In River Time: The Way of the James


The story of the river begins in the hieroglyphs of rocks unearthed and translated by geologists. The image they offer is dim and sporadic, covering the 600 million years that this river has known a restless bed, one which has plunged it beneath seas, carved out broad floodplains, and then thrust it into angular new paths. A description of this vast history, then, must be a moving picture, a kind of three-dimensioned holograph which can project through both time and space.

The Cowpasture River in springThe James officially commences with the marrying of two headwater streams at a place called Iron Gate. Here the cool, placid Cowpasture, receiver of the waters of the Bullpasture and the Calfpasture, meanders through rich farmland, then joins the hot, energetic Jackson, which has been fed by a multitude of warm mineral springs and tumbled down a rocky pass. During the eighteenth century the river carried the name of both a king, James, and a queen, Anne, who insisted that the upper James above the Rivanna be renamed the Fluvanna (or the "river Anna"). Though all these names have been pasted on by man, they seem to acknowledge the reconciling of opposing forces that keep giving birth to the river. But when the unnamed river first emerged, it had to reconcile far fiercer opponents.

The river came to be in a world man would never recognize, one of unbelievable heat and stress and colossal movements, one with little or no vegetation to hold the slopes, only water, wind, and gravity forcing furious erosion. During unimaginable reaches of time, pressed by the weight of miles-deep sediment from the erosion of the bare hills, the earth's crust is believed to have sunk, creating a massive trough filled by a shallow sea which stretched west through what is now named Ohio, south to Alabama, and north through New England, drowning the headwaters of the ancient James.

As the continental plate shifted, the earth continued to flex, compressing and faulting and lifting that sediment more than 250 million years ago into what may have been the highest mountain range on earth. And the waters of the river kept flowing, turning the lofty mountains green and then, bit by bit, transforming them into fertile plains closer to sea level. Again the earth heaved, thrusting up new mountains, again "rejuvenating" its streams by forcing them between steep banks. Still the river kept on flowing, licking at the feet of the shifting hills, cutting its gorges and cascades.

The rock east of the mountains partook of the neighboring upheaval. Heat, movement of the earth, and igneous invasions literally metamorphosed the rock. Like the river above it the rock moved and merged, but in the slowest of tempos. For fifty miles it even detoured the southeasterly river north along insistent faults in the underlying marble, asserting its mastery over the knifing waters.

Though this metamorphic heart of a metamorphic river is called the Piedmont Plain, it is more accurately a plane, repeatedly jutting upwards, repeatedly forcing the river out of its natural aging tendency to wander into wide meanders, giving it instead a sharper, deeper, and more directed second childhood. The piedmont river flows through its wide and ancient floodplain, collecting islands that fish-trapping Indians were to settle and sculpting the metamorphic rock with its red, blue, and yellow mineral streaks.

At the edge of the Piedmont Plain is the Fall Line, a band of granite which formed more than 185 million years ago and now is the base of several cities along the eastern coast of the United States. Here the river drops more than one hundred feet over eight rocky miles, though never suddenly, into the deep sandy sediment beginning below Richmond where three-foot tides still sweep over what were once the shores of prehistoric seas.

Where there is a persistent river, few rocks prove solid enough to withstand it. Even the tough granite at the Fall Line is pocked with holes where smaller, harder, old rocks from upstream have been the tools of tiny whirlpools wearing at fault and joint lines in the rock. During summer droughts, this worn backbone of the East Coast sometimes lies almost fully exposed under the crossing shadows of Richmond's bridges. Such apparent vulnerability is misleading, for here reared a barrier, not just to the first colonists, but to all people who used the watery highway.

Fine tuning that moving holograph again, with a million years converted into minutes, shows the ocean rushing to and even beyond the Fall Line, then ebbing like a great tide, stranding whales in area valleys not once but several times, as recently as 40 million years ago. Add a touch of imagination, and the air at Richmond begins to smell of salt; the roar of the rapids becomes submerged by the boom of the surf. Just beyond the shore might be heard the lumbering of dinosaurs through swamps south of the river, trampling the undergrowth into high quality coal and even a diamond or two.

The ocean has receded now, drowning only a hundred miles of river that persist to the edge of the continental shelf. But the Chesapeake Bay still extends its salty tides to mix with the fresh water over the growing bed of sediment in this Coastal Plain and the part of the river called tidewater. Not subjected to the stress of being rejuvenated by uplifting land, the old river can finally relax here and be- come sluggish, forming great gaps or bends pierced by impatient floods and men up to the point where large rivers, the Appomattox and the Chickahominy, force the river into line again. The placid appearance and tawny color mask a wealth of life adapted to either fresh or salt water or both, and cover the graveyards of the "royal fish," whales and sturgeon.

Below the Fall Line the river keeps bearing down its slope, forming a tidewater estuary full of marshes and swamps. The James then takes its place as the southernmost of many rivers--the British-named York and the Indian-named Rappahannock, Piankatank, Potomac, Patuxent, Patapsco, Choptank, Susquehanna, and the Sassafras--which mingle their waters in the Bay before they rush through the capes to the ocean.

Somewhere and at some time, a similar estuary where salt and fresh water mix was the birthplace of certain ocean fish who adapted to the fresh water and kept moving upstream. During a drought, these fish found themselves stranded on the margins of swamps and ponds. Eventually the survivors developed primitive lungs, for at that time and place there was far more of the precious oxygen in the air than in the water. In time the kin of those adventurous fish learned to live with the alien element of air and so left the waters of their birth. But they carried the river within them. As Loren Eiseley has written, "As for men, those myriad little detached ponds with their own swarming corpuscular life, what were they but a way that water has of going about beyond the reach of rivers!"

With the coming of man and his self-conscious brain, that river which had flowed cleanly and insistently for eons was no longer to be defined solely by its relationship with the soil and rock. Now it would be defined and thus changed by the eyes and actions of the children it had once nourished. The river continues to sustain these human beings who settle and roam its banks and play in its water. Though they can chant a litany of practical reasons why they are often drawn to the river, perhaps none is as strong as the deep compulsion to return home, to touch base once again. Perhaps like me, they see in the river images of entropy and renewal, and above all, themselves. They too may want to know not only the river, but the life that is the river that flows through us all.

river map
chapter 1
chapter 3