Native Virginia Trees


Early spring, as the buds swell and glow red or orange or softest green around the crown of every tree on the horizon; directs our attention back towards our majestic, elegant hardwood trees which fill the landscape here in coastal Virginia.  We’ve largely ignored them since autumn, when their bright leaves blew away in November’s storms. 

The many native trees discovered by our early colonists still grow wild here.  They form the backdrop to our everyday lives.  Some of us love them and choose to live in forested communities.  Others fear them.  Perhaps for good reason, after seeing these gentle giants toppled by the storms which blow through our area several times a year. 



Yet, the great North American trees define our landscape and our lifestyle.  They shade us and offer relief from our summer heat and humidity.  Their flowers announce spring and make early summer sweetly fragrant. 

The ready supply of good strong trees for lumber allowed early settlers to build homes and churches and businesses in the wilderness.  Although it is unusual to find a fully grown, mature hardwood tree anymore, we still can find them in parks and on preserved estates.


Cypress Trees grow large here along the Colonial Parkway at the mouth of Powhatan Creek.


I love trees.  And I love to plant trees. I count and visit the Dogwoods, Oaks, Redbuds, Crepe Myrtles and Poplars on our property pretty regularly to monitor their growth.  In fact, I spent an hour today with a shipment of bare root trees we just received from the Arbor Day Foundation.

I get angry when neighbors cut healthy trees, changing the landscape for our entire community.  And I really hate to see stands of trees cut for new development ,  mourning the ever increasing loss of the naturally forested acres left in our area. 



We often fail to consider how much oxygen each tree produces each year, or how many pollutants each can filter from the air we breathe.  Trees absorb greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide in their respiration, locking that carbon into their woody flesh. 

They help moderate the temperature through all of our seasons, and fertilize the Earth and build new soil with their fallen leaves.  Each tree supports and houses countless animals, feeding and sheltering birds, small insects, butterflies and their larvae, and  small mammals.


Native Redbud, Cercis canadensis, blooms in April.


Since trees are on my mind today, I am republishing an essay I wrote in August, 2013, about how prized our American trees became to the Europeans who financed and supported colonization in North America.  I hope you find some useful bit here you didn’t know before.   And I also hope that perhaps this essay invites you to pay a bit more attention to the trees in your landscape and your life.

-Woodland Gnome



View towards Jamestown Island from the Colonial Parkway.

View towards Jamestown Island from the Colonial Parkway.


Did you know there was a time, not too long ago, when the most prized plants growing on regal British estates were trees imported from, “The Colonies”?  I had no idea how much 17th and 18th Century British gardeners coveted North American plants- particularly our trees.


American Sycamore growing along the Colonial Parkway on the bank of the James River.

American Sycamore growing along the Colonial Parkway on the bank of the James River.


Isn’t it interesting how things are forgotten over the years, and we assume that how things are in our own experience is how things have always been?

I grew up on the East coast of North America, making annual trips to view the colorful forests cloaking the Blue Ridge Mountains each autumn.  I’ve always had brilliant autumn foliage to enjoy in my own yard, and lining the streets of whatever town I happened to visit.

We in Virginia accept these things as part of the normal progression of the seasons.  We savor them, but don’t take notice of what a rare treat we enjoy.


An oak tree growing beside the James River near Jamestown.

An oak tree growing beside the James River near Jamestown.


It was the book, Brother Gardeners:  Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession, by Andrea Wulf, which opened my eyes and my mind to the treasures growing here, as weeds in the woods.

Prior to the 17th century, European, and specifically British gardens, had a limited palette of plants.  The formal geometric schemes of lawn, hedge, topiary evergreen shrubs, roses, and very few summer flowers were the norm.  Green and brown were the main colors found in the garden for most of the year.  Hardscape paths, stairs, fountains, arbors, and structures were the relief from all of this green lawn and green hedge.  Gardeners overcame and reshaped nature when creating a garden.


Dogwood tree in early November


The notion of working with nature was born in the colonies, and exported back to England in some measure toward the second half of the 18th century.

As European ships sailed abroad to explore and claim the world, they took as treasure not only gold and silver, but also botanical treasures from all of the lands explored.

Very little of the plant material collected actually made it back alive to a gardener in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, or the Netherlands.  When a voyage lasts many months, things happen.  Things like hungry mice and storms; gnawing insects, pirates, salt spray; and unmitigated heat and cold on the deck of a sailing ship.



But whatever seeds, bulbs, cuttings, roots, and even live plants did miraculously make it home and into the hands of a skilled gardener, were loving tended and coaxed into growing in specially built hot houses and garden plots.

Plants were grown out for seed, sold, traded, and propagated in great botanical gardens across Europe.  Botanists befriended ships’ captains and crews in hopes of bribing them to bring home new specimens.  And, as colonies were established, relationships sprang up between the colonists and avid collectors “back home” in Europe.


Red Cedar growing in Colonial Williamsburg.

Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana growing in Colonial Williamsburg.


The fledgling scientists of the Enlightenment realized that every new species of plant contains tremendous gifts.  Aside from their beauty and use in an ornamental garden, plants contain useful chemical compounds to heal, create new products, nourish, and enlighten.  Some of this research continues today in the Amazon Rain Forest of Brazil and other inaccessible and remote corners of the world


Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg. The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.

Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg. The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.  Enlarge the photo and you’ll see the long seed pods growing in early August.


The colonial era was an exciting time for discovering countless new species of plants. The gardens of Great Britain and Europe reflected the explosion of diversity by welcoming previously unknown flowers, trees, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables into their evolving and increasingly naturalistic garden schemes.

Remember, the great forests of Britain were decimated long before this era.  When Maple, Tulip Poplar, Pine, Sycamore, Cedar, Dogwood, Sassafras, Magnolia and other colorful tress and shrubs from America grew in the first garden plots of importers, they were a novelty.  The aristocracy quickly fell in love with these new plants, and clamored for a seed or a cutting to grow on their home estates.


Oak and pine grow in abundance on Jamestown Island.


Benjamin Franklin helped build the relationships that enabled this trade between his amateur botanist friends in the American colonies and his contacts in Britain.  The story told in Andrea Wulf’s book unfolds with the drama and personality of a good novel, and I recommend it to every like minded gardener, no matter which side of the pond you call your present home.


Native holly


For the purposes of this post, I will  mention a few of the trees growing wild right here around Jamestown, which were collected in the Colonial era and sent back to England.  These trees, common to us, opened up a whole new way to design and enjoy gardens for those still in Europe.  They were grown for their beautiful form, fall color, interesting bark, and some for their flowers.


An old oak tree’s exposed roots. This tree holds the bank of the James River along the Parkway.


Eventually, gardening became a passionate pursuit not only of the aristocracy, but for many Britons.  As we admire their beautifully tended gardens of trees, shrubs, and flowers today, so they admired the wild and beautiful plants we sent back to them from, “The Colonies”.


Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.

Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.


Here is a partial list of trees and shrubs introduced to Britain from the American colonies:

Acer saccharum, Sugar Maple, 1725

Aesculus pavia, Red Buckeye, 1711

Colorful fall leaves were almost unknown in Britain before American species of trees were introduced n the 17th and 18th centuries.

Betula nigra, River Birch, 1736

Callicarpa americana, Beauty Berry, 1724

Catalpa bignonioides, Southern Catalpa, 1722

Chamaecyparis thyoides, White Cedar, 1736

Chionanthus virginicus, Fringe Tree, 1736

Cornus florida, Flowering Dogwood, 1722

Diospyros virginiana, Persimmon, 1629

Euonymus atropurpurea, Burning Bush, 1744-6

Fraxinus americana, White Ash, 1724

Hydrangea arborescens, Wild Hydrangea, 1736

Juglans nigra, Black Walnut, 1629

Juniperus virginiana, Red Cedar, 1664

Kalmia latifolia, Mountain Laurel, 1734

Liriodendron tulipifera, Tulip Poplar, 1638

Magnolia grandiflora, Southern Magnolia, 1734

Dogwood, our Virginia state tree, blooms in April.

Magnolia virginiana, Sweet Bay, 1688

Pinus strobus, White Pine, 1705

Platanus occidentalis, American Sycamore, 1638

Sassafras albidum, Sassafrass, 1630


Dogwood, Cornus florida


All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2017

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

Brother Gardeners at Barnes and Nobles

Brother Gardeners at Amazon


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As our solar year near’s its end, and those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, at least, watch the life appear to drain out of our gardens, we also celebrate the tenacity of  life!

All “evergreen” plants shine during this passage of time.  They fade back into the landscape all summer long, barely noticed.

And then when the tree limbs are bare, and our lawns have faded to brown, “The Holly and the Ivy” glow green with vitality.


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This is another of the paperback mulberry trees found along the eastern end of Francis Street, near the Colonial Capitol building, on the edge of Colonial Williamsburg.  I always wonder how long these trees have grown here, and who originally planted them.


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It is far from politically correct these days to admit that you like ivy; or that you plant it yourself.

I’ve eavesdropped on a native plant enthusiast doing her best to dissuade a local nurseryman from even stocking the genus.  Yes, ivy can become invasive.  Yes, after many decades it can fairly well cover a mature tree.  Yes, it may crowd out other species.  But ivy has its gifts to give, too.



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Its first and most important gift, to me, is its beauty.  I love its lovely leaves and eager, delicate stems growing on through the coldest of winters.  It provides berries, when mature, enjoyed by birds.  It also provides important cover for birds and insects.


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Ivy is a useful shade tolerant ground cover which protects and holds the soil.  It is especially prized in areas which are hard to mow or too shady to support a lawn.

And it is gloriously alive and long lived.  Every little bit of it will send out roots and continue to grow.  Once established, it is there “forever.”


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Perhaps it is my own decade in life.  But my respect and love for my elders grows with each passing year.


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They have tenacity.  They have learned secrets of survival and endurance which I can only admire.

These elder trees must have some long and entertaining stories to tell, if only we could hear them.


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They have survived here for uncounted years.  And against all odds, they are still gloriously, vibrantly,  Alive! 

That is very comforting, somehow, in the middle of December.


Woodland Gnome 2014


Native Live Oak

Native Live Oak

Shelton Glass Works

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Gorgeous color always catches my attention, but especially on grey, wet December mornings.

My partner and I enjoyed the annual December crafts show at Trinkle Hall this morning, on the edge of William and Mary’s campus, near DoG St.  We return every December to enjoy beautiful hand crafted items.


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Most of the artists return year after year, but we are always excited to discover someone new.

What a treat to discover John Shelton’s gorgeous cobalt blue glass today.


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Every piece is painstakingly blown and finished by hand.  Light shining through this glass produces an absolutely luminous blue.  John had green glass and purple glass pieces as well, but we were particularly drawn to his blue.

The first glass artists came to Jamestown in 1608.  A group of Germans and Poles, they built a glass works with furnaces, and began production.  Their work was sent back to England,  but they didn’t survive “The Starving Time” of 1610.

A group of Italian artisans tried to revive glass making in Jamestown in 1621.  They kept production going for several years, but eventually had to abandon the business.  A reproduction  glass house stands today at the entrance to Jamestown Island, where visitors may watch artisans demonstrate how these first colonists produced hand blown glass.

Hand blown glass may be purchased in many shops around Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown.  In fact, we realized that a piece we purchased at the Craft House several years ago is one of John’s.  His signature is on its base.


With my apologies to John for taking only one photo of him, and that with his eyes partially closed.

With my apologies to John for taking only one photo of him, and that with his eyes partially closed.


John Shelton has run his own glass works in Williamsburg, VA, for more than 40 years.  He uses intensive, old world techniques to produce some of the most exquisite glass I’ve seen anywhere.  His pitchers, bowls, vases, glasses and decanters are each a work of art, blown into timeless designs; each a signed original.


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He is a true master of his craft, and is recognized in Early American Life Magazine’s Directory of Traditional American Crafts.

John is generous with his time, talking about glass with his customers at many shows throughout the year.  He will return to Trinkle Hall tomorrow for the second day of this year’s show.


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If you don’t make it to Williamsburg this weekend, you will find other opportunities to enjoy John’s work and perhaps purchase a piece for your own home.

We love glass, especially hand blown glass.  We display it where it may be illuminated by the sun and its color come to life.

We were so glad to meet John Shelton today.  He shared a little about how he creates all of the glass he uses in his work.  It is a very long process, and he never uses recycled glass.

As John is a local artist, and so we will look forward to seeing him, and his work, again soon.


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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

River Beach, July Morning

Beach along the James River

Beach along the James River

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.

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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.

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Most Virginia beaches are  river beaches. 


A Bald Cypress grows here along the beach.

A Bald Cypress grows here along the beach.


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.


Osprey eagles have claimed this hunting blind in the middle of the James River.

Osprey eagles have claimed this hunting blind in the middle of the James River.

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.


A Great Blue Heron lands on the opposite shore, at the mouth of College Creek.  The Spanish landed here in 1570, and traveled northwards towards the York River, where they attempted to plant a colony.  It was attacked by the Native American nation living here at the time.

A Great Blue Heron lands on the opposite shore, at the mouth of College Creek. The Spanish landed here in 1570, and traveled northwards towards the York River, where they attempted to plant a colony.  It was attacked by the Native American nation living here at the time, and the Spanish focused their energy elsewhere.


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.

Looking across the James towards Surry County..  New contruction will begin soon on the point of land to the left.

Looking across the James towards Surry County.   New residential  construction will begin soon on the point of land to the left.

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.

The Marina of a large neighboring community

The Marina of a large neighboring community


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.


Beaches just like this one line miles and miles of Virginia's rivers as they near the Chesapeake Bay.

Beaches just like this one line miles and miles of Virginia’s rivers as they near the Chesapeake 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.


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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.


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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.

Bald eagles converse during their morning hunt.

Bald eagles converse during their morning hunt.


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.


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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.


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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.


Native Black Locust trees, full of seedpods, grow along the beach.

Native Black Locust trees, full of seedpods, grow along the beach.


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.


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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.

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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.

Bald Eagle, resting along the river's bank this morning.

Osprey  Eagle, resting along the river’s bank this morning.

Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

The Trees’ Knees

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These beautiful trees continue to stand firm along this badly eroded bank of the James River near Jamestown.  The bank drops quite suddenly, straight down by five or six feet beside the footpath at one of the parking areas along the Colonial Parkway.  Erosion has been a problem along the banks of the James and York rivers for a while now, especially extreme erosion resulting from river flooding during hurricanes and nor’easters.

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When I was in school, we learned the original settlement at Jamestown had been washed away many decades ago as the river’s banks eroded.  We satisfied ourselves with the recreation fashioned at Jamestown Festival Park, based on the records left behind by the original settlers.  Actors and actresses dressed up as native Americans and English settlers.  The public school version of history is substantially simplified and sanitized for broad consumption.

Even when I first taught American history, our curriculum perpetuated the story that the area originally inhabited in 1607 was lost.  It was at about this same time, in the early 1990s that a group of archeologists, led by Dr. William Kelso, dared to disagree.

Based on the location of the original 17th Century Jamestown church tower, they began a project called “Jamestown Rediscovery,” in 1994, and within a few seasons located evidence of the original palisade between the church and the present banks of the James River.  The project continues today, and visitors to the site may walk through the dig, watch archeologists at work, and see many recovered artifacts, including human skeletons, recovered at the site.

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I had the privilege of accompanying groups of students to the site on field trips during my last few years of teaching in public school.  The truth is uncovered at last, and students have access to a far more realistic and honest interpretation of life in this original permanent English colony along the mid-Atlantic coast.

In fact, over the last 20 to 30 years, archeologists and historians have uncovered, documented, and publicized quite a bit of our history which had remained hidden in the past.

We are learning about the European Templar Knights who explored North America more than a century before the birth of Christopher Columbus.  We have evidence of Egyptians in Arizona and Runic inscriptions in the Midwest.  And, perhaps more importantly, we are learning more about the motives and purposes of those who founded our county in the 16th through 18th centuries.

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One man, mentioned only tangentially in most history textbooks, we now know was one of the most important men driving the efforts of the Virginia Company of London.  Living a life shrouded in secrecy from his birth, never publicly acknowledged by his natural mother, although she was one of the most powerful women in the world at the time; he grew to become the driving force behind one of the most powerful secret societies in 16th Century Europe.

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One of the first true scientists, who developed the “scientific method” of Enlightenment Europe; he also helped to organize the Virginia Company, raise funds for its activity, and give it its purpose.

A prolific writer, he wrote a Utopian novel called, “The New Atlantis.”  It was so politically subversive, in its day, it was only partially publicly published, in Latin, before his passing.  His personal motto, “Occulta Veritas Tempore Patel” translates as, “Hidden truth comes to light in time.”

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We witness the fulfillment of this core belief in our own times.  Our nation was founded in an era when serious scientific inquiry was conducted in secret.  The royal governments of Europe, and the politicized churches, controlled the flow and acquisition of knowledge.  Publishing a conflicting point of view often resulted arrest, torture, even execution in the 16th Century.  Real inquiry, and serious discussion was held in closed societies of “brothers” who pledged fidelity to one another.  And the notes, correspondence, and proceedings of these societies were closely guarded.

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That is why many believe that our Founding Father, Sir Francis, shipped many of his papers, books, and artifacts to Virginia for safekeeping, well out of reach of both Royals and Priests.  The legend relates that a vault was built beneath the foundation of that original Jamestown church, and a special “library” deposited in the vault by “friends” emigrating here to Virginia during those early years of the Jamestown Colony.  Some speculate that Sir Nathaniel Bacon may have had a hand in transferring  documents and establishing this vault when he moved to Virginia in 1635.

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In fact, although Sir Francis was said to have died quite suddenly of pneumonia in 1626, while visiting a friend; there is no record of a funeral or burial for him.  His monument stands, or rather sits, in St. Michael’s Church in St.Albans; but there are those who believe he secretly boarded a ship and headed to one of his several colonies here in the “New World.”  Whether he ended up in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, or Jamestown, we don’t yet know.

What we do know, is that the contents of that original vault were supposedly transferred away from the coast, and the river, to an inland location at “Middle Plantation” sometime between the 1640s and 1683, when the original brick church was completed.  The foundation of that original structure still stands in the churchyard of the present Bruton Parish.

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Various structures in Middle Plantation were connected with a series of subterranean tunnels, which still exist.  There are those who believe that access to the vault was through one or more of these tunnels, probably even used by other “Founding Fathers” such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Henry Clay a century later.

George Wythe's home, with the Bruton Parish steeple visible across the garden.

George Wythe’s home, with the Bruton Parish steeple visible across the garden.

They would have had access from the home of friend and teacher George Wythe in order to study the documents in this most special library.  George Wythe’s home still stands near the church yard.

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Access to those tunnels may have also come with the purchase of properties, in the early 20th Century, by those who believed it important to preserve the history of Colonial Virginia.  Surely such a priceless library has been preserved, along with so much else.

Bruton Parish stands in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, although it is not owned by the Foundation.  It is still an Episcopalian church.

Bruton Parish stands in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, although it is not owned by the Foundation. It is still an Episcopalian church.

And many hope that like so much else which has remained hidden, it too, one day, will be revealed; and that more of the true history of our America will come to light, for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome, 2013-2014

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“The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the King (a Man) is to find it out: 

As if the divine nature, according to the innocent and the sweet play of children; which hide themselves to the end that they may be found,

took delight to hide his work to the end that they may be found out;

and of his indulgence and goodness to mankind has chosen the soul of man to be his playfellow in this game.” 

Sir Francis Bacon, in Instauration Magna

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One’s Own Back Garden

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Visitors from around the planet make Colonial Williamsburg their destination.

december 27, 2013 CW 040For many, it is a “bucket list” trip.  Some families rank it right up there with a trip to Disneyland as a “must see” while their children are at home.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson walked these streets, as did so many other notables, before the capitol moved to Richmond in 1780.

Two major wars, economic depression in the late 19th Century, and the route of the new rail line all played their part in sending this little village into decline before 1900.december 27, 2013 CW 002

It was almost lost to us.  Had it not been for John D. Rockefeller and his wife, Abby, and the secret efforts of a few associates, such as Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin; it could never have become the scene of living history it is today.  The Rockefellers began buying up land in the late 1920s where the colonial town had been.  Efforts were kept secret, all transactions handled by brokers, to avoid publicity in the early years.  Enough old structures, and plans of old structures remained to renovate and re-build.  The old Capitol building, Governor’s Palace, and Raleigh Tavern were among the hundreds of buildings rebuilt in the original effort.

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Cotton, a major cash crop in Colonial Virginia, is still grown south of the James River today.

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Oyster shells were probably taken from one of the area rivers. Oysters are important culturally and economically in Virginia.

Preservationists in the late 19th Century began a movement to protect and preserve the “historic triangle” of Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Jamestown for future generations to better understand our history.

They also had an eye to the economic value of tourism, and founded the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) in 1889.

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Lotus pods and gumballs are unlikely materials used in this beautiful wreath.

In 1893 the group acquired 22 acres of land on Jamestown Island; where a ruined church tower c. 1647 was the only one of the original  structures left standing from the era when Jamestown was the state  capitol.  At that time, a number of families still had homesteads and small farms on the island.

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Oyster shells and feathers add brightness to this dark wreath on a dark door. Flowers were dried last summer.

Efforts to lobby state legislators, and Governor Harry Flood Byrd, who took office as Governor of Virginia in 1925, were fruitful.  Governor Byrd traced his family not only to original colonists such as Robert “King” Carter of Corotoman, and William Byrd II, who established Richmond; but  also to Pocahantas, or Rebecca Rolfe as she was later known.

Gov. Byrd established the Conservation and Development Commission in 1926.  He agreed with the preservationists who wanted to restore Virginia’s historic sites and make them destinations for tourists.

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Masons, so vital to our nation’s revolution in the 18th Century, have played a pivotal role in politics throughout our history. This historic lodge is still active. Members of the Virginia Company of London, including Sir Francis Bacon, were known to belong to societies related to the later chartered Masons.

A National Historic Park, or “Colonial National Monument”  was soon authorized by Congress and signed into law in 1930 by President Hoover.  Plans for a road linking Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown was already under discussion.   Although design of the Colonial Parkway began in 1931, the road wasn’t completed all the way to Jamestown until 1957.

The people of Williamsburg were finally informed about plans to create a “Colonial Williamsburg Foundation” in 1928.

Efforts were made to purchase as much property as possible over 301 acres.  Over 700 structures, built after 1790, were demolished.  Colonial era buildings, already lost, were rebuilt, and many still standing renovated.   In all, over 80 original structures were renovated.

In addition, gardens, faithful to Colonial planting schemes, were designed and installed.  december 27, 2013 CW 019Research into every aspect of everyday life in colonial era Williamsburg informed the smallest decisions from paint and upholstery choices in renovated structures, to fashion for the hired interpreters and menus in the new CW restaurants.

It was not authentically recreated, however, in many important ways.  For example, the colonial institution of slavery remains a sore point.  The reality is too brutal and upsetting to our modern sensibilities.  A kinder, gentler, sanitized version of colonial life is portrayed at CW.

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Dried sunflowers, chili peppers, seed heads and wheat grace this grape vine wreath.

Not everyone was willing to sell out their property to the newly organized Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  Bruton Parish, an historic, but still active congregation, still owns their property on Duke of Gloucester Street.  Dr. Goodwin, whose idea it was to restore Williamsburg, served as Bruton Parish’s Rector from  1903 through the completion of  its restoration in 1907.  After a time serving a church in New York, Dr. Goodwin returned to Williamsburg in 1923.  Seeing the deterioration which had occurred during his time away, he determined to head up a restoration effort of the remaining Colonial Era town.

Wreath at the Bowden-Armistead house, still privately owned and occupied.

Wreath at the Bowden-Armistead house, still privately owned and occupied.

Still, the Episcopalian Church has maintained ownership of the property and control of the church and church yard, despite Bruton Parish’s place of honor in the restored area.  The Bowden-Armistead House, next door, also remains in private ownership.  Built in the 1850’s on land previously owned by Bruton Parish, this home survived the Civil War.  The family has so far refused to sell out to the CWF.

A number of historic CW homes are occupied by employees.

A number of historic CW homes are occupied by employees.

Likewise, the College of William and Mary retains ownership of its historic buildings.  Although renovated, and adjacent to the restored area, the College remains separate from CW.  Visitors wander freely onto the campus from DoG Street and are not charged to view the historic buildings.

Detail of window decoration

Detail of window decoration

Although this picturesque area of living history is only minutes from our neighborhood, literally in “our own back yard,” we rarely visit.  We do not hold season passes, and you won’t find us in the holiday crowds for special events.

To us, Colonial Williamsburg is just another “neighborhood” in our town.  It is built along existing city streets, and we travel through the historic area almost daily for trips to the post office, shopping, and favorite restaurants.

Our local elementary school is right on the edge of CW, and many private homes and businesses co-exist alongside CW buildings.  This area is a seamless mix of public and private, old and new, college, town, National Park, and Foundation.

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Herbs, moss, evergreen branches, and a variety of sea shells decorate this unusual wreath.

We are far more likely to shop the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings and visit the shops and restaurants at the commercial end of Duke of  Gloucester Street.  We do walk farther down DoG Street from time to time as the seasons change, to visit the monuments in the church yard at Bruton Parish, and to see the beautiful wreathes in December.

Today was such a day.  This month hasn’t been generous with warm-enough sunny days, and our schedule has been packed with things to do.  So today was the first opportunity to continue photographing this season’s wreathes before they disappear at the New Year.  december 27, 2013 CW 014CW was full of visitors for the holidays.  No parking spots presented themselves as we drove from lot to lot.  So today’s photos are taken on the fly in short sprints from a pulled over car, not the result of a leisurely stroll.  I hope you will enjoy them, however.  The sky was cobalt, the sun blazing, the mood still one of holiday cheer.

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It is still Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg, as I hope it is in your town, too.

“The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the King (a Man) is to find it out:  As if the divine nature, according to the innocent and the sweet play of children; which hide themselves to the end that they may be found, took delight to hide his work to the end that they may be found out; and of his indulgence and goodness to mankind has chosen the soul of man to be his playfellow in this game.“ 

Sir Francis Bacon, Instauration Magna

CW sheet live in fields around the colonial area.

CW sheep live in fields around the colonial area.

All Photos by Woodland Gnome, 2013

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