One suffocating summer Saturday in Richmond when I was in high school, in the 1970s, my friend suggested we go for a swim in the James River. We’d spent the preceding weeks in a windowless, air-conditioning-free downtown warehouse, building sets for a production at the city’s outdoor stage, Dogwood Dell. We’d probably lost our body weight in sweat and gained it again in the cheap, sugary, livid purple and green “bug juice” we bought and drank by the gallon. The thought of jumping into cool, fresh water was irresistible.
To get to the river required a long walk, considerable trespassing and, if I remember correctly, wading through a tick-haven of tall grass. But finally we stood on the bank, just above Bosher Dam, west of the city. We plunged in. It was wonderful.
When my friend’s mother found out about our adventure, I believe she may have blanched. She seemed astonished and horrified in equal measure. Did we have any idea what was in that river?
…to the river, overdevelopment is a slow death from a thousand cuts.
We didn’t. I knew that longtime Richmonders spoke of the river with a sort of hushed horror, as though it were a neighbor’s daughter fallen into ruination and sin. I’d always put that down to some kind of irrational, citified dread of the river’s untamed wilderness of rocks and currents. I didn’t know that the James we’d been swimming in was contaminated at that time by a witch’s brew of industrial toxins, pesticides, chemical fertilizers and raw sewage. I didn’t know that Kepone had recently made the river a national byword for environmental disaster.