Monday, April 18, 2016

Home from Virginia

This feeling, when you're home from a trip, surrounded by familiar things once again, free from worries about negotiating the traffic in Washington, D.C., finding a place to stay in Stanton, deciding whether it's warm enough to camp in the Shenandoah Mountains. (Answer? No.) You read through the mail, catch up on the Timberwolves and the Twins, slip a frozen pizza into the oven.

But you don't want the impressions you've gathered during your time away to fade, or the freedom of mind that comes with the traveler's life, a serial life, one thing at a time, most of them fun and enriching. It's far too soon to download the pictures, which will distance you from events and eventually replace that beautiful flow of incidents with an episodic narrative chained to a succession of "slides." You're between worlds ... It's pleasant, but also frustrating, even paralyzing. And the tree pollen in the air only adds to the sense of inertia.

Thinking back on ten days spent in northern Virginia, the first thing that comes to mind is ... osprey.

Sure, there are ospreys in Minnesota, but they're few in number, always nesting unglamorously on power-line poles and other utilitarian structures, some of them erected by naturalists for no other purpose than to host ospreys. On the rivers that flow into Chesapeake Bay, the osprey are far more numerous, and they nest in trees, on gazebo roofs near the swimming beach, anywhere that's convenient.

There are sometimes as many as five in sight at any given time, keening, soaring, or diving for fish.

We saw them on the backwaters of the James River near Jamestown, where the first semi-durable English settlement in the New World was established in 1607. We saw them at Stratford, where the ancestors of Robert E. Lee settled in the 1630s. We saw them at Mason Neck, where the plantation of George Mason (who wrote the Bill of Rights, more or less, but later refused to sign the Constitution) is situated. We saw them out at the end of Northern Neck, in Reedville, nesting in pines along the inlets from which skipjacks once sailed out to harvest oysters.

These osprey are only a small part of the generally bucolic tone of the countryside that buts up against the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers: fields and woods, shaped by eons of erosion into graceful bends, with islands and sandbars here and there off-shore.

There are no large towns, and the rivers themselves are incredibly wide, considering how short they are.

Heading out to Jamestown on Highway 5, you take a right turn at a small, white sign and soon come to a two-story brick building facing the James River. This is the Shirley Plantation—the oldest business in America, founded in 1617, and now inhabited by the tenth generation of the family who built it.

The building isn't huge—there are many homes on Lake Minnetonka that are larger—but someone was mowing the grass when we arrived, and that smell sent me into minor ecstasies of nostalgia.

Berkeley Plantation stands a mile or two down the way. It's famous for its boxwood garden, and the long sward of grass, maybe 300 yards, opening out onto the river, with a small shrine near shore commemorating the first Thanksgiving celebrated in America, in 1619.

Eventually you come to Jamestown itself, and are surprised to discover a flock of Caspian terns squawking on a sandbar in the lagoon. The history of the place is interesting, no doubt, but the beauty of the countryside is more impressive. They work together, in fact, like a dream, and it's easy to see, once you get there, why Terrence Malick decided to make a movie about the place—The New World.

That beauty is fading already from memory, though the atmosphere remains. So we stack the Netflix cue with The New World and other show-biz reminders of what we've just experienced, namely, the musical 1776 and the Merchant-Ivory costume drama Jefferson in Paris.

We didn't go to Virginia for the history, but it socked us in the face. The tour guides at Williamsburg and Monticello were remarkably erudite and more eloquent than any professor I ever had.

So while I wait for a new DVD to arrive in the mail, I'll try to wrap my head around Joseph Eliss's American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson, or Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters.

No comments: