Discovery Along the James
By Anne Poarch
What winter snow isn’t cheered by the appearance of little birds? Snowballs of soft feathers, puffed out like Christmas ornaments, wait under the protective boughs of a boxwood bush for a turn at the feeder. Tiny feet tap across birdbaths laced with ice, pecking for a drop of melted water. These are the birds we watch from our windows. We wrap our shoulders in sweaters or sit bundled in a blanket, hands wrapped around warm mugs of honeyed tea or hot cocoa. Last January, juncos, chickadees, cardinals, sparrows, even a downy woodpecker and a couple of bluebirds graced my feeders and found refuge in my trees. How they survive the cold is just another of God’s winter miracles. These are the ones who stay, or perhaps they have flown in from the north, happy to weather a few snowy days for the promise of the early worm and softened ground this far south.
For the prothonotary warbler we are the north, and Virginia, a summer home. Once known as the golden swamp warbler, this neo-tropical songbird is the subject of intense study at the VCU Rice Rivers Center in Charles City County. Making their nests in tree cavities, this delicate yellow fairy migrates to breeding grounds in the the eastern US in the summer and looks for lowland forests close to the water for nesting. Thanks to a project started in 1987 by VCU biology faculty Charles and Leann Blem, more than 600 nesting boxes have been installed in freshwater regions of the James River, raising more than 26,000 prothonotary warblers and helping make Virginia one of the few states with a growing number of this species. Efforts like these by VCU researchers and volunteers represent the kind of leadership that has turned the lower James River into a global network of areas noted for their outstanding value to bird conservation, designating this beautiful and historic area of Virginia as an “Important Bird Area” or IBA.
This designation is something I touch on during bicycle excursions I lead along the newly completed Virginia Capital Trail, a multi-use, paved trail that spans fifty-two miles, connecting Jamestown and Richmond, parallel to the James River. Last winter I started BASKET & BIKE, a bicycle tour business with a unique goal of connecting people to each other and our natural world through handcrafted excursions and picnic rides. Founding this business after twenty-plus years in the financial services industry is as much about the beauty and healing powers of God’s natural world as it is about cycling.
Starting a business rooted in story and possibility has given me the opportunity to think about discovery and exploration, and to share the story of Virginia's land and the James River on our Signature Tour: A Journey Along the James. During our two-and-a-half hours biking the Virginia Capital Trail, guests ride comfortable bicycles outfitted with stylish baskets, holding our signature snack and hear stories of our collective history. Biking fourteen miles along the Virginia Capital Trail, riders learn how science is making a difference at the Rice Rivers Center, where we make a stop, listening for the sounds of nature, and learning how environmental science is being practiced right along the banks of the James River. We end with lunch and a wine tasting at the newly opened Upper Shirley Vineyards, relishing Chef Carlisle Bannister’s elevated southern favorites on the expansive veranda fronting the James River. The view from the veranda is a rest for weary eyes, settling across the peaceful James on the Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, where in 2006 VCU Rice Rivers Center was recognized as an important entity within the newly formed IBA.
Many have asked how I came up with the idea for this new company that is more lifestyle than bicycle tour, more about discovery than logging miles. This past October the liaison committee of the Science Museum of Virginia invited me to speak to their group about Basket & Bike—as a creator, an entrepreneur, and a business owner. As I thought about the best way to deliver my message I turned to my journal, and to that spark that so often finds place on my pages, for inspiration. Here follows some of what I shared with the committee.
Science, to me, is how we understand our world—all that’s in it, how all the pieces fit together, our place in the wider cosmos. It’s about asking questions, searching for answers and then sharing with each other what we’ve learned. It’s a journey, really, because we’ll always have more questions to answer, more knowledge to share. We’ll always have more to learn.
My bike opened new worlds to me—new places to discover, so much to learn. And, as I pedaled my way across each little journey, there was so much I wanted to share. I believed others would want to come along for the ride. And, since it’s all about discovery, the basket seemed somehow important to me. It’s a symbol of the things we take with us—a snack, some cold water, a journal and pen, a scarf—as well as the things we might bring home—a pinecone from a roadside picnic stop at the edge of the forest on a summer’s day, a clutch of colorful leaves in autumn, a book about life on a Virginia plantation four centuries ago on the James. A scallop shell, the Chesapecten Jeffersonius—our state fossil (did you know we had one?), the size of a dinner plate, found by the shore.
Basket & Bike is a chance for recreation, exercise and good times with friends. It’s also something more. It’s a new way of looking at the beauty around us. A new way of looking at the history that shaped our Commonwealth and our nation, and a new way of looking at ourselves.
Rolling along quietly at twelve miles per hour, you see things you might miss from the car. The laughter of children playing in the schoolyard, a bevy of wild turkeys picking at a freshly cut field of corn, perhaps a great blue heron arcing across the sky with the grace of eternity beneath her wings. Our minds are made to ask questions, and to probe for understanding and thought.
Our hearts, though, long to touch places that speak to us as people. To gain the insights of the soul, feel the rain on our parka, the wind in our hair and the sunshine across our face. We want to be out there, don’t we? We want to glide deeper into beauty and awe. That, to me, is what Basket & Bike is all about.
It’s about reaching a little deeper into the landscape, becoming a bit closer to this place we call home, traveling that great journey of discovery that has the power to enrich our lives, riding through our shared history, savoring the now and connecting us through a courage to build the future together.
As winter snows find me snuggled at home, watching the birds as they flicker in the snow, I’ll be thinking about where their wings might take them come spring, and where yours will take you when you travel with me on our next, Journey Along the James.
For more information on Anne's bicycle tours, visit www.basketandbike.com or email her at email@example.com.
Reviving the Sturgeon
While dinosaurs are known to be extinct, a prehistoric monster still swims in the winding waters of the James River. Threatened, and decreasing in numbers, the Atlantic Sturgeon remains one of the oldest fish still living in North America, with a lifespan ranging up to sixty years. Over the past few decades, circumstances have been working against this historic fish. In the Virginia area, over-fishing, habitat alteration, and pollution have all been factors working together to diminish the sturgeon population in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. The fish’s size, ranging up to 14 feet in length and 800 pounds, make it a hefty prize for ambitious fishermen, but the environmental and historic impact of its extinction would be significant.
As it takes quite a long time for the fish to repopulate (with a lengthy spawning interval of every one to five years), the sturgeon’s numbers have been on decline since the 1800s. The decline escalated until February 2012, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service listed the fish as an endangered species. However, this claim did little to assist in the revitalization of the species, as the only management done was restricting the parameters of catching these sturgeons.
Like much of Virginia, the sturgeon has a unique history of its own. Its abundance in the James River during the colonial settlement gained it the title of the “founding fish” of Jamestown. Because the settlers were familiar with the sturgeon species that lived in the Thames River in England, they were equipped with the knowledge on how to catch and cook the sturgeon, and this knowledge allowed the colonists to survive, especially during the period known as “The Starving Time” in 1609-10. The settlers also documented that the sturgeon was culturally significant to the local Native American tribes of that time. As a rite of passage to manhood, the young men of the local tribes would hold onto the backs of sturgeon and ride.
So what can we do to stay the disappearance of the sturgeon population in Virginia’s waterways? Thankfully, a Richmond group is willing to fight for the revival of Virginia’s founding fish. The Envision the James Project invites communities and individuals to help sustain and improve the natural quality of the James River and its surroundings. Through its efforts, this organization has partnered with researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University to revitalize the population of the sturgeon in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. These research activities include tracking the sturgeon’s moving patterns, the restoration of spawning and nursery habitats, as well as the in-depth research of threats to sturgeon mortality.
Alongside these scientific efforts, the sturgeon’s situation has sparked artistic activism as well. A cement wall at Cary and Robinson streets in Richmond, displays the work of local artists who have spoken out about Virginia’s ecological issues. Brightly colors maps and info graphics pop out of the cement, speaking statistical facts on the James River’s and Virginia Watershed’s environmental qualities. Most striking is the massive and detailed painting of an Atlantic Sturgeon, bold and loud, with the caption “SURVIVOR.” In much smaller letters reads the sentence, “VA stopped fishing prehistoric sturgeon in 1974,” highlighting the state’s efforts to assist in the protection of the fish.
So what can we do to help the sturgeon’s rebirth in the James? The Envision the James project seems to be the most inclusive project anyone seeking to assist in this project. By becoming a member of this community, opportunities for learning more about the many efforts of restoring the James become available, as well as being able to connect with the many people already out in the field. To join in the fight for sturgeon revival, and take part in your environmental community, visit the Envision the James project online at http://www.envisionthejames.org/join. pl
Friends of the Rappahannock Stand Up
One non-profit group with a track record of results is the Friends of the Rapphannock (FOR) based in Fredericksburg with a satellite office in Tappahannock. Since 1985, FOR has focused on the upper Rappahannock above and below Fredericksburg, where they are based, with great success. Looking to expand their mission, FOR brought Richard Moncure aboard as their Tidal Rappahannock River Steward in January 2011.
Based in Tappahannock, Moncure is the lone, independent person defending the lower section of the largest state river from Fredericksburg to the Bay. No small task, but Moncure is undaunted. He is not a man who stands still often nor has time for small talk. A kinetic energy and rapid-fire verbal delivery reveal a native anxious about the river and his readiness to take action, as if it were a personal matter.
Passionate about the challenges the River Country faces, Moncure believes coalition building is the key to a healthier river. He has established alliances with oyster farmers, businesses, land conservancies, schools and non-profits. In his work, Moncure preaches FOR's core mission of advocacy, restoration and education, and is even-handed about controversial topics. Raised in the Stratford Hall area in and on the Potomac River, Moncure is a water rat from his youth. He has a natural gusto about his marine mission in life. Growing up in his family seafood restaurant business, he knows firsthand the importance of a healthy regional seafood economy—“from fisherman to fork.”
After college, Moncure did a Peace Corps stint in Africa then returned to the family seafood business. He then worked in the aquaculture field before running his own seafood market. Now living in Simonson with his family of “water people,” Moncure keeps a close eye and a finger on the pulse of the region's waterways and seafood industry. A licensed watermen and soon-to-be certified captain, he intimately knows the waters and lands of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.
Evidence of Moncure's wide-ranging efforts cover the walls of his FOR office tucked into a marina building on the water. Maps, and graphs visualize progress and issues. Just outside the door his weathered SUV awaits, and down on the river his outboard river steward boat sits in its slip ready for launch, Batman-style.
Even when standing still, Moncure appears to be in motion whether on land or water. As he works to restore the lower Rappahannock and collaborates with oyster farmers as part of his effort, you might say he is a man who in his mid-thirties has the river and the world—literally—as his oyster.
Oysters Rebound—with a Helping Hand
The Virginia oyster industry was decimated by pollution in the 1980s. Starting in the early 1990s, the traditional oyster businesses and now oyster farmers started to bring back the Virginia oyster through aquaculture and wild, seeded oyster beds. Today, premium Virginia oysters raised by aquatic farmers are putting the state back on the shellfish map and raising awareness about the plight of the Rappahannock and the bay.
As most river and Bay folks know, an adult oyster can filter fifty gallons of river water per day—gobbling up algae and removing dirt and nitrogen pollution, like a mini water-treatment plant. Their revival holds huge potential to heal our waters. But is it too late? To have an impact, hundreds of millions of oysters are needed. In response, a wide range of traditional oyster houses and new-age oyster farmers welcome the challenge, and their operations are doing immense good for the health of our state waters Moncure has been keen to identify oyster farming as a key to help raise the profile of the Rappahannock. He is working intimately with these new-age watermen or “aqua-preneurs.” Ironically, just as pollution decimated the oysters, these same crustaceans are on the front lines of restoring water quality. Most importantly, perhaps, they offer a viable, long-term solution based on the ecology of the bay and rivers. (see New-Age Watermen in this issue)
Although oyster farming is still mostly a cottage industry, any and all oyster growth is vital to rehabilitating the Rappahannock and bay. To further enhance the comeback of the oyster industry, the state is poised to launch the Virginia Oyster Trail in early 2016 to promote the re-emergence of our mostly “human-made” mollusks.
A New Threat from Fracking?
Beyond the optimism of the new oyster revolution, there is now a new menace on the horizon that may only compound water pollution issues: fracking. Driven once again by an appetite for cheap energy and growth for growth's sake, the controversial practice of fracking is being pursued irrespective of the risks.
Earlier this year it was revealed—and broadcast by Moncure after he attended county commission meetings—that 80,000 acres of land have been leased in the Northern Neck for fracking. The oil extraction method sweeping the country injects water and chemicals into the earth to force out oil and natural gas. It requires untold amounts of water, which then becomes contaminated waste. Fracking is already suspected of polluting aquifers in other states even though energy companies profess it a safe process. In response to what he believes is a misguided notion, Moncure replies, “You cannot easily heal an aquifer or a river after it is poisoned by dangerous chemicals. Our local economies could take a major hit if that were to happen.”
In addition to the threats to water quality, Moncure also sees the results of human indifference to the environment, like evidence of a crime being committed: endless trash accumulations in and along the river. To combat the problem, he regularly leads clean ups along the river. Sadly and ironically, one of the biggest sources of trash is fishermen.
To date, Moncure has accomplished measurable results and is building relationships with the touch of a proactive diplomat. His days and often his evenings are filled with water trips, meetings, articles to read and write, emails, and conference calls. Through it all, Moncure glides ahead through the choppy waters. Most impressively, he has recruited volunteer water quality monitors to gather better real-time data about conditions. As a result, he has already identified dead zones as far up the Rappahannock as Tappahannock. FOR's independent, objective information is critical to alerting the public about the facts, particularly since cutbacks to state environmental agencies have hampered their ability to collect data. In mid-November 2014, Moncure hosted a FOR event in Topping—with oysters served, of course—to provide educational information to a range of river advocates and stakeholders, including oyster farmers, businesses and land owners.
Regarding the ecological problems he fears, Moncure tells the truth without any sign of resignation. “Pollution is the unseen evil. Like a ticking time bomb we cannot hear or see. And it’s been ticking since the 1970s. Time will tell, but time is short.”
At the end of the day, the Rappahannock, the Bay and regional waterways face one force that perhaps cannot be stopped: the endless march of growth and the environmental degradation it causes. If allowed to continue unabated, our regional waterways may one day soon become permanent dead zones devoid of micro- and macroscopic organic growth. Hence, aquatic life will likely degrade and the economic means of many river and Bay businesses, and people will be in jeopardy.
At What Cost to Civilization?
As River Country residents try to comprehend the extent and pernicious nature of water pollution, the truth is beginning to bite. In reality, we live in a billion-year-old ecosystem perfected over time. Ignoring the gravity of science, humans have chosen instead to impose their ideas on the environment as if to know better. Just one problem. Mother Nature always has the last word, as the earth is showing us with the effects of climate change, a related topic that further threatens the River Country.
Though our state waterways are degrading, there are bright spots. Record eagle flocks on the Rappahannock and large heron rookeries on the James in Richmond are encouraging, as is blue crab production in the Bay. Such feel-good stories, however, suggest that wildlife and marine life are simply tolerating the effects of pollution—as long as they can.
Wherever you live in the River Country, there is water nearby. And that water is, if you will, in people's blood. Families, relations, livelihoods and recreation are often tied to the water. Being connected to the water is to be entwined in the rhythms of the season and the cycles of life. For many, the river is a powerful biblical symbol of life's journey. The pollution of such a powerful life force and bountiful source of sustenance and beauty would be an epic tragedy. If one day it is too late to revive our waters and we wonder how this could have happened, we will realize that humans have been undone by their own hand. We will have fouled our own nest.
The Rappahannock River’s name is derived from an Algonquian Indian word meaning “quick rising waters.” For generations, the rising and falling of the tides of our ancient waters has sustained life for centuries. Today, in less than a generation, an invisible, slow-motion, rising tide of pollution and environmental problems could alter our once pristine waterways with dangerous and long-lasting consequences. Have we passed the tipping point? pl
We welcome readers’ input on this topic. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friends of the Rappahannock contact information: Tapphannock, VA office, 804 443-3448. Fredericksburg office, 540 373-3448. www.riverfriends.org
The Rappahannock River was recently featured in an award-winning film, Rappahannock: The Story of an Historic and Beautiful River and Its People. DVD copies can be ordered through the Friends of the Rapphannock (www.riverfriends.org). Rappahannock received an award from the RVA Environmental Film Fesitval in Richmond, Virginia in 2015.
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