Editor: Robert M. Riordan
Length: 216 pages
Illustrations: drawings by Megan Grey Rollins
Quote: “Now it is the wild places that stand as outposts, pockets in a matrix of human habitation.”
Virginia’s Nature Conservancy sponsored Uncommon Wealth, an anthology of twenty writers’ descriptions of their favorite landscapes, most of which are of course “protected by” the Nature Conservancy.
Virginia’s three-cornered shape suggests that the essays might have been arranged in some sort of geographical progression. In what may have been a deliberate attempt to break up sectional preconceptions, the essays are instead arranged by historical perspective, classified as “New Ground,” “Old Ground,” or “Roots.” If you read them in order, you’ll be hopping around the state, going straight from the Great Dismal Swamp to the Clinch River, from the Blackwater River to the town called Blackwater.
All three corners of the state are reasonably well represented by writers who live near the places they describe...which, of course, means that there’s more about the northern corner than about the other two. Three writers describe places along the Clinch River, and four describe the southeastern corner of Virginia. One finds an eagle refuge twenty miles from the Capitol; one finds whitewater rafting in Richmond. Scott County, where I live, is represented in this book by Richard Cartwright Austin. (I had a water-damaged copy that was autographed by him.) Rural northern Virginia (along the West Virginia border) is of course represented by both Janet Lembke and Katie Letcher Lyle. Some of the other writers have published nature guides or articles in Audubon and similar magazines; some have written books on non-ecological topics, and some write for local newspapers.
Self-congratulation, a subtle form of boasting, has been part of Virginia’s stereotype for a long time. (“Never ask people where they’re from. If they’re from Virginia they’ll tell you which town; if they’re not, why embarrass them?”) Uncommon Wealth could be considered one big display of self-congratulation...but these places are, in real life, much more interesting than writers could make them. This book really is a celebration of uncommon wealth.
This is why folks in Scott County have mixed feelings about tourism as an economic venture. I think it’s fair to say that we like visitors. We like to hear about the places where they’ve been. But we don’t particularly want to be paved over with amusement parks and outlet stores, like Pigeon Forge. We want a slow, steady trickle of visitors who appreciate what we have that other places don’t have. We have three places that offer lodging to visitors (cheap motel, pricey bed & breakfast, and rustic cabins) and an assortment of places where visitors can eat, but some of us prefer the kind and number of visitors who plan to stay with people they actually know. Not, you know, crowds of tourists. Not bus loads. Our uncommon wealth is “wild.”
So are most of the places discussed in Uncommon Wealth. They’re not private homes and farms, but neither are they widely advertised or commercialized. Not everyone who lives in the nearest town or county will necessarily even know where the nature preserve, park, or refuge is. You can visit these places yourself, and it won’t cost a great deal of money to get in once you’re in the area...but you will need to know, or get to know, somebody who trusts you to take only pictures and leave only footprints. The Nature Conservancy is, of course, the place to begin making the connections you’ll need: https://www.nature.org/about-us/index.htm?intc=nature.tnav.about .
Uncommon Wealth is recommended to anyone who enjoys being outdoors and is planning to spend some leisure time in Virginia.
It's hard to credit an anthology like this book to an author, but in this case, since each of the writers donated his or her essay to a charity, I'll stretch a point. If you send $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to either of the addresses at the very bottom of the screen, I'll send $1 to the Nature Conservancy. You can include as many books as will fit into one package for the same $5 shipping fee, so please feel free to check out other books discussed here.