An old land, forever young

What, I asked the roomful of young people gathered one recent Saturday morning at the Washington Baptist Church, would they remember in 50 years? That big algebra test next week? The fun date Saturday night? The newest smartphone app? A President’s unpresidential tweets?

They might be surprised. For my hunch was they’ll remember pretty much what I remember — now that I am old enough to look back a full half-century myself. And I know I’m surprised.

The memories that remain most vivid and thus formative for me all somehow involve nature, my encounters and immersions in the world outside myself: Hiking, camping, biking and, most of all, canoeing — the Rappahannock, its tributaries like the Thornton and the Hazel, and — just across the mountains — the Shenandoah. Outdoors, everything was such a new discovery it was as though I were the very first person here on Earth.

Like they are now, I was a Boy Scout. And like all self-absorbed teenagers, I spent most of my time, when not outdoors, looking inward. Today’s social media only accentuates that inward-looking, solipsistic gaze.

But outdoors where the Boy Scouts took me — in the woods or on the rivers — I began to fashion an identity beyond myself, anchored in a sense of time and place. The 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger had a word for this — Dasein — “being there.” Humans are not simply isolated subjects (“I think, therefore I am”). Rather, we truly exist only in relation to the rest of the world. That’s when we’re most alive.

“Just around the next bend.” Sometimes said out loud, more often unspoken, and simply thought: I can still hear that phrase now, a half-century later, as clearly, as loudly as if it were today. Just around the next bend in the river: I didn’t appreciate it then, but that phrase pretty much encapsulates what life is all about — conjuring up an exciting mixture of anticipation and apprehension, discovery and sanctuary.

What would happen next, around that very next bend in the river? A roller-coaster-like rapid so steep that it would feel like a waterfall? Would I capsize…or be so thrilled that I’d want to run it again and again? Or maybe something entirely different, perhaps the perfect swimming hole, situated beneath a hemlock-lined cliff? Or sighting some skittish, thirsty wildlife, in which case your paddling should be stealth-like? Or, after hours of strenuous paddling, now tired and ravenous, you hope it’s finally the take-out bridge?

If indeed it turned out to be the take-out spot, the comforting, final reward might be just down the road in Culpeper at Baby Jim’s: hamburgers and milkshakes so well-earned that to this day they remain the best I’ve ever tasted.

While running the Rappahannock and its tributaries, I also began to understand the land and why it was settled the way it was. The river’s fall line marked the point as far upstream as ocean-going sailing vessels could travel, and so the towns of Falmouth and Fredericksburg were built there. West of the fall line rolled the Piedmont foothills of the Blue Ridge, the first frontier.

To look at those mountains now, you’d have no idea that when formed 300 million years ago in the Appalachian orogeny, they were as tall as the Himalayas and extended to what is now the fall line. Or that the sediments of their eroded remnants is what would create east of the fall line what we now call Tidewater Virginia.

In this respect, geology seems a lot like psychology: you seldom know what personal history lies at the heart of someone else. It could be as psychologically disruptive as tectonic plates colliding. So to label someone a jerk (or worse) might simply be a reflection of your own ignorance. Or as Boy Scouts are taught, “Be kind.” Nature is not always kind; but it doesn’t hurt still to try.

Meanwhile, future generations will be relying on the kindness of strangers, namely us, to protect the planet from polluters and their political allies who act like jerks.