We awoke to a morning cool and bright, with a steady breeze energizing the garden, and us.
Every leaf and vine sparkled with raindrops left from the storms which blew through all day yesterday, and late into the evening.
With the garden already rain soaked, we felt free to take off this morning for a rare visit to the beach.
We wanted to enjoy the early morning quiet, bury our feet in the sand, and enjoy the cool winds blowing in across the river.
Most Virginia beaches are river beaches.
The Chesapeake Bay begins just north of Virginia Beach, and is fed with a succession of rivers which drain thousands of miles of land from the Allegheny mountains to the coast.
The Eastern Shore, as we call it in Virginia, forms a narrow, sandy buffer between the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the beautiful Chesapeake Bay.
Our James River begins far to our west across the mountains, at the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers.
It meanders across the state, accepting water brought to it from many other small rivers along the way, through Richmond, until it empties into the Atlantic just to the south of the mouth of the Bay.
The York River, a few miles to our north, is the southernmost Virginia river to empty into the Chesapeake Bay.
Working northwards, there is the Piankatank River, the Rappahannock River, the Wicomoco River, and finally the Potomac River; whose bank forms Virginia’s northern boundary near the coast.
If these names sound a bit strange to your tongue, it is because they reflect the language of the Native Americans who loved this land before the English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Polish, German, and Africans came to claim it from them.
Many of my friends, when I was growing up, spent weekends and summers “at The River.”
Only they spoke it, “At The Rivah.”
Since I grew up near the James and the Dan rivers, this was always a bit of a mystery to me.
Years later, living along the Rappahannock, in that secretive and enchanted part of the state known to us as, “The Northern Neck;” I finally understood them.
Miles and miles of sandy beaches line these narrow fingers of land outstretched into the salty Bay.
This once was the land of oysters and Blue Crabs, fishing boats, thousands of wild shore birds, camp grounds, artists’ colonies, and tiny coastal towns.
It is a slow, clannish, rural way of life lived along country roads lined with wildflowers and farms.
Life has changed, even there, as pollution washing into the Bay kills the sea life which once fueled the local economies.
Still, it is a different world from the land of “Virginia Beach,” tucked into the southeastern most corner of Virginia.
Gateway to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the miles of sandy Atlantic Ocean beaches to our south, the “resort strip” of hotel lined, manufactured beaches and beach cottage rental neighborhoods; the resort city is a place apart from the rest of the state.
It has taken on an urban feel. Bulldozers rake the beaches each night, and dredges re-build them periodically with sand from the shipping channels.
Container ships and Naval vessels pass just offshore.
While our Atlantic beaches are mostly dead now, with little sea life left for miles offshore; our river beaches teem with life.
Grasses and trees grow right down to the water, sinking their roots into sand, soil, and stone.
Fish jump and birds swim.
Eagles and herons converse during the morning hunt; while cardinals, goldfinches, and red winged blackbirds glide from tree to tree in the thickets.
Dragonflies form thick clouds over the grasslands and marshes.
Empty shells wash up on the beach, evidence that clams and other shellfish can still live here.
The pollution washing into the James from every farm and town it touches along the way has not completely overwhelmed it yet.
This is one of the most “alive” areas along the Virginia coast now.
We never fail to find nesting eagles along the banks of the James. They are a harbinger of the river’s health and vitality.
While we can never restore a natural environment to its state at some arbitrary point in the past; we can preserve, and sometimes even improve, the environment as we find it.
This has happened here.
The early colonists clear cut much of this area; overpopulated it; polluted it; and planted crops, such as tobacco, which depleted the soil.
Since this strip of land was converted to a National Park early in the 20th Century, and since Federal law limited the most harmful chemicals which destroy bird populations, there has been a resurgence of life along this stretch of the river.
Native species of trees have grown back, grasses have covered the fields, marshes have evolved into their current state of beauty.
Deer populations are stronger now than they were in the 17th century, largely because they are unchallenged by predators and are rarely hunted.
Nature never finds itself completely in balance. Things are always shifting.
James City County recently approved construction of a new section of a neighborhood which fronts this river. It will have its own devastating impact on the beaches and wildlife for years to come.
But for this moment, this morning, the James River beach near us was mostly a place of beauty.
We hope it will remain a cradle for wildlife, loved and protected, for all those generations yet to come.
Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014