Editorial: Rivers run through us

Although Rappahannock County derives its name from the headwaters of the eponymous river that forms its eastern boundary, the map in the county’s Visitor’s Guide makes no mention of the river, nor its numerous tributaries that demarcate the contours of the county’s landscape. Instead, an intricate web of roads – main arteries 211, 522 and 231, plus countless secondary feeders identified with 600s and 700s – are seen to lace the county.

That’s the way it should be, I suppose, for today’s visitors arrive by auto – not canoe, canal barge or kayak. But to be unaware of or forget the natural lay of the land, defined by the flow of water downstream to the Chesapeake, means inevitably that something important is lost.

“I get very fast a notion of every region because at the smallest brook, I inquire whence it comes and into what river it runs,” said the 19th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in explaining his perpetual quest for self-knowledge. Who today does what Goethe did?

How many of us even bother to learn the names – and the rich history that christened them – of the county’s many waterways?  Battle Run. Rush River. The Covington. The Hazel. Indian Run. The Jordan. Beaverdam Creek. Blackwater Creek. The Thornton.

What also is often forgotten is how polluted our waters were not so long ago. Raw sewage was daily dumped in the Thornton. On the other side of the Blue Ridge, fish-deforming chemicals were routinely factory-flushed into the Shenandoah. And upstream of Harpers Ferry in some Potomac tributaries, acidified by coal-mining runoff, there lived no fish at all.

But this week exactly 40 years ago Democrats and Republicans came together to pass the landmark legislation known as the Clean Water Act. We can only hope that the results of the upcoming November elections will not be so radical as to unleash an anti-regulatory fervor undoing this great achievement.

Walter Nicklin