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The Spirits of Jamestown

To really know the Chesapeake Bay, you have to know its past and its southern root – and that means the James River in Virginia.

And so on a recent evening, when the sun was sinking low, I dragged my kayak through brambles and shoe-sucking mud to launch into the waters that flow through the dark heart of American history.

I paddled into the sleepy current flowing past Jamestown Island.  As I pulled the thorns from my shirt and slid over the glassy water, it struck me as downright bizarre that the first English colonists in North America (after the ominous disappearance of the Roanoke settlers) would choose this briar-ridden, brackish swamp as the home base for their dreams.

  This original American Dream quickly turned nightmarish for Captain Christopher Newport and his 104 upper-crusty English adventurers. Their lack of judgment in real-estate combined with a lack of potable water in this marshland to produce illness, starvation, cannibalism, murder and an escalating war of ethnic extirpation against the far more numerous Algonquian people, led by Chief Powhatan.

The serene beauty of these wetlands, with their waters painted by the setting sun, does nothing to betray their violent history.  Dipping my hand into the warm water, I almost forgot this place has a history.   Beauty has a way of doing this: obscuring the dark things that lie beneath it.

But then I saw something that spoke to me of Jamestown.  A huge and ancient baldcypress tree, rising up from the still water.  I paddled toward it and a cluster of its brethren. The trees wide, flaring bases made them look like a council of elders wearing black robes, with the knees of their roots peeking out of the water beyond their vestments.

These gnarled spirits of the swamp, I thought to myself, must have seen it all: the bloodshed and insanity of the birth of America, and then immense changes to the landscape over the centuries.

The James River, over which the cypress trees keep watch, is awash in history. The James was the port of entry for both slavery and democracy to America. It was the backdrop for Patrick Henry’s words, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” which stirred a couple locals named Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The James was the birthplace of corn, cotton and iron mills that marked the beginnings of America’s industrial revolution. It was the artery that fed the Confederacy and its heart, Richmond. It was then up the James River that Abraham Lincoln’s boat, the USS Malvern, carried the great liberator to greet the slaves he had freed.

Despite its great historical importance, however, James River has been dishonored by horrific amount of pollution.

In 1975, the James acquired the reputation as perhaps the polluted waterway in the world.  A factory owned by Allied Chemical in Hopewell flushed into the river tons of an toxic insecticide called kepone, which forced the governor to close a 100 mile section of the river to fishing 1975 to 1983. 

For decades, it was an open sewer for the city of Richmond, until the construction and upgrades of sewage treatment plants over the last quarter century.

The river’s health has since improved considerably – as seen by the return of underwater grasses at the river’s base, where it flows into the southern Chesapeake Bay.  Biologists have recently noticed, in amazement, more rare Atlantic sturgeon living in the river than they ever thought possible.

As night closed in, I paddled back toward my car. Fish began to jump all around me in the water as the sun disappeared. I glided past the baldcypress trees and said goodbye as the stars brightened in the night sky.   

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.