the United States of America. However, the assumptions they bequeathed have not always served their descendents well.

I did not come to the James as deliberately as those 1607 adventurers did, nor did I expect to find any sort of new world there. In 1971, chance placed me a few miles southwest of the James, near a creek that also crosses the Fall Line. Eventually I started to look closely at the river I crossed twice a day, alerted by the serendipitous meshing of several circumstances in my personal and professional life. I kept finding clues that this river was still a path to relatively unexplored regions--of human geography. Some hints lay in the cadence of foaming rapids, accented by rocks and bird songs, which began to rush through my dream world almost as relentlessly as the river did between its banks. Once, from an airplane, I glimpsed flashing lights leaping out of the darkness, the semaphoric reflections of a new moon skipping over the tidewater islands and sliding down marsh creeks. My attention was completely fastened, though, one warm spring afternoon as I floated through a mist in a canoe, watching raindrop designs collide with the swirling surface, and barely hearing a low but distinct hum beneath the splashing. Like the first explorers, I was finally hooked by the river, and just as determined to mine any gold buried in its physical facts.

At first I thought that going down to the river frequently, mulling over what I was reading in "river-ologies"-geology, hydrology, biology, ecology--would show me its full dimensions. Soon it became clear that any river, especially the James, is much more than its physical facts, more than a "channel of surface drainage water. " A river is also what human beings, including myself, have seen and keep seeing it to be. From Henry David Thoreau I had learned much about how natural facts, especially of flowing water, can be named to embody personal/universal ideas, especially if the facts are kept open-ended, unruly and slippery with glimpses of mystery about them. But what he did not teach is that other people's perceptions and experiences with the river, their namings, are also part of its meaning.

Therefore, I turned to other sources, to histories, literature, and other sorts of stories, oral and recorded, to find how people think and feel about "their" river, in this case the James. It has meant trying to recreate not only what they knew, but the contexts of time and more recently, academic discipline, that structure their vision. riverThis style of exploration is not easy, especially when mathematical formulas intrude and historians disagree or relegate the river to footnotes. Treading in alien territory, even if it is intellectual rather than physical, can be discouraging and risky. But the allure of ironies, nuances, and implications buried in even the most precise, technical language has continued to be irresistible. The hidden metaphors are as intriguing as so-called facts, with some of the best insights into how people understand rivers.

Though I am able to move freely through libraries and archives, and, by foot, car, or canoe, along the river, my primary vantage point is naturally where I usually cross the river, over bridges at the Fall Line in Richmond. This too may be a fortunate though uncalculated circumstance. Situated on the river's major barrier to both man and fish, where the tides end and fresh water begins and where more than half of the river's human neighbors have chosen to congregate, I can look both up and down stream. I stand at the very spot where the river has most intensely felt the shaping and mixing hands of man, as well as where those people delegated and elected by Virginians to manage that river reside.

Here too is also one of the few places where the river's depth and rocky bed allow anyone to stand in the middle of the river itself. Although I can literally balance myself here against the river's current, I know that, unaided, I see very little, no matter how clear the water may be. So I keep trying on different lenses, each a fact, an experience, or a perception of the river. Individually each bears unique colors and distortions. The trick has been to mount the lenses together, after eliminating in each as much cloudiness as possible, in hope that eventually much of the subjective astigmatism will be corrected and the colors merged to create a distinctly focused picture. In the process of focusing, somehow the picture that emerges is also a mirror.

It is not just the river I am seeing.


river map
Chapter 2