Reviews | Is Jamestown worth saving?
It is, at first glance, a bore. It is also endangered. Flooded by rain from above and saturated with groundwater from below, the island is one of 11 remarkable places deemed to be at risk by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The tens of millions of dollars that experts predict will be needed to keep the fort from sinking into the river like a Virginia blue crab seems barely justified for such a desolate spit of land. Better to let it go, some might say, a sunken ship in the watery grave of the American experience.
I say. I was here. A few years ago I visited Jamestown on a research trip. I was writing a novel about two of the first women to inhabit the fort, Temperance Flowerdew, a mover from Jamestown, and an unknown teenage girl, whose battered skull was unearthed during an onsite dig by archaeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery . I had already started to recreate the fort in my head, so, as the imagination always does, I had prepared myself for the inevitable split between reality and fiction.
Once there, I barely recognized the staging that I had detailed in the novel. The real fort had, save for a 17th century steeple, gone the way of a romance by Sir Walter Scott. Apart from the envelope of a rebuilt barracks and the palisades describing the fort, there have been no other attempts at plausibility. The whole thing struck me as an artist’s rendering that didn’t go beyond a cursory sketch.
I spacewalked, straining to recreate the magic, patted a statue of John Smith on his back, and headed for the nearby archaearium. There, things changed.
An archearium is a museum of bones and objects, the detritus of human life. As a general rule, I like fusty collections and can spend hours lost in the organized past. In this place, I lasted all 20 minutes. It wasn’t just me. My travel companion hit the 15 minute mark and headed for the exits, but she’s not one for museums. I, on the other hand, was initially transfixed. Greeting me at the entrance was a lifelike bust of my teenage protagonist, a pretty girl whose melancholy and longing belie her horrible fate. I stayed with her for a while, saddened and reassured at the same time by what she had sacrificed. I should have left then, having paid my respects. Instead, I turned to other bones and personal effects, the full weight of which within minutes weighed on me – the stone arrowhead in the teenager’s femur, a tarnished coin exchanging hands in a game of chance, the thimble and the needle of a skilled seamstress. I had trouble breathing, felt dizzy and nauseous, had to get out of there.
Then my friend and I compared our notes. We had both felt an overwhelming claustrophobia, as if we had been surrounded by a crowd, when apart from us there could have been five visitors.
The brief stay at the archearium, while oddly stuffy, provided context. He sent me straight back to the fort for one last look. This time I walked by and greeted the statue of Pocahontas, née Matoaka. This time I visited the dig sites in which centuries of exposed strata contained the relics of the Powhatan, the English, and clues to the first enslaved Africans at Jamestown. This time, I noticed what I had inexplicably missed during my first visit, the modest cemetery where most of the settlers had found themselves, after a brief mandate, sometimes buried in pairs so as not to risk being buried outside the fort, a sure sign to Virginia Indians that the settlers were down and possibly out.
What I could not imagine before has now come true. I felt the hardship, the grief, the starvation, the single-minded determination to survive of the settlers, the natives and the diaspora. I felt the terrible beauty of an emerging nation. I felt American.
This little patch of land had dredged up something in me that I thought was lost, its painful resurgence precisely for what was lost. Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner might have called it communitiesthe spirit of a people in and out of time and space, in full transition.
The sodden island struggles to stay afloat. Five more years, experts say, and, if nothing is done, the inhospitable place – on which our ancestors risked everything to design a country that finally welcomed the world – could be gone.
Forget the money it would cost to preserve it and consider the enormous price of admitting failure and quitting. In a divided and almost rented 21st century house, plagued by its own existential crises, the fate of Jamestown becomes a metaphor. Save it from the brackish waters of an overheated and reckless climate, and we save the increasingly threatened terra firma from our collective selves.