James River driftwood finds new home, meaning

December 19, 2013 · 5 minute read

It’s been a tough few weeks. Due to illness and injuries, I’ve had to curb my running and outdoor activities. So when it came time to write a post for a website devoted to outdoor recreation, I found myself with a bit of a challenge. I like to write about the outdoors from a personal perspective. How can I write such a piece when my busted feet and ankles keep me on the couch? I look out the window.

"Log" hard at work.

“Log” hard at work.

Just outside my backdoor is an old, clunky block of wood adorned with a smaller piece of wood with a wine glass painted on it. Over the years it has propped up many Halloween pumpkins, held beverages and supported tools and lumber used in home-improvement projects. This weather-worn slab is a constant part of my at-home outdoor experiences. Beyond that, it reminds me of my lifelong love of the James River and the job that changed my life.

Many years ago I was rambling around the river in a borrowed canoe. I paddled around for hours near old canal structures and between rocks until I decided to stop at an island to rest. Not far from where I tied up, I found oddly spaced piles of large, cut beams.  Most were at least 12 inches square and many of them approached 10 feet in length. They were very large and very heavy. They were the sort of beams one would see exposed in old warehouses and restaurants in Shockoe Slip.  They were cut over a century ago and had been lying on the island for many years – perhaps picked up by flood waters at some long forgotten mill site and dropped at my rest spot when the water receded. I had to have one. I chose the largest one I could carry: 20 inches tall, 12 inches square and weighing 75 pounds. It was fun to haul it to the canoe and paddle more than a mile against the current as it bumped around in the bow so I could get it back to where I parked.

“Log,” as my wife Heather patiently dubbed it, has been resting on my deck ever since. It has been a faithful piece of outdoor furniture, outlasting three barbeque grills, two tables and one outdoor fireplace. I love Log. It has been there in good times and bad.

One of those bad times was around nine years ago. I had been laid off for months and was depressed because there just weren’t any good job prospects. I had worked in a variety of fields: archaeology, museum education and even antiques, but none of them worked out like I hoped. I had no direction. I spent most days alone at home while Heather worked. I applied for a few jobs, had a few interviews and gained a lot of weight. When I had nothing else to do, I just sat outside next to Log.

The JRPS headquarters under construction in the early 1970s.

The JRPS headquarters under construction in the early 1970s.

One day Heather saw a job advertised in the newspaper. The Richmond parks department was looking for someone to conduct environmental and historical programs. The ad did not impress me much, but I figured it would be a pretty good job until something better came along. At least I would be near the river. I applied. Weeks later, I was notified that I was selected to interview for the job. The location was a rather old and rundown building (since renovated) that hangs over the south bank of the James River. When I walked in, I met Ralph White, Nathan Burrell and Peter Bruce.  It turned out to be one of the most important moments in my life.

I did not know it right away but within a few weeks I realized I had found my calling. (That is not a statement I make lightly.) Working among so much natural and historical beauty, learning from such an expert staff and sharing it all with such enthusiastic volunteers, gave me the direction I needed. The James River Park is a community charged with passion for the river, and the feeling is infectious. I was hooked. I had always considered myself a river fan but this was different – I became one of its champions. Though I do not work for the James River Park System anymore, I will never forget the lessons I learned there or the invaluable mentorship of Ralph. It is an experience that guides my work as an environmental educator today.

One of my favorite programs at the James River Park is the “Frog’s Eye Tour.” Kids and adults get to explore the river at eye level as they float in lifejackets among the islands and riffles. While leading one of these tours, I found Log Part Deux.  As I was guiding a bunch of kids over a rocky knob, I spotted a flash of white under the water. I reached down and picked up an old wooden plaque painted with a white shape that resembled a canoe paddle or wine glass. It depends on who you ask. It had two screw holes that showed it was attached to something else before. It was a totally random find and I had to keep it. It was screwed onto Log that day. They were meant to be one.

I think it is sort of poetic that my favorite piece of outdoor furniture is composed of two old wooden scraps retrieved from the James River years apart. It represents a life spent outdoors and a career dedicated to protecting and promoting the river.  (The fact that it visually represents a preoccupation with wine is not lost on me either.) Every time I see Log, I think of the day I struggled to pull it off the island, the time I spent looking for direction, the day I found the plaque while guiding families through the water – and the job that made it all come together.