We feel farming as a work of tender love, and we need to share a story, full of grief and praise, about this place.
We farm in the floodplain of Blacks Run, which flows through our backyards. In numerous places Blacks Run has been forced underground, like a fugitive in its own home, a hydrological version of house arrest. Its natural flooding has turned into a traumatic reaction to this concrete claustrophobia, spilling out of its bed more than its share of sediment, nutrients, and chemicals. And yet the stream still supports snapping turtles, Mulberry, Willow, and Walnut, which we tap for the sweet sap and harvest the rich nuts. This is a marginal and fertile place.
Our stretch of stream runs through a neighborhood flanked by poultry factories and the Northeast Neighborhood, the historic segregated area that began as a township of free people of color and escapees of enslavement. Originally called Newtown, Harrisonburg absorbed it around 1892. In the 1960s, the city government used federal redevelopment funds in an effort called Project R4 to dismantle a large portion of the neighborhood, forcing black families to sell their homes through eminent domain and bulldozing the neighborhood in the name of urban renewal. To accomplish this, the city planning office declared the black community a slum. And yet it is still home to most of Harrisonburg’s predominantly black churches and the Lucy Simms Continuing Education Center, the historic schoolhouse for black students during segregation. Some community members are calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hold the City accountable and to heal these wounds.
Route 11 passes between us and the Northeast Neighborhood. That road was once called the Valley Turnpike, or the Great Wagon Road, and it was part of the thousand-mile-long passageway for the Slave Trail of Tears: a forced migration that deported nearly one million enslaved people, over a fifty year period, from the Tobacco South of Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky, to the Cotton South of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Shenandoah was wheat country when this chained caravan came through. One-fifth of the region’s farmers were enslaved Africans. Before 1900, the Slave Trail of Tears was the largest and longest movement of people in the history of North America.
Our city of Harrisonburg, within Rockingham County, now has a population of about 50,000 people, 25% of whom live below the poverty line, a percentage over twice the state average, and almost 80% are white. Almost 2,000 refugees have settled in Harrisonburg since 2002, with 55 languages spoken in the public schools. Also known as Rocktown, Harrisonburg is in the Shenandoah Valley, a basin of ridges and valleys within the Ridge and Valley subsection of the Great Appalachian Valley. This two-hundred-mile basin is hemmed in by the Allegheny Mountains to the west, the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east, and the Potomac and James Rivers to the north and south respectively. A national park stretches along those eastern Blue Ridge Mountains. Its founding forced the eviction of 465 families, some physically removed from homes that were then burned.
Elk, deer, and bison once grazed in the Valley’s grasslands. The uplands raised Southern Long Leaf Pines, perhaps encouraged by human-made fires. Shenandoah is carpeted with mixed hardwood forests growing from fertile limestone soil, the leftovers of an ancient shallow sea. The valley’s circulatory system is the eponymous river and its watershed, wrapping around the mountainous spine of Massanutten, which might stem from a Cherokee word meaning breadbasket. We’ve found Chestnut still sprouting from diseased stumps on the ridge. The Shenandoah River includes two forks almost 100 miles each until they converge for 55 miles, flowing northeast into the Potomac River and then southeast to the Chesapeake Bay and into the ocean. Our watershed runs into the world.
People have lived in the Shenandoah Valley for over 10,000 years, at first gathering, hunting, and then gardening in seasonal camps within the old grasslands and woodlands of the Valley. According to official history, Siouan, Algonquian, and possibly Muskogean-language tribes shared hunting territories and trading paths that Route 11 and I-81 loosely imitate. Officially, these nomadic people were mostly gone by the time of European occupation, but archaeologists have found the remains of permanent villages. The first white settlers remembered seeing remnants of mound builders, sophisticated farmers, and stone cairn cemeteries in the bottomlands of the Seven Bends of Shenandoah. Farmers struggled to plow their fields because of the density of the earthworks, some of which were appropriated into forts during the Civil War and others were later leveled. A farmer and former neighbor, now returned to dust, uncovered agricultural tools over 7,000 years old in the streambed below his fields.
European settlers plowed the prairie into diversified farms, using timber from Pine and Oak to construct housing and growing mixed crops (influenced by Irish, English, and German immigrants, and enslaved West Africans). Shenandoah was the United States’ primary producer of wheat, known as the breadbasket of the Confederacy, until the Midwest was taken from indigenous people and other prairies turned upside down. Now, poultry and eggs, cattle, dairy, and vineyards are the main forms of agriculture. Corporations like DuPont, Tyson, and Merck have made the Valley one of the most industrialized regions of Virginia. The American Farmland Trust designated Shenandoah as one of the most threatened agricultural regions in the United States due to housing development, agribusiness, and industry.
No one knows the exact origins of the indigenous name Shenandoah. The most popular, and unlikely, etymology is that it means “Beautiful Daughter of the Stars.” Some believe it derives from Schin-han-dowi, the “River through the Spruces”; others say it comes from On-an-da-goa, the “River of High Mountains” or “Silver-Water”; still others believe it is an Iroquois word for “Big Meadow.” One tradition says that the name descends from the Senedo, a branch of the Haudenosaunee who once lived in the Valley and were wiped out by the Catawba and Cherokee. Maybe the name comes from Sherando, a Haudenosaunee chief driven to the Great Lakes by the Powhatan Confederacy. According to an Oneida oral tradition, the pine chief Skenandoa sent corn to Valley Forge during a harsh winter to aid George Washington, who subsequently named the river and valley after him.
Now we live and grow here, taking root for a spell. Doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly requires us to tell the truth: this land, beloved by us, is the site of violence through displacement, enslavement, a civil war about the right to expand both, and a capitalist industrial agriculture dependent on fossil fuels and poorly-paid workers. And here we are, working for healing and repair and love. This is an uncomfortable form of respect to offer this place and its history, not easily made peaceful with our colonizing presence. And yet we must talk about affection, about reparation, about gratitude, about remediating the toxins that pollute our souls, society, and soil. Our hope is that we can become like medicinal herbs, native or naturalized, for one another and our homes, for as long as we need to be here. Hopefully, we can all grow a culture where it’s easier to love, be loved, and be free from violence and waste.
This is where we are.