Proof of Life, No. 4
The End of Longing
by Wayne David Hubbard
I have lost count of the open meadows, woodlands, and farms leveled into new housing and commercial developments. The speed of change in a few short years have rendered whole landscapes unrecognizable.
Last year I joined a poetry project to write poems in support of environmental conservancy. I was soon acquainted with Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve – a protected land that forms the southern range of the Blue Ridge mountains at the tri-border of Fauquier, Clark, and Prince William Counties.
I wrote my poems (audio above) on long hikes through its forests, when a question began to haunt me: In times of relentless change, how does a place resist and manage to stay the same?
When I began to research the history of the mountains, I was surprised to learn that its beautiful forests and streams had only narrowly survived several major threats, before being officially protected.
For geographic context, the entrance to the natural area preserve is minutes away from Virginia Interstate 66. Every day about 80,000 vehicles pass by less than 100 yards away, many traveling east and west from Washington, D.C. (Mercifully, the local roads are designed so that there is no direct access from the highway.)
In 1990, a longtime resident once described Bull Run as, “The first mountain you come to if you walk west from the Atlantic Ocean.” Since 2002 the natural preserve has been under the stewardship of Virginia Outdoors Foundation. The entire place is steeped in wild beauty and history.
Concerning its history, some will recognize the name “Bull Run” as the small river where the first battles of the American Civil War occurred in nearby Manassas, Virginia. In the mid 1700s, a farmer named William Bull built a settlement far upstream in these mountains. This is how the river got its name.
Regarding the mountain terrain, centuries ago, the southern portions of these Blue Ridge mountains were often referred to as “the broken hills”. The northern mountain portions are very rugged, and to the south (where the terrain breaks up) existed the only place passable by wagon and foot.
In the 1800s, this topography formed natural paths for rail lines and trade routes before the invention of cars. Its ridges demarcated Civil War skirmishes. And there is lore of its rough terrain providing concealment for the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes that brought enslaved people to freedom during the dark period of American slavery.
Considering the volume of human activity in its vicinity, it seemed extraordinary that Bull Run Mountain Preserve – its rocky hills, deep forests, and hidden creeks – remained wild.
This paradise was almost erased.
In the early 1990s the Walt Disney corporation attempted to purchase large swaths of land in Haymarket, Virginia, only 4 miles east of the mountains. Disney planned to build a sprawling new amusement park called Disney America. It would have attracted millions of visitors and transformed the region economically.
Knowing what we know today about Disney, the human impact would have eradicated the southernmost flank of these Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounding meadows.
The people of the region challenged Disney in the courts and in the press. And the people won. Disney built amusement parks elsewhere.
Years later, another threat arose. An organization called Virginia Jockey Club sought a multimillion plan to build a racetrack within the mountains. Nearby to the north is historically known as Virginia Horse Country. The jockey club found the mountains ideal for expanding their operation.
Again, the people rallied to preserve the mountains until the club withdrew their effort. Peace for the natural habitat was won.
A third threat came from the State of Virginia – Department of Conservation and Recreation. Their goal was to establish new state parks, and Bull Run Mountain was high on this list. Against this threat, not only did local people fight the State; the mountains seemed to advocate for itself.
The people who knew these hills knew best. The mountains were uninhabitable. In fact, generations of people had reached the same conclusion, as far back as the times of George Washington. The State of Virginia was not deterred. Many land surveys, plan reviews, and debates ensued until the facts were clear. The level of destruction required to create the new state park would outweigh the benefits. In short, it cost too much, and the environmental damage was too great to justify widening roads and building facilities for more public access.
The mountains were best left alone – wild – as they always had been. The State abandoned its plan.
As these dramas played out in the foreground, local civic associations patiently donated and consolidated land tracts into a trust for long term protection. This took generations of will and resistance, and a sort of a David versus Goliath tenacity.
And thanks to them, many people can enjoy these mountains which look much the same as one hundred years ago. The Bull Run Mountains are a special achievement and a study in preservation.
The natural area is open on weekends for hiking and land management activities. Hopefully it will remain so for another century to come.