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24 April, 2013

Obliterative Persistence

Yon shot shows the floodzone of Scottsville, Virginia, on the River James. Once, it was called by King James' subjects the River of Powhatan, the name they used for the local leader Wahunsenacawh (father of the one they called Pocahontas), but this is upstream of his territory, where Monacan people no doubt had their own name. 

The photo is dominated by the most recent development along the north bank of the river, the massive dike clad in grass; it protects a town where people travel by pick-up and, increasingly, crossover SUVs and hybrids, none of which appreciate being flooded. Just to the right is the penultimate development, black rails on a bed of gravel where grass nor weeds nor even the most beautiful shrubbery are tolerated. Under that, and perhaps in the trees to the right, lies the canal that was obsolesced by the railroad; old timey as it may seem, the canal was no less a scheme to make money off of development and the transit of goods to markets. The red brick building handled the trade, but now it's cut off by dike and a pair of rails.

Further right, the brownwater of the James peeks between tree trunks. Once, people and their stuff moved on the river itself. Canoes, then batteaux. Way before that, there was a low spot in the terrain that water sought in it's quest to become saline. Now, cities pump out of the flow so the masses may drink, and a warming globe sucks it dryer and dryer every summer. 

Even when I canoed this part of the river in the early 1980's and had to hop out and tow it (downstream, no less) through massive algae blooms in tepid water, the James seemed like a hard place to move even a lightly loaded boat. The canal meant to bypass seasonal shallows and permanent outcrops was first damaged by federal troops before succumbing to rail-borne manifest destiny. Railroads still run, but mostly for the most massive of commodities such as Appalachian coal headed seaward, while diesel trucks carry the bulk of consumer goods. The town of Scottsville feels safe behind it's dike, but this too is momentary, as it was not planned for the climate changes facing the good townspeople and everyone else. 

The town exists because there a road crosses a river. One transportation system lays itself over the last. The stay the same even as they change. What we are used to will change, and what we build will fall, but the river still flows to the sea.

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