What was your best experience during this assignment?
I was lucky enough to meet up with Greg Garman, director of Virginia Commonwealth University's brand new Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences, a place that focuses on rivers—especially the James River. The Rice Center is based on a big chunk of land on the north bank of the James, big enough to hold a 70-acre (30 hectares) lake. With ecologist Donald Young, Dr. Garman took me out on the James in one of the center's new boats. The day was lovely enough to make you think about selling your house and immediately moving to Tidewater Virginia.
The James is overfished, busy with shipping, and polluted (though not as badly as it once was). But at that moment it was as calm and quiet as a monastery cloister. Little waves played with the sun, sometimes throwing a gleam into our eyes. The researchers explained to me how different the river is now from what it had been. But I couldn't help thinking that enough of the landscape was left to understand why so many English colonists saw hope for themselves on its banks and why its original inhabitants hung onto it with such tenacity.
What was your worst experience during this assignment?
A couple of years ago I wrote an article about Massachusetts' Plymouth Colony for a publication that shall remain nameless. The reason it shall remain nameless is that one of its editors committed what is in some parts of Virginia a cardinal sin: He labeled one of the pictures in the article as "the first Thanksgiving."
Around Jamestown, this is a sensitive issue. A certain number of people have been heard to complain that the Pilgrims, who arrived in Plymouth 13 years after the start of Jamestown, have somehow swiped all the glory. Especially galling is this whole Thanksgiving bit. Pilgrim records barely mention any feast and don't use the word "thanksgiving"; "entertained and feasted" is as close as they get. Meanwhile, the 1618 charter of Berkeley Plantation, just upriver from Jamestown, told colonists in so many words that the day of their arrival should be "yearly and perpetually kept as a day of Thanksgiving."
Well, the angry letters poured in by the score. Because the article had my name on it, they denounced me—not the editor—as an ignorant Yankee, an apologist for Plymouth, an accomplice to historical fraud, a typical incompetent from the mainstream media. To make it worse, I live in Massachusetts! All of this made me nervous about going to Jamestown in general and Berkeley Plantation in particular. When I met Jamie Jamieson, the plantation's owner, I wondered if I should go incognito. Sitting on a bench in his beautiful riverside gardens, I decided to fess up. Jamieson looked at me for a while. I could hear the wind and the chuckle of the river. Finally he said, "Well, I hear even journalists from Massachusetts can learn."
What was the strangest experience you encountered during this assignment?
A little-known fact about the process of writing a National Geographic article is that the photographer is instructed to take a picture of the writer. Being photographers, they want the photograph to be interesting. Because writers are—for the most part—not particularly photogenic (and I am no exception), they try to take the picture in some compelling place, making the background visually appealing even if the foreground isn't.
Photographer Rob Clark got me to come to the Claude Moore Colonial Farm, a replica of an 18th-century Virginia farm operated outside Washington, D.C., by the National Park Service. There, on a particularly cold January morning, he had me hunker down in a pigsty. In the pigsty were a bunch of tame feral pigs—pigs that look like the wild pigs I mention in the article but that aren't actually wild. I am not fond of pigs. I know, I know. They're intelligent. They don't actually like to wallow in filth; humans just make them do it. Charlotte's Web, etc. I still don't like them. Unfortunately, these pigs were friendly. The way pigs exhibit friendliness, in my experience, is by shoving their round, mucus-covered noses into your clothing. After an hour of this, my parka and pants were covered with sticky circles of pig booger. Did I mention that pig booger has a distinct, rather powerful odor? I had not brought along any extra clothes. That night, I caught a plane home. On the plane my seat was next to that of a very proper woman in business attire. She spent the entire flight pressed up against the other side of her seat, breathing through her mouth.