In River Time: The Way of the James


The past of a river catches up with the future at its mouth, where its waters and sediments flow. On the James that means Hampton Roads, where the James widens over acres of oyster beds into the Chesapeake Bay. Here the scope of water and the marks of man dwarf one person in a canoe. So in May 1984, I found myself cruising Hampton Roads in the company of a hundred people--mostly local planners and supervisors from upriver and environmentalists attending a conference on the Bay. All day various experts took the microphone to point out not only what we were seeing, but how the life of the Bay has been threatened by the ways people have seen and used their rivers.

Our boat left from a seafood processing plant where the owner, a waterman whose ancestors fished the James and the Bay, recalled the time when water life was rich enough to support thousands of people. In his words I kept hearing echoes of the ecstatic descriptions of early settlers--of John Smith, Gabriel Archer, and William Byrd, at once listing and praising the water's fertility and calculating its potential market value. Unlike his predecessors, this waterman must range far, to both oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, to find enough seafood to sell to make a living. Reluctantly he admitted that overfishing, not just pollution, has helped deplete the resource, and that only federal regulation has the power to solve many of the Bay's problems.

We did not have to go far to find reminders of another part of the river's heritage--battle and conquest. Dodging tankers and Navy ships, we passed over the site where the ironclads clashed and one was sunk. Docked at the Norfolk Naval Base and flanked by carriers, battleships, and a growing fleet of nuclear submarines, we heard an officer detail the Navy's current campaign to make certain that its operations do little to harm the nonaligned waters which bear its ships. The legacy of neglect remains, however, up the nearby Elizabeth River, whose bottom is coated with the black creosote, oils, and other chemicals from industry and shipbuilding, and whose surviving fish suffer tumors and fin rot.

Beyond the ships loomed the Virginia headquarters of America's water engineers, the same U.S. Corps of Engineers that has waged so many battles with the James. Ironically its neighbor is the American center of Jacques Cousteau, a Frenchman who fights battles of quite another sort to dramatize water pollution problems all over the world. The Corps is now working hard on proposals to avoid, not solve, these problems by building pipelines for miles beside rivers, even the James, or southwest to a North Carolina lake, threading through several polluted rivers to find enough clean water to supply the tidewater area's burgeoning population. Across the Elizabeth, the Corps' dredging of ship channels goes on, daily adding acres of sediment to that already accumulated and named Craney Island. The skyline of the entire area is punctuated by cranes of metal, not those which fly gracefully over natural wetlands. One expert warned us of the dangers to fish and waterfowl from the disturbance of polluted sediments, and yet another argued for even deeper dredging in the river and the Roads to accommodate larger ships.

As we sailed up the James, we passed the busy docks of Newport News, where waterborne energy and defense are still linked. Miles of railroad cars empty upriver coal into huge colliers which float beside the abandoned USS United States, two natural gas carriers, and many "sturgeon-class" submarines being repaired or built. We were assaulted by a barrage of statistics--how many tons, how quickly loaded, how deep, but mostly how much money and how many jobs are connected with this port.

In the foreground, though, were a few small fishing boats flying yellow flags, each with two watermen repeatedly tonging clams and oysters from a river contaminated primarily by area human wastes. We were assured that the day's catch would be moved under guard to cleaner waters for two weeks of self-purification before they would be sold. Meanwhile, we listened to plans for improving the treatment of local sewage, keeping a careful watch on the release of toxic amounts of chlorine into the estuary. Dealing with the river's increasing load of human waste is another battle but one with few victories, easily nullified by the next heavy rainfall or upstream industrial or residential development.

As we passed under the James River bridge, the tidewater link between the urbanized north side of the river and the smaller towns and farms on the south, we formally entered the river. Our propellers met none of the heaps of giant oysters many feet high which once blocked colonial ships. Instead, the dredge we dropped to scrape rocks with names given centuries ago scooped up relatively small oysters, the brood stock and their young or spat, which have fastened on piles of old shells in this nursery of the Bay. Depleted by disease, pollution, and harvesting, these oysters still seem determined to reproduce, right here and nowhere else, while marine biologists work against the clock to unravel the complications of their life cycles and counteract their vulnerability. What we did not see are the underwater grasses which once sheltered baby crabs and other nursery animals but have now succumbed to too much "nutrient enrichment" from upstream fertilizer runoff and sewage effluent.

Finally the boat maneuvered through the narrow entrance to Deep Creek, a small harbor lined by marshland which is peacefully shared by both working boats and pleasure craft. The imposing riverfront houses took on a somewhat menacing air, however, as we were told the fate of miles of similar wetlands, now lost to drainage and filling, the victims of an understandable human desire to be physically close to water, at almost any price. As a biologist warned, the nursery wetlands and thus the river and the Bay could be slowly loved to death.

We heard a few answers that day, but more good questions and troublesome issues. The paradox of the naming struck me most, however. Here were experts, armed with statistics and detailed, almost esoteric knowledge about one particular aspect of the river, unable to see far beyond their own intellectual and political territory. Yet together they had managed to project for us a new vision of the river and the Bay as a totally connected web of life, sensitive to and essential for human activity. We might disagree on certain issues, and some did, in friendly conversation. But no one was disagreeing about the ultimate goal of restoring the life of the Bay, or the fact that every person living upstream in a river basin will have to assume some responsibility to keep "their" river healthy. As one Southside supervisor, long a resident beside the James, admitted, "I guess I never really understood about rivers before." So progresses a rather quiet revolution.

The day of talking was done, and as we sailed toward a Newport News dock, I watched the river silently, also seeing it in a new way. It was not so much the water life that I was picturing, however, as the reflected faces of all those people who have taught me different ways to understand and name the river for the past few years. Some were even standing beside me at the railing, watching the James River bridge recede into the setting sun. Many are professionals who spend much of their time battling for, not against, the river so that their neighbors can share this "resource" without harming it or themselves. Under all their precise words and numbers, frustration and conflict, I keep discovering shared feelings for this historic river, inadequately named by words like "fascination," "respect," even "love." This river's future, they assure me, will be different from its past. I trust that other American rivers will be as fortunate in their caretakers.

Looking upstream along the lengthening rays of the sun, I traced out the shape of the river in my mind. Once what I saw was a ribbon of sometimes muddy water, falling to the Bay between walls of green trees and golden fields, or a thinning blue line weaving across the landscape of a map. The water, land, and people seemed to be separated entities, touching only on their edges.

The river I now see cannot be that easily drawn. It stretches over a wide basin in a network of streams which circulates through and over the earth and the bodies of living creatures, joining them forever. There are few lines or edges, and no stillness to be found, only multitudes of fluid connections, renewed and reconciled through the ceaseless movement of water answering the call of gravity. Time means little in this world without beginnings or endings, where there are only the tireless changes of unaltering cycles.

Each drop of the river contains and mirrors the whole. Somewhere, high in the Alleghenies, a raindrop is sliding from an oak leaf into a rockbound creek to begin its rambunctious trek to the sea. In previous incarnations it could have flowed in any river in the world, but today it becomes the river James. It will carry and discard much before it reaches the river's mouth--soil, bacteria, chemicals, trash-- and it may squeeze through the cells of insects, fish, or people. Perhaps at one point it will detour through me and clear my vision in a blink. As it flows, it will repeatedly risk early liberation into the air by the sun, but even then it may return swiftly in the dew. Eventually, riding the currents and tides, it will lose itself in a burden of salt, and wait for its turn on the beach.

Sunset at the Fall LineNever before has this drop--and its river--been so exhaustively analyzed and defined. Yet we may be seeing the river today through a mosaic of a broken lens, each piece projecting a focused but slightly different picture, and not one showing enough. To fit them together, we must acknowledge that finally the river--miracle of renewal, constancy, and equilibrium--cannot be completely named, managed, or owned. All our accumulating knowledge must be tempered by the wise ignorance which knows that the ways and rhythms of the river, like those of our lives, sometimes reach beyond the limits of our understanding. When the river loses its freedom to run freely, to be itself, usually it is we who eventually lose.

As the sun drops, my mind goes to another sunset, many miles upstream, which silhouetted no machines or ships, only the river's mineral-streaked rock sculpture against the sounds of rapids and birds. No matter where I go on this river, this spot will remain in memory my special place of balancing and letting go. Here I forget what I know about rivers so that I can see the seamless river time which promises perpetual beginnings in the midst of entropy. The river is a riddle which will never be answered by words like "hydrologic cycle," "millions of gallons per day," nor by any of the names I have gathered. Language, numbers, and even metaphors serve for what they are, partial records of what we have seen at different times and places that show how we keep taming our rivers with words. But beyond them there is time and silence--and the inexplicable spirit of the river.

chapter 18