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03 October, 2010

River James

I started this blog a couple of years ago starting upstream against the James, and there is always part of me that will live there, or at least in the Tuckahoe swamp feeding its flow. The headwaters, frigid eddies and snow-rafts heading downstream under dim-winter grey, were the last I’ve seen of that river where I once canoed, swam, waded, and kept a wary eye out for snakes.
Lately, though, as I followed a blog ( by the songwriter and adoptive Richmonder David Lowery, the river has flooded back into my consciousness. That blog started as a way to explain his 300 songs, give them some context spin and stories, but it has spawned some interesting essays on cultural geography, on the natural and man-made material underpinnings of music and lifeways. “James River” is one of those songs.
James as in Jamestown, as in centuries of arterial flow (rum and sickle cells upstream, moonshine and tobacco downstream), as in a city’s flusher, as in a swath of wild through so-called civilization. Lowery recognizes in its neglected banks and muddy water the “elegant decay” of a defeated Southern capital. For all the talk of rednecks and junkies and that, you can tell he loves the place. Sometimes, at least.
Richmond is where it is because of the Falls; it lies on the toe of the Piedmont foot, or if you want to look at it another way, the promontory above Tidewater’s swampy expanse. Just like Alexandria (DC being a modern invention by Virginia standards) and Fredericksburg. All these Falls cities had their ports, and it’s tempting to thing that’s the end of it, cities just automatically spring up at the point where merchant ships had to stop and unload.
That probably explains why the settlement lasted, but not why it appeared. The English set up near the falls because that’s where Wahunsenacawh held court. The Spaniards who didn’t stay too long called him Carlos, I think, and the new batch of Europeans took to calling him Powhatan. His homeland was to the north on a smaller river, but once he’d fought, married, and politicked his way to the apex of a large confederation, he headed to the James. What he called it, I have no idea, but the first English just called it Powhatan’s River before they came up with the original idea of naming it for their bible-revising king.
Wahunsenacawh wasn’t there because he had deep draft merchant ships, although the logic of stopping at the falls holds true for canoes. Maybe he didn’t want to be too far from the Chickahominy just downstream, a tribe who stood out in the region for their democratic system of government and widely feared warriors—double threat to a guy like W. Probably he wanted to control the flow of trade between coast and interior. Definitely he did not want to live way downriver at some hellhole like Jamestown Island, with its bad water and malarial swamps.
Oh, and the precondition to all that commerce and politics: a river spawning huge runs of fish. I won’t quote the 16thcentury shamster bit about walking across the river on their backs. That’s frickin’ ridiculous, and it saddens me to see so-called historians repeat false claims intended to trick people into putting money or themselves into the Virginia venture. But there were unimaginably more fish than now, and of course a bunch of them would run into the falls, creating a major harvest locus.
Anadromous fish excel in excess capacity, and so large annual harvests are possible without killing them off. The humans coming to get the fish would have swelled the population during certain months, and would have had some impact on water quality, especially if a downpour came after they’d done a big burn eroded gullies and caused a pulse of ash and mud. So was the river in its pristine pre-human state when English colonists set foot on the river their progeny would one day dump kepone into? No, but it was likely in an evolutionary, ecological balance.
The river in those days could be a boundary, but nowhere near as much as when Europeans came along. The great chief’s influence didn’t go north of the Potomac, and of course there have always been beefs between left and right bankers on any river, but all it takes is a look at the names of Tribes to know that they saw rivers as centers more than as edges: Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunkey,…
Now, rivers divide counties, states, nations. The James separates Henrico (no Spanish pronunciation in this honorific for Henry, you either say hen-RYE-co, or if you are old and local enough, Hen-RUKkah) and Chesterfield. The line it wrought on maps and in minds of Euro-Americans was frought with various worries and prejudices. Although the City of Richmond annexed part of the south long ago, the power and money generally stick to the north. Long before there were railroads and wrong sides of tracks, ‘South Side’ was a slur.
Maybe this stemmed from racism, the south bank of the James near Richmond being one of the few places where free blacks could live. Or maybe it’s geography, south of the river being the ever-broader coastal plain, lots of creeks and swamps (culminating in the great Dismal Swamp) but not enough rivers to connect with the wide world. In time, Southside sprouted manufacturing and chemical plants, refineries, and neighborhoods for the workers. The owners of these concerns settled in a way that reflected US history: labor and resources extracted from the south fed opulence in the north, which kept expanding westward. Just as Southside brings forth visions of smoke and white trash, a Richmonder understands that West End means wealth (and pretensnobbery).
I grew up in that westward expansion. I knew that as a recently fatherless girl, during the Depression, my grandmother had helped run a boarding house in Richmond, but the truth is that neither of my parents grew up there; they arrived in the late-1960s and decided that the West End had better schools, so I ended up growing up in suburbia. I remember no other place before.
Yet, still in reach of the river. We’d hear the trains on the James, played there from time to time. My dad’s work was not far from one of the bridges. On rare but indelible days, winds from the southeast would waft the warm sweet spice of curing tobacco from Shockoe Slip right up to my nose.
A nose that knew the stink of swamp and the danks of copses. Across the street from our house, there was another row if identical houses, and then Tuckahoe, the James trib separating Henrico from Goochland Counties. The placename refers to an aquatic plant whose tubers formed a crucial foundation in whatever Food Pyramid was promulgated by Wahusenacawh’s Department of Health. One of those taro-like plants that occurs in every tributary of the James, in sloughs and swamps everywhere through that country. And before a succession of tobacco, corn, coal mining, and real estate development took over, I imagine some patches were cultivated, others were half-wild reserves, and a few went feral. Our swamplands were once breadbaskets.
But all those things did happen, and the woods I walked were thick with greenbriar and honeysuckle vines, mostly under thick hardwood canopy. Step in the wrong place, and the mud would suck off your shoe, poison ivy would baste you with time-delayed blistery misery, cottonmouth or copperhead would strike, or worse. A few times it froze hard enough to venture off the trails and onto the ice, but always with the fear of falling through. When it finally did happen, someone got a boot-full of water and muck, but nothing worse, and we grew out of some fear.
One time me and my friend were walking through these woods when we came upon something worse: 4 boys coming the other way. At their head was a guy who was fairly big and thought of himself as a strong guy, being just bright enough to know he’d never be the smart guy. We’d met at a log crossing The Ditch, a mucky gash dumping the neighborhood storm drains into Tuckahoe swamp. I stepped on and so did he, and in the middle he grabbed my walking stick and tried to twist it from my grip or me from the log. Neither succeeded, and I don’t even remember who got to cross first. Just the rush of adrenalin, a stalemate, and then cracking up when he solemnly uttered, “You’re strong. I admire that.” Like in some old melodrama about days of chivalry or some such crap delivered in a fake English accent.
Meanwhile, I was thinking, “You’re a fatass.”
Turns out the guy’s family were Southsiders.
And so this entry ends with no summary, no pith. Just me taking a break.

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