Darkness creeps slowly across the Lower James River. It begins in the late afternoon, when the day trippers paddle their way back to shore and the last barges steamroll from Richmond to Chesapeake; then come the crickets, then the owls, then the coyotes. At last, the purple smoke from the Phillip Morris factory in the distance fades to black, and nothing is left but the sound of dark water lapping against the banks of Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.
But on some nights, the brave souls who sneak out to shoot fireworks on the holidays swear they see a woman in a rocking chair watching them. She sits on the front porch of the lonesome island cabin, contemplating the stars, perhaps, or plotting against the miscreants who so flamboyantly violate federal law.
A woman in black? No— a black woman in tan, with a fiery gaze and a mischievous smile. For what is she waiting? For whom is she watching? The revelers never learn….
Her name is Virginia.
Were you expecting some kind of eco-friendly ghost story? Nah, that’s played out— if that’s what you’re here for, go read the Lorax. That book will give you some disturbingly coherent nightmares. I read it the other day, and there’s a character in there called the Once-ler. Teddy wasn’t messing around.
Virginia, on the other hand, is a real person. Virginia is not her real name— these federal employees deserve their privacy, you understand— but she does live on Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, alone. Officially, she is an intern for the Department of the Interior, but practically, she is the caretaker of 1300 acres of land, accessible only by boat. One Tuesday, when I get a break from pulling privet at another refuge, I motor over to go help Virginia plant milkweed. She meets me and my DOI elders at the Presquile dock, shovel in hand.
What’s the shovel for?
“The kids always ask about that,” says Virginia. “It’s just my shovel. You never know when you’ll need a shovel.”
The kids she refers to— always “the kids” or “the kiddos,” never “the students”— are part of the James River Association program that brings children from Richmond Public Schools out to the island for the night. Virginia paddles them over and teaches them about the Wildlife Refuge, though she spends much of her time trying to convince them not to ram their canoes into each other, or calmly reiterating that the granddaddy-long-legs is unrelated to the black widow.
When I ask her what elementary school-kids are up to these days, she crouches down next to an oak tree. “Look! I’m playing Fortnite!”
“Sounds like they’re up to a lot.”
“It’s a lot,” she says. “But there’s always one kiddo that’s just in awe of the river and the trees and the wildlife. If you can inspire just one of them, there you go— you’ve planted the seed.”
After a brief meeting, I ride out with Virginia to go plant milkweed, a native species that monarch butterflies love. Part of me feels like I’m invading her home, but she’s also quiet— unassuming— disarmingly aware of the fact that Homo sapiens came out of the land and have never truly owned any of it.
At least not for very long. That Phillip Morris smokestack peeks from behind the pineywoods like a lit cigarette. I guess Altria owns that land. For now.
Virginia has only been here a month, but as she takes me around the property, she points with precision to all the invasive species she has to kill— Tree-of-Heaven, Canada thistle, et cetera. She calls out to some of the animals, too, as if she knows them by name. “Becky, get your ass out of here!” she barks at a rabbit, who looks over at her before scurrying into a mound of brush. “I’m not dealing with you today, Becky!”
If you’ve made it this far into the story, you can probably tell why I’m spending my days uprooting invasive species for the government instead of writing for the Washington Post.
Did I bury the lede? Did I forget any Key Details? Have I forgotten all the AP Style rules they spent four years teaching me?
Virginia is a native of Hampton, VA and graduated from the Virginia Tech Forestry school.
Virginia hopes to be a park ranger someday, and is working the internship in the meantime for the ~experience~ (and the stipend).
Virginia, 23, is twenty-three.
Virginia buys her groceries once every six weeks, and she can only buy what she can fit in her canoe, which is the longest part of her commute.
Now you know the Five W’s about Virginia. Go looking for her, I dare you— just remember, she’s got a shovel.
When I decided to re-open Bottom Shelf Whiskey for submissions, I knew I wanted to write non-fiction articles highlighting the People of Richmond— like People of New York,without the faux-candid pictures and comment-section navel-gazing. The problem is that I’m a young writer with a psycho-philosophical bent running a publication about Generally Funky Shit. Naturally, I’ve been looking for some way to channel my angst into a cleverly constructed narrative, which is a terrible way to go about writing anything.
The theme for the past few months on my end— and a huge reason that I’ve been on hiatus— is a sort of chronic frustration with the Way The World Works. By the time you graduate, you’re supposed to have figured it out. After all, son, that’s just the Way The World Works.
I’ve had four years to prepare and I still haven’t learned. After all, you don’t have to be some Scooby-Doo Deadhead to look around at the concrete and wonder why the human race bothered to come down from the trees in the first place. It’s hard to get the seretonin you need when you lock yourself in a cinderblock cage from 9 until 5. Then it’s up again the next day, and thirty minutes of driving to wherever you’re going, and four hours of staring at some flourescent screen made in a Chinese sweat-shop,and thirty more minutes of driving to go swipe your plastic for something resembling hamburger meat….
Besides her humility and quick wit— and her passion for Molding Young Minds— what appeals to me most about Virginia is her apparent disinterest in all of this self-important malarkey.
“Do you get up at sunrise?”
“Oh, yeah. And I go to bed around 10— not long after sunset. Not much to do here at night except sleep. I did see a fireworks show once, though— some crazies setting them off on the water over the holidays….”
I don’t want to suggest that Virginia just mills about the island all day and minds her business. Every time that I’ve met her, she’s been knee-deep in Presquile soil, spraying invasives or planting new trees or helping a box turtle find his way home. Backbreaking work, really— I’m hobbling after only four hours, and this is an off day. Usually she’s corralling dozens of elementary schoolers, simultaneously teaching them the importance of biodiversity and keeping them from wreaking the kind of juvenile havoc only 7-year-olds are capable of.
Our last task of the day is to plant new cypress trees along the shore-line. Darkness is starting to roll in now, or maybe that’s just another storm gathering. Virginia and I dig holes— you never know when you’ll need a shovel— and snack on wild strawberries. She’s telling me about what she does in her free time, which mostly includes cooking and drawing.
“Acrylic or oil?” I ask. “Or pen and paper?”
“I’ve got a tablet,” she says. “I’m not so good with the pen-and-paper stuff. But I’m trying to diagram all the birds on the island, for the kiddos. Something to leave behind.”
“You’ll have to e-mail me some of the pictures.”
She fixes me with a suspicious look. “You’re really putting the spotlight on me, huh?”
At this point, I still haven’t told her about Bottom Shelf Whiskey. Best to get that out of the way so she doesn’t think I’m prying into her affairs for no reason. After all, you don’t move to an empty island because you like strangers asking you questions.
“I can see the story now,” I tell her, once I finish my rundown. “Virginia, River Queen.”
“So you’re some writer, huh?”
“Well, I’d like to be,” I say. “You can’t just graduate college and go be a writer. Maybe I just need some more free time.”
She grins again— a knowing smile, quicker than lightning. “I think I’ve got a job for you, then.” She waves a hand around her, and I turn to take in the canopy we’ve worked our way under— big shady oak trees, ivy vines strangled around fallen logs, a carpet of moss, the grey water murmuring in the distance. It occurs to me that as soon as it gets a bit darker, I’ll be on my way back over to my side of the river, and then I’ll drive home, and eat dinner, and maybe pick my sister up from Short Pump, and I’ll see a thousand faces along the way…and Virignia will walk up the hill to her cabin.
“Yeah, you know, that’s one thing I haven’t asked you,” I say. “What’s it like out here? How does it feel to live the way we were meant to?”
Now the smile is gone and her eyes intensify— a long stare, unflinching, strangely beautiful. The crickets are chirping again. “It’s lonely.”
“Is that right?”
She smiles knowingly. “Oh child,” she says, kneeling down to dig another hole. “If only you had any idea….”