FROM THE MARSH
X. Back to Earth
leafless beauty of winter in the country reveals a truth we Virginians hesitate
to acknowledge: history lies surprisingly lightly on the land. We have become
accustomed to its obliteration by urban and suburban development, but here nature,
not man, gets most of the credit.
18th and 19th centuries, in spite of extensive farmlands, the population of many
eastern counties surpassed today's. Remaining road signs and old maps attest to
numerous communities, centered on plantations, country stores, and post offices.
Each name has a long but vanished history. Buena Vista, Plain View, Cologne, Gressitt,
Hockley, Adner, and Signpine are just a few in my neighborhood. A much longer
lost history is that of the Virginia Indian communities before 1607, although
a few archeological digs, especially at Werowocomoco, one-time heart of Powhatan's
confederacy, are offering tantalizing clues to these stories.
generally feel that by owning land and constructing houses and fields, they have
staked a significant claim that will stretch into the future. But nature continually
trumps the ownership of deeds, as the Indians seem to have understood. And the
evidence is even more obvious in the sharp winter light.
a crossroads nearby, one such community center has literally vanished before my
eyes. Once a two-story country store/post office and an accompanying large home,
it was choked by vines and trees long before we moved here. My elderly neighbor,
who lives on land his slave ancestors once farmed, recalls working a day for a
dime, then walking a mile to the store. Vague tales circulate about a crime of
passion and greed at the house.
we watched the wooden walls collapsed under nature's weight. Owned by a descendant,
it seemed a permanent though decaying part of the neighborhood, not worth razing
and sustained by memories. Then the owner died. Unlike many old buildings buckling
in nearby woods and fields, it was soon demolished by bulldozers, then fire, and
replaced by a corn field. Yet for me, its ghostly outline still looms, an absent
This demolition is relatively
unusual here. Nature is still reclaiming numerous structures. These buildings
will not be replaced, so they are allowed to rot, protecting vines, snakes, and
buzzard nests. Once grand houses, some pictured in county history books in beginning
stages of neglect, are fast "greening."
the same books can only suggest the history of healthy communities, the little
left in memory and records not burned in courthouse fires. People here still bear
the names of colonial ancestors, but their stories are increasingly lost. Exhausted
fields pushed growing families westward and to the cities, and their history with
them. Yet the more I investigate my ancestors, the more I find them rooted in
rural parts of Virginia and this genealogical kinship is shared by far more people
than ever realize it.
Forests may be
cut and sold and soils farmed, but nature recuperates quickly. Less than a decade
of human neglect spawns new unplanted forests of pine, cedar, and weeds, engulfing
signs of human habitation. As they say, nature abhors a vacuum. Let humans relax
and soon trees sprout through roofs and windows, covering any ground left untended.
The new growth may be of species less valued by us, but nature adapts to circumstances
well and according to its own rules.
say that "pure" wild nature is dead or dying. Not here it isn't. No
matter how human actions seem to destroy or change species of plant and animal,
we would do well to acknowledge the adaptive health of nature. It is we-and our
history-which are fragile.
this process well in Walden: "Now only a dent in the earth marks the site
of these dwellings, with buried cellar stones, and strawberries, raspberries,
thimble-berries, hazel-bushes, and sumachs growing in the sunny sward there; some
pitch pine or gnarled oak occupies what was the chimney nook, and a sweet-scented
black birch, perhaps, waves where the door-stone was." Once there was "the
stir and bustle of human life, and 'fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,'
in some form and dialect or other were by turns discussed." He is cheered
by a "vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill
are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring
." But here
any old home-planted lilacs seem to have been overwhelmed by ivies and weeds.
has the last word. The question looming today is whether we will eventually alter
our world to the point that nature will go on its merry way without us, just as
it has reclaimed these creations of humans in the past.
take a wider view, will ocean levels rise to flood this marsh in my grandchildren's
lifetime? It's happened more than once before, according to the shells which surface
when I dig this sandy soil. Will the fiddler crabs some day scuttle through windows
and doors breached by pines no longer pulled or mowed? Possibly, even probably.
Looking to the past can create unexpected visions of the future, and it doesn't
take a lot of imagination, just observation.
I think I will enjoy watching whatever signs of healthy nature I find in the neighborhood
and look for remnants of stories of those people who lived here. These dilapidated
structures are vanishing records, even monuments, to a changing world, one where
it might be dangerous to dwell on pride of human ownership. Even in their decay,
they speak volumes.
Living Magazine, May/June 2008