This month, we are turning over our volunteer spotlight blog to RiverRat Jim Davis for a guest entry on his experience over time with changing litter on the James. We love when our volunteers share their talents and passions with us, from writing to planting and everything in between!
LITTER of ALL SORTS on the JAMES By Jim Davis
I first saw the James River when I was a soldier at Fort Eustis. But I didn’t discover it until I married the daughter of parents who in the 1940s had built a house right on the James at Rushmere, eight miles west of Smithfield. In those days I wasn’t one for boats and fishing, but immediately took to the popular and consuming pastime of walking the beach. There was chat on these excursions, but eyes were always on the sand; the search was for the interesting stuff that might lay there.
Was it litter? Most was, at first, but unlike deposits that accumulate nowadays, it held an appeal.
The Navy’s so-called reserve fleet was anchored not too far upriver from the house and numbered around 800 ships, supposedly waiting for the next national emergency. Apparently, it was necessary to rid newly-added ships of various movable items, for on the beaches, blown there by the persistent northeast wind, we often found debris of great interest to combers. What military field rations were doing on the ships we could not figure. But small, waxed, and unopened olive-drab packets of army C-rations were plentiful. In addition, Oaken benches, about a foot long, showed up in pretty large numbers. To this day one can see these at or near Rushmere, at marinas, sandwich shops and private houses (I have two). But even now, there is more of this sort of litter.
In the days when watermen and industry vigorously worked this area of the James, a pier for receiving steamboats, an oyster processing building and a waterman’s “hut,” or workshop, existed near the beach in our area. The steamboat pier and Captain Wooley’s hut disappeared long ago; the oyster house was burned in my time as training for firefighters. One can still occasionally find the litter of that era: old metal that fell from the ruins, hinges, gears, padlocks, tools and unidentified junk, that is to say, more fascinating things to collect.
More ancient and more legitimately-termed non-litter appears also: Indian projectile points, shards of crocks, eighteenth-century bottles, as well as nineteenth and early twentieth-century unbroken bottles.
But the days of all those interesting items have mostly passed, and we have returned to more ancient litter, though I stretch the term litter to call it that. It consists of fossils from the Miocene and Pliocene eras. These are from the Yorktown Layer
, a band of sand and clay that stretches from Maryland to North Carolina and beyond. Countless fossils amid the gray clay appear in the lower heights of the cliff-like banks, and they are constantly washed out onto the beaches. Chesapecten Jeffersonius, for instance, the official Virginia State Fossil, is the remains of a scallop that flourished about five million years ago. But there are many others: tiny bivalves; very large barnacles, sometimes gathered in hefty patches; coral, often in attractive shapes; teeth from several species of shark (everybody’s favorite), as well as teeth from the toothed whales (Odontoceti); bones of other whales—I use a whale vertebra as doorstop; a conical and spiraled shell known to geologists as Turritella alticostata about two inches long; a stark white tube-shaped shell geologists call Khufus, but I call “pipe stem,” as it resembles the stem of an eighteenth-century clay pipe. This so-called litter is beautiful and fascinating.
But what bothers me is recent stuff, true litter: cans, bottles, plastic bags, heavy plastic oystermens’ gloves, bushel baskets, colorful crab pot floats (cut loose by propellers, leaving the pots as river bottom litter, still, unfortunately, effective as traps). Neighbors collect these floats by the dozens to decorate their yards. There are deflated helium balloons—no telling from how far away, plastic bags (harmful to birds, turtles and other animals that commonly mistake them for food); spent skyrockets from Fourth of July; wooden beams; rope; and wire of various kinds. Once we found a huge tractor tire washed up by a storm. River Rats know the dangers of tires to the watershed. My son used his own tractor to move it away from the water, planning to cut it up with a chainsaw and recycle it, but another storm soon carried it away. We later discovered it about half a mile downstream, partially anchored in the sand. We were unable to free it in one session, and it disappeared in yet another big storm.
After Hurricane Isabel in 2003, of course, one could hardly walk between the belongings of unfortunate householders—drawers from chests, toys, roofing and siding. But none of that shows up between severe storms. The ugly manmade things we usually see (and pick up) are thrown in the James by those who don’t realize that there is no “away.” It all ends up for somebody else to endure or clean up. Jim Davis
We can all agree that trash along the James, its tributaries, and even in our neighborhoods can be a problem. In 2017, JRA volunteers collected over 550 bags of trash and recycling, keeping over 13,000 pounds of litter out of our waterways. Every bit of trash you see outside eventually ends up in our rivers! Take a few seconds to pick up that small piece of trash you see when out and about, or take it one step further and organize a trash cleanup in your neighborhood. JRA will provide all the trash bags, gloves, and grabbers that you need. Always leave your public spaces cleaner than you found them!