Keeping the James River tireless

As we pull into Howardsville ready to take part in efforts aimed at keeping the James River tireless, a question lingers in mind- why would people dispose tires into the James such that their act would necessitate this kind of a cleanup? This is a thought that seems rather absurd to imagine of. For once, I am a little skeptical about finding any tires once we set out in the waters.

As we set out on our canoes floating downstream, the river’s features are very limpid.  The waters are very clear contrary my earlier expectations, the channel is relatively broad and a

The broad channel and clear waters of the James at Howardsville

The broad channel and clear waters of the James at Howardsville

variety of riparian vegetation including sycamores, river birches, and white oaks line the banks. The eroded banks of the channel are also easily discernible most probably due to the recent flooding, and a significant number of riparian trees have fallen into the river.

Two miles down the river and having not spotted a single tire, my hopes of finding any tire escalate. I am still trying to wrestle with the thought of why people would dispose tires into the James that would foster an environmental concern. However, no sooner had we floated a few more feet downstream than McKenzie and I spotted eight tires submerged in shallow waters near the muddy left bank. With utter excitement, we get off the canoe and pull the tires off the river channel scrapping the dirt inside them and loading them onto our canoe. Behind us a flotilla of batteaux provided by the James River Batteau Festival follow collecting tires from our canoes. As we stack tires onto the batteaux, I begin to

A bateau with tires retrieved from the James River

A batteau with tires retrieved from the James River

realize the gravity of the issue at hand. In a stretch of the river of less than one mile and while primarily focusing on the left bank, we collectively retrieve more than fifty tires. The batteaux are so full that they cannot hold more tires. We are forced to transport some of the tires by road to the collection point in Scottsville. This definitely starts to hit me as a call for concern.

Research shows that formulations and chemical compounds used to make tires gets released into water systems when tires are disposed in water channels. These substances are potential carcinogens. Tires also block pathways of aquatic animals and may disrupt breeding or forage grounds. This results to unnecessary disturbances in ecological systems.

As we unload the batteaux in Scottsville, I cannot help notice the elation on people’s face as they celebrate their long-day efforts. At once, I learn that the activity was not only about pulling tires out of the river but also connecting people with the James for them to realize the importance of environmental stewardship and conservation.





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Man Vs Nature

As I bask on the large flat rocks of Belle Isle, I cannot help reminiscence about the majesty of the James. In front of me, the James roars powerfully as it negotiates bends around the edges of the flat rocks foaming lather, while swirling pebbles within the crevices of the large rock next to me. It’s mind-boggling to imagine that a simple process like swirling of

The large flat rocks of Belle Isle

The large flat rocks of Belle Isle

rocks within crevices will over a course of time result to formation of the magnificent potholes that characterize most of the flat rocks on this island. In a way, it seems like nature has conspired to produce phenomenal features from the simplest of processes, some of which may not be visible to us.

A few feet behind me, the scraped banks of the James are visible, as the river tries to alter its channel morphology. However, one thing stands out in particular- the human interference on the bank structure. A significant strip of the bank has either been reinforced using ripraps or concrete. For a moment, the idea of concrete banks seems

A stretch of concrete along the James at Belle Isle

A stretch of concrete along the James at Belle Isle

viable as an act aimed at taming bank erosion which has chiefly been responsible for increasing the amount of sediments in the James. However, with a little more critical approach I discern that concrete banks may result to more deleterious effects than we can imagine.

The sediments from bank erosion are critical in the creation of riparian habitats. The value of such riparian vegetation in controlling bank erosion and providing diverse ecological habitats along the James cannot be underestimated. Thus with engineered banks comes the danger of loss of these ecological functions. These bank-alterations tend to also increase the velocity of the river, increasing the rate of bank erosion downstream. This reduces the ability of floodplains to recharge and consequently exacerbates the water quality. Since watersheds are interlinked, it may be time before pollution from the James affects other watersheds like the Chesapeake or the Atlantic at large. This not only poses a huge threat for aquatic animals that depend on these systems but also on humans who draw water from such systems.

It may be time for us to address the real cause of increased sediments in the James which primarily arises during floods, rather than taming short term symptoms. A huge perk will definitely be controlling stormwater runoff and encouraging sustainable land use upstream of the James.


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React to the Trash on Dutch Gap (Community Event/Field Trip Service Log)

It was a weird combination of excitement and discontent when I saw a piece of trash/garbage at the Dutch Gap. Initially, part of me saw every discarded item as a point, treating the whole river clean-up as a competition of who can fill their trash bags the fastest. However, the other part of me felt upset at the sheer amount of trash and neglect that was in the area. I kept thinking “How can people be so inconsiderate and lazy as to not even properly dispose of their own waste. Seeing items such as beer bottles, aluminum cans, and fishing lines especially fueled my anger towards these individuals. I didn’t know who specially was responsible for the litter and pollution, but seeing these specific items steered me to assume that they are ignorant and thoughtless characters who simply use the Dutch Gap in any way they please. It was so disheartening to finally clean up an area only to notice a piece of trash off the beaten path that when recovered, reveals another polluted area. I recall that me and Victoria (a member of “Out of the Sea”) both crawled through a thicket of shrubs and thorns, only tall enough for us to princess squat the whole time, in order to reach some of the denser areas in the Dutch. However, the hardest trash to recover was a bundle of tangled fish lines stuck on tree branches by the shore. I was waist deep in water trying to cut free the rope with only a dull key (I’d left my jack knife in the van) and finally ended up taking the whole branch with me because it was much too difficult.

Several of the trash at Dutch Gap were discarded alcoholic containers.

Several of the trash at Dutch Gap were discarded alcoholic containers.


It is important that we better enforce littering policy because the trash may potentially feed into the James River which is something Park Services, James River Association, and countless other volunteers are working to improve. The Dutch Gap is a very windy bend of the James River and, due to the calmer waters, is more vegetative. Thus, the trash and garbage that comes through this area is trapped in a bed of foliage and simply accumulates. Although this pollution may not be on the same scale as the mining and processing plants, individual littering is something that should not be overlooked. As Don Forsyth mentioned, gradual exposure and awareness of an issue influences behavior and ultimately turns into action. Proper recovery and sanitation should start at the local level and eventually move upwards. How will we ever solve the big problems if we can’t even get the little things right?

Lots of tangled fish lines washed up by the shoreline.

Lots of tangled fish lines washed up by the shoreline.

Not even a quarter of that day's trash haul- so upsetting :/

Not even a quarter of that day’s trash haul- so upsetting :/


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As the tall smokestacks of the Dominion Power plant in Chesterfield County, VA release voluminous stacks of white smoke into the atmosphere, one cannot help revel at the magnitude of activity taking place below those chimneys. Inside the plant, thousands of

Stacks of smoke released from the Dominion plant.

Stacks of smoke released from the Dominion plant.

tons of coal are being converted daily into energy, contributing to the national grid. Outside the plant, far and wide, thousands of households continue to consume this precious commodity to enhance their lives. However, even as we continue to relish this great resource, one cannot help wonder about the plight of the water systems adjacent to or beneath the unlined coal ash ponds of the Dominion power plant.

The Dominion power plant has come under serious public scrutiny for its controversial act of releasing coal ash into the adjacent James River. This act has not been taken lightly given the imminent threat of water poisoning heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and chromium found in coal ash tend to cause. These metals get passed along food-chains in an ecosystem ultimately reaching organisms occupying the higher ecological niches and cause deleterious effects. For instance, in the Pringle article, the author talks about the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge that came under public spotlight after massive deaths of

Kesterson Wildlife Refuge animal deaths

Kesterson Wildlife Refuge animal deaths

waterfowls and fish were reported. These deaths were linked primarily to heavy metal poisoning by arsenic, selenium and boron. This act resulted in the removal of Kesterson from the wildlife refuge system and it cost the government colossal amounts of money in mitigation efforts.

Public pressure, lobbying by private groups, together with state legislation like as the 1972 Clean Water act have compelled the Dominion plant to adopt a coal-ash management plan to safely dispose its 13 million tons of coal ash currently stored in its unlined ponds. Even

Mounds of coal ash at the Dominion power plant

Mounds of coal ash at the Dominion power plant

though environmentalist view this as a momentous advancement in curbing point source pollution of the James River by the plant, storage of coal ash in the earth still poses a big threat to the underground water sources. Given that all water systems are inextricably linked in the hydrologic cycle format, it may be time before the adulterated underground water seeps into subsurface water systems and cause the effects environmentalists are trying to prevent in the first place. Even as the man-environment tussle continues, it is lucid that the environment is often the loser.



  2. Threats to U.S. Public Lands from Cumulative Hydrologic Alterations Outside of Their Boundaries: Catherine M. Pringle, Ecological Applications, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Aug., 2000), pp. 971-989.





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Synthesis 1- Where the Wild Things Are

Nothing is more natural than wilderness. It exists on the paths we walk every day, in the way plants force themselves into places bricked and paved over, and in our own minds. It’s a way of looking at the world. Imagining wilderness as the sublime, as the antithesis of human interference, serves no purpose other than to lament how the world once was. However, using wilderness as a way of thinking about the world promotes observation and reflection.  Here, wilderness has no set definition because to make it objective would be to take away its potency. Instead, wilderness is whatever makes a person feel more connected to the natural world.

When I saw elementary problems in Portland- homelessness, pollution, apathy- I felt deceived. I was expecting trees growing up through the sidewalks, dense forests juxtaposed with offices, and a palpable love for the outdoors. I wish I had read Cronon’s article before visiting Portland. If I had, I may have seen past my disgust at the Cascadian city. I may have seen wilderness in the vegetation along the Willamette, in the city’s identity as a “river city”, and in the complexity of the people of Portland. The authors of Portlandness saw the wilderness of the city when they wrote the section titled “Wildness”. This section exemplifies that perception of wilderness is as much cultural as it is genetic. The sublimity of forests probably wasn’t a consideration for the first residents of the area that is now Portland as they cut down trees to the point that the city was named “stumptown”. The need to earn a living trumped any appreciation of the wilderness, and so the area was cleared. In the past half-century, however, the culture of Portland has embraced wildness. The city has the largest urban natural forested area in the country, and apparently moss “routinely envelops entire cars”.


Carl for scale

Wilderness in the H.J. Andrews experimental Forest approaches the traditional definition. It’s easy to see the sublime wilderness in the looming Douglas firs and the dead, woody debris that supports photosynthetic life. It’s easy to see the sublime in the researchers’ goal to preserve the forest and keep it one of the last remaining old-growth stands in the country. However, the researchers, even as the live surrounded by a traditional “wilderness”, embody most of all wilderness as a frame of mind. By working to understand our species’s relationship with plants and with the wild rather than just condemning it, they embrace wilderness as a part of human experience rather than apart from human experience. For them, wilderness is about how to best preserve biodiversity and coexist with nature. Some of the most influential research during the forest wars came from the HJA and focused on the Spotted owl, a species that Cronon actually mentions in his post. He points out the paradox that defenders of biodiversity often have to use a single species, such as the spotted owl, to defend the preservation of an entire ecosystem. For participants in the writers project at the HJA, wilderness was often reflected in simple natural processes. Vicky Graham discussed change  by exploring decomposition in the forest . Jeff Fearnside saw wilderness in the contrast between the raging wildness of a flood and the frail stands of willow left after it. By exploring a physical wilderness, they found examples of the frame-of-mind wilderness in their own lives.

belle isle

Belle Isle, downtown Richmond in background

The James River Park System, and Belle Isle in particular, embrace the coexistence of wilderness and cities. One of the most valuable functions of city parks is encouraging people to connect with nature in an urban setting. According to Dr. Forsyth’s research, awareness is the first step to action. When people are aware that wilderness doesn’t only exist in the absence of humans, and that it can exist in local parks as well as in grandiose mountain ranges, they are more likely to appreciate the natural world. They are also more likely to keep exploring and learning, and move from the first step of awareness to the second, appraisal. During appraisal, one can better understand wilderness by questioning it rather than just observing. Why is wilderness worth preserving? Where can wilderness be found in unexpected places? In a way, this step is the essence of wilderness as a frame of mind. When appraisal develops into the third step, action, a love for wilderness develops into environmentalism.

My claim that wilderness is a state of mind is intentionally broad. Strictly defining it would remove its meaning, because it’s supposed to be subjective. Appreciation of wilderness is supposed to draw on the context of one’s life, and on the unique way in which they see the world.  Wilderness is most valuable as a way of seeing and appreciating the world as it is, for what it is.

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Belle Isle and The Importance of Escaping From the World (Synthetic Post 1)


After visiting Belle Isle for the first time with the SSIR class, I instantly knew that the place was something special.  I returned several weeks later to explore more and be able to really take in my surroundings.  The bridge stretching underneath the highway, with its support cables reaching up, reminded me of a sort of web that a spider would make underneath a roof beam.  This bridge spanned the distance from civilization in Richmond to a seemingly detached, lost world.  There was such an incredible amount of history packed into this tiny, lost world.  The Civil War prisoner of war camps were adjacent to the empty shells of iron works buildings, quarries, and hydro-powered machinery.  Amongst all of these were traces of our modern era, with there being rock climbing walls and mountain bike courses.bridge

I believe that the popularity of this park in particular, is due to the “wilderness” like nature that it maintains, even with its proximity to the city.  At first, the word wilderness does not appear to aptly describe Belle Isle, because the island is littered with roads, trails, and man made structures.  However, once you walk onto Belle Isle, you realize that there is an adventurous nature to the island that is not found in most other parks and especially not anywhere near a city.  This spirit of adventure feels more similar to the majestic peaks of the Cascades in Oregon, the thrill of flying down backcountry ski slopes in Colorado, or trekking across the slickrock in Utah.  People crave these experiences and Belle Isle manages to capture so many of them in such a small space.  The way the island is shaped also contributes to a feeling of unknowingness.  This is due to the several ridges and dense trees that restrict any large line of sight views.

The simple fact that many of the rusted structures still remain on the island is testament to the adventurous character of the island.  Several of these structures on the far side of the island are blocked off with minimal effort, which essentially encourages the climbing and exploration of them.  The similarity to the wilderness here has been recreated in a somewhat urban environment that still pays homage to the idea of the romantic sublime.  Standing on top of the rocks at the north end of the island that can only be reached by ladder, and being surrounded by trees and many more massive rocks, elicits the same type of response that the classic painting of the romantic sublime era, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” elicits.


wanderer rocks








While the idea of the sublime and wilderness in general is critiqued in the Cronon article, “The Trouble with Wilderness” Belle Isle demonstrates how an area can combine traditional wilderness with traces of man and be able to stir human emotion in a way that is more profound than just experiencing nature in your backyard and trying to learn to love that, as Cronon suggests.  Belle Isle offers the escape that Cronon also critiqued as being for only those who can afford to go on majestic expeditions for entertainment.  People in the park seemed truly happy, jumping from rock to rock, kayaking through the rapids adjacent through the park, and flying through the single track trails on mountain bikes.  This park caters to people from all walks of life and allows them to remain in touch with the part of their human nature that desires adventure and natural beauty.

In order to maintain and preserve this park, there must be active, ongoing efforts to build community around it.  I do not believe that Belle Isle faces very much danger from Forsyth’s theory of “place blindness” because of how it is separated from the city, and the gates to the bridge lock at night.  This separation is part of what makes Belle Isle unique, because it functions as an escape from city life.  In this sense, development and urban sprawl aren’t as much of issues as tax dollar funding and basic clean-up efforts are.  In addition, because Belle Isle is relatively large for the river, it can function as a sort of riparian zone.  The separation from the city allows for more protection against various forms of environmental degradation, such as hydrologic drought from paving surfaces and large scale deforestation.  The environment in Belle Isle can be left to undergo natural erosion as the river rushes across its banks.  This bank erosion could be seen by the very small square of pavement by the water’s edge that we saw during the class trip and that was slowly crumbling away.

Henry David Thoreau’s declaration that, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world” exemplifies the idea behind the “personality” of Belle Isle as a park, the need for environmental protection, and why humans are drawn to areas such as Belle Isle.  I attribute the massive popularity of Belle Isle as a park, which can be seen in the constantly packed parking lot, to the wilderness-like aspect of it that also contains man made historical elements.  The natural geography contributes to its draw, because of its isolation from the city.  While Central Park, in New York City, is also a large park in an urbanized area, it does not retain the “sublime” appeal that Belle Isle does because it does not feel separated from the city as much.  The suspension bridge to Belle Isle functions as a bridge to another world, one where people can experience adventure and remain in touch with nature.

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The James as an Emblem of Interconnectivity (Synthetic Log 1)

The morning I spent picking up trash on Belle Isle with Sanitra was one of the strangest in recent memory. The people and places we encountered throughout the three hour excursion offered sampling of the wide variety of uses people have for the James River Park System. We encountered uses both expected and unexpected, routine and thought-provoking. Most interesting was Belle Isle and therefore the James as the venue for all of these uses to interact, not only with each other but with the physical environment as well.

Firstly, the physical landscape of the island was relevant, as it set the tone for the morning. I’d been to Belle Isle before but never spent this much time exploring it. The scenery offered a strange and somewhat off putting and eery juxtaposition of the natural and man-made. Whereas the natural landscape was relatively well taken care of – the amount of trash we found was not at all competitive with that at Dutch Gap – the man-made structures stand old as old and abandoned. They’re undoubtedly cool to see and to imagine the history behind, but they’re equally undoubtedly ugly and out of place.


The first group of people we encountered seemed to be members of a church or some type of religious community. They were having a quasi-photo shot on the flat rocks, and they were all holding up cardboard signs in the photos. Being curious and nosy, I read as many signs as I could. The one I could see said something along the lines of “I used to be fat and lazy and now I’m spiritual and employed.” Other ones talked about forgiveness from God. They later laid the cardboard signs out to form a large cross and stood around it hand in hand while being videotaped by a drone. The church’s choice of Belle Isle for this type of promotional activity struck me as significant. It may have just been because it was the most scenic backdrop they could think of, but I think there’s also a connection to be drawn between water and rejuvenation, which seemed to be the theme of the morning for them. This connection is especially relevant in the Bible, strengthening the logic behind the the church’s choice of venue.

This gives new purpose to our trash clean up. In addition to the merits of preserving nature for the sake of nature, a noble cause in and of itself, we’re preserving the potential for a meaningful connection to the river, regardless of whether said connection is religious. This sentiment is a hybrid of the sublime and backyard understandings of wilderness. The sublime interpretation suggests wilderness to be the connection between the natural and supernatural, whereas the backyard perspective expands the definition of wilderness to include nature in all forms and landscapes (Cronon, 1995). Belle Isle is not the most awe-inspiring landscape I’ve encountered, but the opportunity to forge a connection with the natural world around you persists there.

In this way, I think the decaying structures left for people to explore have a purpose. They offer insight into the past and provoke contemplation and curiosity of the history of the river, providing the potential for river-goers to have a deeper understanding of and connection to it. We saw the possibility for such a connection in the first chapter of In River Time, in which the author details her obsession with the James River.

I can’t say I’ve fostered as deep a connection with the river as Woodlief has, but I do appreciate and find relevant her discussion of the different “lenses” through which she views the River. In a different form, this is what I learned on Belle Isle that day – the “lenses” were the different groups of people and the ways in which they used the space (Woodlief, 1985).

Other than the church group, there was a woman making miniature teepees out of sticks, rocks, and flowers. Close by there was a table with a poster board detailing the different insect species on Belle Isle. There was also a large number of runners participating in a 5K, and a few pairs of mountain bikers. Every group was using the space in a different way. Additionally, among hundreds of cigarette butts and other litter, Sanitra and I also found four used condoms scattered across the flat rocks. After slight deliberation we picked them up and put them into our trash bags, barely a minute before two kids ran into the area. I see this service as a concrete way of preserving the positive image of the river in those children’s eyes.


On that Saturday, Belle Isle was emblematic of the connectivity rivers have come to symbolize. However the James connects more than just the Blue Ridge mountains to the Chesapeake Bay – it connects people from all walks of life with each other and with the native and nonnative plants and terrestrial and aquatic species that share the space.

We saw this in Portland as well. During our short paddle down the river we encountered a number of its shared users – barges, homeless, and an eagle. This connectivity and plethora of shared uses offers insight into why someone such as Louise Burke would go to such lengths to creative and preserve a public space along the river (Prestidge, 2012). Furthermore, it should encourage our generation to do our part in caring for it.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

On the Willamette




Prestidge, Holly, and Ellen Robertson. “Environmental activist Louise Burke dies.” Richmond Times-Dispatch,

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 1995, pp. 69-90.

Woodlief, Ann. In River Time. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1985.




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Parks and Public Awareness-Appraisal

Benedict Roemer (Synthesis 1)

Parks, both local municipal parks and national parks, can serve multiple purposes. They can serve to protect the environment which they encompass or they function as a gateway to the wilderness for the public. Generally parks perform this first action well because they block the land from being developed or otherwise turned into a source of pollution and destruction of natural habitats. However, the existence of parks as a gateway to the wilderness is sometimes not fully realized. It is important that parks fully serve this second purpose so that the public can actively participate in preserving and protecting nature even outside of the boundaries of designated park lands.

A public aware of a problem is a public capable of taking action to solve that problem. The important puzzle created by this equation is how to make a public aware of the problem that one is trying to solve? In the case of preserving natural habitats and our environment through reducing pollutants in the air and water or rebuilding healthy forests and riparian zones, public awareness can be created by showing the public what it is that needs to be saved, and why it is important that it is saved from destruction. Public parks, which are often areas of protected environments can serve as places to build public awareness. In William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness”, he speaks about the ways in which people have been inspired, or even terrified by the great wilderness. While Cronon criticizes a view of the wilderness as being pure, he acknowledges that “The striking power of the wild is that wonder in the face of it requires no act of will, but forces itself upon us—as an expression of the nonhuman world experienced through the lens of our cultural history—as proof that ours is not the only presence in the universe.” (p. 18) By realizing that we humans are not alone in this universe, we can appreciate the importance of protecting the continued existence of other animal and plant species in the universe, and specifically on our planet earth. As Cronon goes on to say, and as we also discussed in class, it is also important to recognize that natural environments do not have to exclusively exist in the wilderness, or parks. The connection to our local environments must be made to have to greatest impact on protecting that with which we share our planet.

The next step from awareness in preserving environments is appraisal. Donelson R. Forsyth has established an awareness-appraisal model for the ways in which humans react to problems with their environment. Parks can certainly help to raise the publics awareness about environmental issues as I discussed in the previous paragraph, but they can also play an important role in helping the public in the process of appraising the conditions of their local environments and watersheds. Many parks already have educational components, such as the work that the James River Park System does in educating children in Richmond through summer camps and other programs. However, this is a role that could become still more central to parks and also private holders of

Westhampton Lake on the campus of the University of Richmond. At times more than 50% of the lake is covered by algae blooms.

preserved lands and bodies of water. For example, the University of Richmond could do a much better job of informing their students and local members of the community about the pollutants find their way into the Little Westham Creek and Westhampton Lake. Through appraisal of the problems that lead to the algae blooms on Westhampton Lake, or the high sediment problem in the James River, behaviors can begin to change and the public will begin to work together to mitigate these problems.

The last step in Forsyth’s awareness-appraisal model is a change in behavior. When the public has reached an adequate level of awareness to properly appraise the situation, they can begin to change their behavior in order to solve the problem. This can be done through smaller personal gestures such as no longer using harmful fertilizers on your yard that will run off into the nearby stream before finding its way through each hierarchical level of the watershed in which you live. One can also change your own behavior as the behavior of your community adjusts to remedy the harm that has been done to the local environment. A strong sense of community is an important part of the awareness-appraisal model. While visiting Portland, Oregon, and reading Portlandness, I could see how a strong sense of community – even within a sizable city – had made a difference in establishing environmentalism as part of the city’s identity. Another example of community playing an essential role is seen in the creation and survival of the James River Park System. When funding was cut for the system, the community saw the importance of protecting the natural landmarks in and around Richmond and took action to keep the parks clean and open. Parks can and should continue to build community actions towards preserving natural environments. They can do this by serving as community centers where the public can come together in a place of nature to work together to preserve their local environments in their own neighborhoods. The James River Association, while not a


The Logo for the River Rats Program of the James River Association.

park, provides a good model for the ways in which parks could engage and grow the community. The River Rats program is a wonderful model of community engagement that even encourages members to not only continue to protect the James River, but also begin projects around environmental protection in their own, more local community which can further expand awareness to others. Alone or as a community, awareness and appraisal will lead to a change in behavior and action towards protecting the environment, and parks can take an active role in encouraging action through bringing community together and showing them how they can best go about taking action.

Parks play an essential role in building awareness of the importance of preserving natural habitats and ecosystems, but their role in environmental protection does not have to end there. Parks can also take on a very important role in the next two steps of Donelson Forsyth’s awareness-appraisal model. Parks and other organizations such as universities can help the public to appraise exactly what are the pollutants affecting the environment and how to live in such a way that fewer pollutants will find their way into the environment. All that’s left then is to change behaviors so that fewer pollutants are used and less harmful developments are built. Once again, parks can help individuals and communities to take action. I think that this is the step that is most often missed. For example, the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest is not a public park like Shenandoah or the James River Park System are,

Earth Lodge visiting the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest

but the trails and forests are open to the public. However, in our time there, I saw very few members of the public exploring the trails and gazing in wonder at the magnificent Douglas Fir Trees. I can understand how welcoming the public into a sacred natural space such as HJA could endanger the forest, just as the public has littered the Dutch Gap area of the James River. While participating in the trash cleanup at Dutch Gap, I was shocked by the bags and bags of trash that we managed to collect from an area that was supposed to be relatively protected. Clearly many of the people visiting Dutch Gap are not wondering at the beauty of nature, or they would not disturb the nature with their trash. Perhaps a similar phenomenon would occur at HJA if the public were more encouraged to visit, but perhaps those great Douglas Firs would also inspire so much wonder in visitors that even more people would be encouraged to protect their local environments. If natural parks are scared of being littered by those who do not respect that nature which they strive to protect, they will miss a chance to impact so many others who would turn their experience of awe into action to preserve their environment in their own backyard.

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Synthesis 1

What are challenges to environmental leadership and park maintenance within JRPS as a whole?

The biggest challenge to any company or system is a lack of support from the greater community. This is especially obvious in the history of the James River Park system. Since 1972, the parks have struggled with pollutants from power plants and factories, litter from oblivious park goers, and rebuff from the city government when all but one employee was fired in the 1980s. The challenges that environmental leadership and park maintenance of the James River Park System face do not stem from those in charge, but from the shortage of people who actively support them.

The support of and work done on the James River Park System results from its history. One can see the progress that has been made based on the people who swim in the river today with abandonment, whereas in the 1950’s and 60’s, large efforts made to keep people out of the river due to the dangerous contaminants. This started to change in 1972 with the opening of the park system. However, the city had little interest in helping the river, which was made apparent in the 1980’s when all of the park employees were fired except for Ralph White. In their opinion, there was no benefit in investing money and time into employing people to work for the park system. Despite this major set back, White was able to pull volunteers to help keep the river clean. For the past few decades, the Mayor and city council have taken an increased interest in the river, but not all for the right reasons. The city funds part of the park system because there are financial and political advantages for them to gain from it. Although there is support today from the greater community and local government, it is not necessarily stable nor guaranteed in the distant future. If the river stops benefitting the city, the James River Park System cannot count on its active support.

Before environmental leadership and park maintenance can think about the future of the James River Park System, they have to backtrack and correct past mistakes that have been made, specifically pollutants that still create problems today. When the Clean Water Act of 1972 was passed, the water was dangerous to swim in or to use at all, and great strides have been made in improving water quality. However, there are still issues that do not comply with the Act, and park maintenance and environmental advocates have to handle this with little help from the government. For example, our paddle trip to Dutch Gap in part revolved around the Dominion coal plant, which “looms ominously on the horizon” (Dutch Gap Notes). The coal plant releases steam and toxic coal ash, both of which keep the river warm year round and make the plant a danger for the environment around it. Higher temperatures mean the water can dissolve more minerals from rock and have a higher electrical conductivity, and it holds less dissolved oxygen than cold water. Additionally, some compounds, including arsenic, mercury, lead which come from coal ash, can be more toxic to animals at higher temperatures. The amount of these pollutants that are released do not meet EPA standards, but the plant is still allowed to operate because it is making strides to meet its goals. Improving or not, the toxic pollutants are a big issue and make it difficult to keep the water clean. The environmental leadership and park maintenance are challenged by plants and factories who do not comply with safe water practices and the government agencies that allow them to stay open.

An apathetic community is another obstacle that park leaders face. Park management cannot effectively keep the James River Park System clean when people come every week and leave behind beer bottles, plastic bags, and other trash that contaminates the river. An apathetic populace lacks the sense of community that is built on awareness, appraisal, and action. Many of the people who use the James River Park System go to college in the area or are visiting from out of town, or even live in Richmond and are just uninformed about the environmental issues of the James. When they are unaware of how their actions of littering, using too much water in their homes, overfishing, etc. affect the river, they do not give a second thought to their unsustainable practices. More people need to be aware of the issues of The James because taking care of it is hierarchical in nature. People who visit the River are important because they can help reduce pollution by picking up after themselves. Less litter helps those who are dedicated to service that helps the environmental leaders and park maintenance, and those who are dedicated to the river may eventually become leaders of the Park System. If no one at the bottom of this hierarchy cares, the leadership struggles, and we could revert back to the times of the 50’s where it was necessary to keep people out of the River.
One person cannot build an empire, or protect a River System, on his own. He needs sustained support from the community and government to ensure that the health of James River Park System is at least maintained, if not improved. In the past, local government agencies have made decisions with detrimental impacts on the park system, such as firing all but one employee of the Park System. As if that were not enough, James River Park employees, volunteers, and advocates have also fought pollution ranging from big coal plants to litter, all of which reverses some of the progress made on the river. Environmental leadership and park maintenance require support from the community to effectively do their job, and the lack of this support is the biggest challenge that they face as a whole.

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More Than Just Four Walls: Home Wasn’t Built in a Day

Simon and Garfunkel wish they were bound for it, John Denver thinks it is down some dirt road, and Lynyrd Skynyrd seems to believe it is only in Alabama.  Who is right?  Or do they all have it wrong?  Home is a complex phenomenon that we have all experienced, yet often have difficulty describing.

Some students work so much, they say they live in the library. But does that make it their home?

Some students work so much, they say they live in the library. But does that make it their home?

Physically, it is where one lives.  I was born in Hartford, so that must be my home; however, I grew up in Wilton.  Now, I spend my academic months in Richmond, but my most fond memories of summers all link back to upstate New York.  Because of this variety in region, surely home cannot be bound by four walls or a city’s limits.  Instead, it must be constructed by the humans that play a meaningful role in my life or share a similar culture with me.  In this case, my family is home, but so are my friends both here and in Wilton.  Perhaps home is a synthesis of both particular physical and specific human characters that influence a region or space.  Equally, it could simply be the opposite of traveling far away, which seems to incorporate a level of physicality, leaving home, and emotion, longing for home.  But what makes home so special, and why do we often find ourselves returning to it?  There must be a deeper connection that draws us back to our roots.  Viewing all these many facets of home through a geographic lens can help to focus concepts linked to boundaries, scale, place, region and, most importantly, connectivity.  A complete definition of home must accommodate all these aspects of geography and critically analyze the roll that each plays in relation to one another.

Home may be defined as a sense of community, shared culture and mutual values among a similar group of connected humans.  In this sense of the idea, home is hierarchical because it could include my immediate family, or it could include all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, or it could include everyone that comes to my house on Thanksgiving.  At an even larger scale, home could be all the people, both acquaintances and strangers, that share similar values with me, such as city residents.

The Richmond Folk Festival unites residents of different cultures, religions and social classes.

The Richmond Folk Festival unites residents of different cultures, religions and social classes.

In a previous blog post about the Richmond Folk Festival, I illustrate the importance of group mentality and community effort in the accomplishment of any social cause.  In regards to the city of Richmond as a home, the blog calls for unification in the task of managing the James River and notes that “without a collective, distinct and conscious passion for the James, there is no hope for its” future.  Positive change is dependent upon shared culture.

Parr, too, values the importance of societal unification because he believes “that if we better understand this larger sense of community, then we can push more people to take action to protect watersheds all around the globe.”  In his blog post, he explores the notion of connectivity and illustrates how communities are not always bounded by local regions, culture or religion, but are instead united by common causes.  Parr looks at humans and their ability to build community in relation to place at a broad level; however, his ideas can be applied on smaller scales, too.

Lodgers bond over wheat thins, cheese and PB&J while exploring old growth forests in Oregon.

Lodgers bond over wheat thins, cheese and PB&J while exploring old growth forests in Oregon.

Natalie does exactly that in a summer blog post written from the streets of Portland.  At that time, she was hoping for the class trip to “promote community bonding” among the individual members of Earth Lodge, which could lead to strong friendships, ultimately improving our quality of life both inside and outside the classroom.  She alludes to Earth Lodge acting as a home for students because of the valuable relationships that structure Lodge life.

David Banis and Hunter Shobe devote an entire section in their culture atlas, Portlandness, to exploring the “relationships between people and people, people and authorities, and people and ideas” (Banis and Shobe 119) within a city.  In this chapter, the maps and diagrams focus on social relations within a place and illustrate the importance of community when defining any region.  Although the human characteristics of a place can come to define the social facets of home as a community, there are other geographic aspects that must be addressed to completely understand the definition of a home, too.

Perhaps the best way to understand the idea of home is to set up a binary: home and away.  In Walden, Henry David Thoreau describes the importance of travel, but also notes that people “should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character” (take a peek at the full text by visiting your local library or clicking here).  Thoreau implies the importance of returning to the safety and comfort of home, but he also seems to call for the importance of constantly altering one’s perception of home.

After walking by it every single day, Westhampton Lake is easy to take for granted; however, its beauty helps to define the University.

After walking by it every single day, Westhampton Lake is easy to take for granted; however, its beauty helps to define the University.

After traveling to new regions and exploring novel experiences, one may comprehend their regular lives, and thus their home, differently.  People are often all too quick to fall into Forsyth’s concept of place blindness and take their surrounding environment for granted.  That is why one cherishes home the most when they are away.

After spending a year in the city of Richmond, I had never understood my life’s specific existence as a function within the James River watershed; however, after returning from Portland and Blue River, Oregon in August, I finally began to really perceive the spaces I inhabit and appreciate their characteristics.  I needed to travel across the country to be aware of what was right outside my dorm every single day.  By viewing different areas of Oregon, and the state itself, as a space, place and region, I learned to be more geographically cognizant.  In the introduction of their cultural atlas, David Banis and Hunter Shobe contrast Portland, Oregon with Portland, Maine.  By contrasting the two cities, the authors build a basic conceptualization of both.  Comparison is key and constructing a duality of home and away can help one more clearly understand the regular environment in which they live.

On one level of scale, Grey Court acts as home for Earth Lodgers.

On one level of scale, Grey Court acts as home for Earth Lodgers.

While the concept of home does include the physical description of a place, it encompasses many other geographic aspects, too.  These include the human characteristics, which play a vital role in the construction of a sense of unification and community.  Additionally, hierarchical boundaries can structure the boarders of a home by scale.  I live in my dorm room, but I also live in my residence hall, at the University, in the city of Richmond, in the James River watershed, in Virginia, on the east coast, in the United States, on planet Earth.  Home is often most understood and valued after experiencing a different region which can be used as a contrasting environment to reduce place blindness.  While these geographic concepts are important, home is foremost a place of connectivity.  Individuals are linked to their homes in unique and intimate ways.  Sounds, smells, memories and psycho-spatial feelings can be the most powerful and effective methods of describing one’s roots.  Practicing dérive can concentrate this elusive aspect of geography that, when converged with the physical and human aspects of a region, can bring the idea of home alive by giving it expressive meaning and personal significance.

Today, my home is the James River watershed.  As a resident of its boundaries, I am tied to its physicality and, as a participant and protector of its glory, I am tied to its community.  Traveling far from its rolling hills and shining valleys has brought me even closer to its majesty.  In the first chapter of her creative novel, In River Time, Ann Woodlief explains how she perceives the surface of the James as a mirror that reflects her own image, but I see more than just myself in that reflection.  I see the expansive landscape of my home.

The James River watershed truly is our home.

The James River watershed truly is our home.

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