Connections Essay - Virginia Geography
Previous Rethink Answers
Geography at Mount Vernon
What a view! That’s me in the cupola at George and Martha Washington’s Mt. Vernon. It’s a perfect perch for a geographer. It’s almost like the buildings and grounds are morphing into a map. And if we could soar like an eagle (or like Google Earth), we would have an even better synoptic view of this landscape. Had our eagle studied geography, he would also have a box of tools to help understand this and every other part of Virginia’s – and the nation’s – history.
I’ve already used one of the geographer’s favorite words: landscape. It’s what we see when we look out the window. Geographical analysis often starts with the physical components: land and water, weather and climate, plants and animals. We see the Potomac River, looking essentially as it did to the Washingtons. In fact, it may have been this view and the contours of the land that commended this very location for the Mansion House. And it was certainly that river, close-at-hand, which made life at Mt. Vernon possible. It was a lifeline to the outside world: both near (think Alexandria) and far (think London). In some measure, the Potomac was the Internet of its day.
From the cupola, I see not only the land’s physique, I see a landscape transformed by human action. From the grassy lawn sloping down to the Potomac to the built environment of the “palace grounds,” I see a cultural landscape. And evident here is so much interaction between physical and human geography – as there is all over Virginia. Those relationships between human beings and the environment are what geographers call human-environment interaction.
Mt. Vernon’s raison d’être was farming – an important form of human-environment interaction. Climate both permits and sets limits on crop production, terrain complicates cultivation, critters creep up from the creek to consume crops that were meant for Mt. Vernon’s tables or the market. That’s all geography. The relationships go both ways: physical geography influences (but does not determine) how we live our lives, and our lives transform the physical environment. It eventually becomes hard to separate the physical from the cultural.
Transportation – and the broader theme of geographic movement – is also influenced by physical geography. Virginia was a lucky colony. Nature built its highways: the tidal James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac Rivers, not to mention the Chesapeake Bay. No ruts on rivers, and they don’t liquify when it rains because they are already liquid. In fact, the liquid does the lifting; it’s called buoyancy. Ships take advantage of the system, and trade, a form of spatial interaction, evolves. From my perch above it all, I can imagine ships headed to Alexandria to pick up some hogsheads of tobacco; I can see a delivery of precious glass for the “big house” – perhaps for this very cupola – arrive at the wharf; I discern a skiff with some of Washington’s slaves out on the river looking for fish. I see lots of movement, and my mind puts it on a map where I can study it.
Mount Vernon is one of the places – yet another important geographic theme – we associate with America’s first President. His spirit still lives here and gives us a strong sense of place. We visit Mount Vernon because we deeply believe that by experiencing the place that the Washington’s called home, we can better understand the surveyor, the farmer, the general, the President. Places are the stages on which events unfold, and those events are always shaped in some way by physical and human geography. Make a list of other places in Virginia that you associate with George Washington. Is Dismal Swamp on your list? Alexandria? Yorktown? Fredericksburg? Ferry Farm? Keep going.
When you are finished, map them out. And then, get going. Start wearing out some shoe leather and learning geography the way it should be learned – on the soles of your feet. When you are finished, you will understand the Washington of history so much better, and you will have immersed yourself in an important geographic tradition: field work. But, before you turn in for the night, be sure to visit the federal city, the city we call Washington. Just think of the power of that place name: it forces us to keep Washington alive. Two centuries after the father of our country walked the Virginia earth, the name Washington crosses our lips or tympanums every single day.
I hate to descend and leave this magnificent view behind, but I must be off to Monticello, another important place. That means a trip from the western edge of the coastal plain to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now we’re talking regions. Each of these areas shares a set of common characteristics, and that is what makes them regions.
What will Monticello tell me about Thomas Jefferson? And what will the landscapes between here and there tell me about who we are as Virginians and Americans? As you study the history of Virginia, you will learn a lot of geography as well. You will find that geography helps you understand history so much better, and that history helps you see Virginia’s contemporary geography so much more clearly.
Read this essay and then continue to the next page.