The James River, from a bank along the Colonial Parkway
Jamestown, Virginia, November 2013
The scarlet Virginia Creeper vine caught my attention. I was walking along the bank, camera at the ready, on this first very cold and windy day of autumn hoping to see birds out on the river. The wind was too much for all but the eagles, who were riding the wind currents far above. All of the ducks and gulls were sheltering in the marsh on the other side of the Parkway. This place, in and of itself is about layers. Layer upon layer of life and living gathers in this place.
The presence of the native people is still strong here. The mighty Powhatan Confederacy controlled most of present day Virginia west to the Shenandoah Valley, north as far as Washington, DC, south into North Carolina, and east along the Eastern Shore of Virginia as far north as Delaware. A political alliance of many individual tribes, their seat of power was very close, across the York River in Gloucester. They fought hard against the British colonists for control of this beautiful and rich land, attacking again and again until treaties limited them to small reservations in 1647. The Pamunkey Indians, who still have land to our northwest along the Pamunkey river, were native royalty, and at times ruled the Powhatan nation.
The presence of the first English colonists is also strong here. Replicas of their ships sit tied up to the river bank near where this photo was taken.
The archeological dig is ongoing at the site of their 1607 settlement less than a mile away. I’ve visited with groups of students, sitting in the first chapel at Jamestown, gazing at the foundations of their homes, their grave sites, and even the recovered skeletons and armor of those first, ill-fated colonists. The decisions they made, precedents they set, and political organization they established here, along this river, still reverberate in our lives today.
Their attempts to establish themselves here were broken and scarred, again and again, by fire, starvation, war, and disease. So many died in terrible circumstance, to be replaced by the ongoing replenishment of ship after ship of hopeful immigrants to Virginia. Eventually the colony took hold, and spread, and prospered; you know the rest of the story.
But tangible evidence of that awkward beginning is what remains here at Jamestown. Like the dead limb overgrown with vines in the photo, layer after layer continues to accumulate, the new overlaid on the remains of the old.
Part of the new is the ferry which crosses this river many times each day. So many people who actually work in Williamsburg and James City County commute daily from Surry and other rural areas south of the James; from Newport News to the east; even from as far as Richmond to the northwest. Many people find work here in the hospitality industry, in retail, at the hospitals, or at the college; yet choose to live elsewhere.
We have a vibrant, thriving community here now thanks in large part to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, established in the town of Williamsburg by the Rockefeller family beginning in the late 1920s. The “colonial capital” fell into disrepair after the seat of government was moved to Richmond in 1780, during the Revolution, for greater security further inland. It would have decayed into oblivion but for the efforts of Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, once rector of Bruton Parish church, and John D. Rockefeller, along with his wife Abby, who began purchasing property and restoring buildings with a vision to preserve the area’s rich history. Their efforts laid the foundation for the beautiful community and strong economy we enjoy here today.
And development continues. We grumble as forests are cut to make way for new shopping centers and neighborhoods. A new hospital was just completed, along with a new road through what was forest just months ago. Signs of more development along that new road are already apparent. Traffic has noticeably increased in just the few years we have lived here.
And we remain keenly aware of the children growing up all around us. Students at The College of William and Mary prepare for their professional lives in wave after wave of coming and going each year. Some remain and join the community. Others move on. All follow in the rich tradition of Jefferson, Monroe, Marshal, Clay, and so many others who have studied here since 1693.
Layer upon layer of life and living, all here, in this tiny bit of Virginia; accumulate like the layers of stone on a stalactite. They are all visible at once. It’s easy to feel the fourth dimension of time here as though the shades of all who have come before remain. We can see and examine them all; tease them apart, see their interconnections, and hopefully learn something from the rich tapestry they create.
“You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.”
Alan Wilson Watts
- Tell the Tale of Change (forestgardenblog.wordpress.com)
- And the Forest Remains
- Obsession: Botany and Empire as Seen From Jamestown, Virginia