There is no frontpage headline, much less a detailed news story. It does not appear inside any national newspaper, nor even here in the Rappahannock News. And, of course, “breaking-news” status is not merited on cable news channels or their Internet equivalent. And yet . . .
And yet, in the larger scheme of things, what I’m about to report is arguably far more important than any other story in this or any other news outlet this week:
The shad are running!
To make this happen required an act of what economists call “creative destruction.” Six years ago, after countless years of grassroots advocacy by the Friends of the Rappahannock and other environmentalists, the Army Corps of Engineers blew up the Embrey Dam at the Rappahannock River’s fall-line near Fredericksburg. A 100-foot-wide hole was blasted in the dam, and subsequent demolition finished the job.
For the first time since 1854, when the dam was built, the river became once again free-flowing, as nature, not man, had intended. Roughly 700 miles of historic spawning habitat were again accessible to migratory fish, including shad, herring and stripers. The river’s timeless cycle of natural rhythms returned.
“We all live downstream,” according to the popular environmentalist saying. In the case of the shad, it’s even true, metaphorically at least, here in this county, the headwaters of the Rappahannock River and thus literally downstream from no one.
Today there are regular reports of shad making it all the way upstream into the Rappahannock tributaries that lace the county. With the waters so high due to all the recent precipitation, the fish’s feat in swimming against the fast-moving current is considerable, as worthy of note as any sports competition.
Yes, the shad are running. And that means spring is truly here. As Henry David Thoreau noted in his “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” the shad make their upstream appearance regularly in early spring, “at the same time with the blossoms of the pyrus, one of the most conspicuous early flowers, which is for this reason called the shad blossom.”
What Thoreau called pyrus are commonly known today as serviceberry – a small deciduous tree or large shrub whose bright-white flowers, with five petals, burst forth at this time of year, precisely when the shad run upstream to their traditional spawning grounds.
Thus the appellation shad blossom, shadbush or shadblow – names passed down from the first settlers through the generations, names whose true meanings and origins are sometimes forgotten when we no longer live close to the land.
But in Rappahannock County such knowledge is seldom forgotten, for the land here is what the news is ultimately all about.