We walked today to Bunnyfield Plantation, where MacArthur sweeps into 19th Street, cattycorner from the Lutheran church grounds which is mostly a grassy hillside sloping down to a berm where South Street bisects 19th.
The roadside there is mostly a thicket of wood, a narrow strand two or three deep running along South Street at the bottom of the hill, probably planted for flood control. Reeds and cattails grow beneath the berm, a spot that gets marshy during rainy seasons. The gentle slope is good for flying kites in spring or sledding in winter, especially if you are a parent of small children who doesn’t want to risk them on the more harrowing hill, about a quarter mile west, behind the cemetery down to 40 Highway.
Blue Springs Park sits on the south side of South Street. There are a lot of parks in this town. The park is about the furthest we ever walk together. I don’t know about when he gallivants on his own.
The neighborhood is a relic of Post War Bourgeoisia, a sound-stage set for a 1950s movie, something Thornton Wilder squinted out of his fevered imagination.
It is obviously a planned development. The houses are contemporary with one other. Trees stand in rows so straight they look like one tree looking down the numbered streets. Numbered streets run north to south; named streets are an east-west axis. In the late 1940s some developer divvied up the rolling hillside property into lots for homes for the men who saved the world as they came home from Europe and the Pacific, married sweethearts, took their jobs, and begin creating young families.
The homes they built were small by 21st Century Middle Class standards. They must have been cozy at the time. Today they’re resold as starter homes but some of the original owners still bunker down in their castle, wondering what happened to the world they knew. These house’s rooms are compact and spare, the electric systems weren’t designed for the appliances and tools and toys created in the cauldron of creative productivity that comes when all your economic rivals are smoldering ruins.
In those days America needed a strong Middle Class to counter the Soviet proletarian propaganda. Wages were high, workers were organized. There was so much wealth Madison Avenue had to manufacture needs to consume it. People bought so many things these houses could no longer hold them and many families moved to more spacious homes in neighborhoods designed to display their residents’ status.
Today the neighborhood might be described as Lower Middle Class, though the Middle Class in America isn’t what it used to be. There’s a fairly even split between young, working class families and retired folks. Realtors’ notices pop up & down across the neighborhood as families grow beyond their home’s size or as widows die. The families who move in and out are mostly but not exclusively white.
Neighborhood yards and porches display a veritable Spectrum of Kitsch: From the lily pad wind chimes on a crackerbox with yellow shutters all the way up to OMG it’s the Kitsch Museum! Leon reminds me I want to do a photo essay of the Spectrum of Kitsch. I remind him how incredibly difficult it is to photograph anything with him tagging along. He says nothing.
I heard the distinctive twee-twee chirp-chirp-chirp high above me in the barely budding trees. I recognized the call. “How are you, Your Eminence?” I responded, scanning the branches for the source of the sound.
Twee twee! Chirp chirp chirp! came his versicle.
Leon was eager to reach the Plantation. He’s more interested in the things on the ground than things in the trees. “Hold on a minute,” I told him.
Twee twee! Chirp chirp chirp!
And there he was, robed in scarlet feathers, head pointed like a mitre, chanting spring psalms amid yellow-green February buds. Cardinal cardinalis.
Cardinals always remind me of Virginia.
Leon dragged me towards the corner. He enjoys teasing other dogs confined to yards by tethers or by gates. He ignores the irony of me holding a leash. Some of the humans I recognize to nod or wave.
Our destination is a narrow sliver of land snuggling into the crook of the roadway at the bottom of a hill.
This vacant lot may have once held a house. There are several neighborhood lots where a house once stood but doesn’t, for whatever reason. Adjacent homeowners have absorbed some of these. Others just sit fallow. Near the road a weathered realtor’s bill reminds passersby that someone somewhere wants to get out from under the lot’s property taxes.
Once or twice a summer that beleaguered taxpayer sends a landscape crew to mow the open spaces. Open is relative. The southern edge of the lot is thicket swallowing an old section of fence bordering a utility easement. A strand of trees follows 19th into the curve. There is a 5’ tall section of chain-link fence stretching between a pair of posts, overgrown with brush and vines from a copse of tall trees at the east side of the lot. The section of steel fence seems out-of-place.
Leon and I call this lot The Plantation. Well, I do, and he humors me. The Plantation is short for Bunnyfield Plantation. Which is kind of a joke. Because it’s a field. Where bunnies live.
The name Bunnyfield is a nod to Bellfield Plantation.
There is a National Park in Virginia called the Colonial Parkway. The parkway is a road connecting Yorktown with Jamestown by way of Williamsburg, the so-called Historic Triangle. For 23 miles a driver can wend her way through a wooded world uncluttered with modernity. Other than her car. The drive passes below picketed redoubts and 18th Century cannon guarding the Yorktown battlefield, cuts through miles of thick forest, stretches past sandy beaches and reed York River marshes at one end and James River wetlands at the other. It is dotted with more Historical Markers per mile than any other section of the United States and tourists have been known to run out of supplies and starve during attempts to pull off the road and read every marker.
One of the signs overlooking the York points the curious to the proximate ruins of Bellfield Plantation. The sign is terse. Two early Virginia governors lived here, John White and Edward Digges. White built on the land in 1632. Digges bought it from him in 1650, using it to grow premium tobacco and experiment with silkworms.
That was long before anyone called it Bellfield Plantation.
Actually, the word plantation is misleading. This is not Tara. Not one of those cotton-picking Deep South sprawls we imagine fueling the Civil War. The still-visible foundations of Captain John White’s colonial brick home hardly meet modest by today’s standards. But any European house with four walls and a roof must have seemed luxurious surrounded by the thick, primeval forest these colonists cleared.
West, fifth son of Baron De La Ware, had come to the Virginia colony in 1618. In 1630 he got a land grant along the York River where he built a home and planted crops. The grant was strategic: West’s holdings were an outpost meant to contain the Pamunkey People.
The first time I visited the Bellfield site was shortly after my family moved to Hampton Roads. It was my father’s first assignment after returning home from Vietnam. There were five of us children whom my parents used to pack in the family station wagon and tour our new home.
The lower Virginia Peninsula, sandwiched between the James and York rivers, floats much more country in the amber of my memory than perhaps it was. It was more urbane than rural Kansas but not yet the sprawling labyrinth of business parks and malls and ever-more-gregarious housing developments that gobble up the cheese.
We went on countless daytrips. We traipsed through Colonial Williamsburg and the Yorktown Battlefield. We drove the meandering Parkway pulling off to read the signs. My parents passed their fascination with History to me.
The sign said Bellfield was 300 yards to the east. There was a path. Dad parked the car and we set out to find the site.
We almost missed it, skipping as we were to the stone structures ahead of us. “Jack,” Mom said, and Dad stopped, and we thronged around the two as Mom read the plaque describing the house. What we saw was a rectangle in the earth, the faint but quite distinct outline of where the building had been, small and crowded, crumbling clods of red clay thick with lichen marking the shape. It was smaller than the house we lived in, smaller than any housing we ever had. Sure, he built it out of his own hands in the middle of a forest no white man had ever tamed before, but he was a captain—and I knew what that meant—and he was son to a Baron—and I knew what that meant. It was difficult for a boy to imagine what his life must have entailed.
What was left of the erstwhile Governor West’s plantation mansion did not impress the preteen me as much as the Digges family cemetery. By age 10 I had seen gravestones and cemeteries before. They were the setting for hundreds of scary stories. What I had never seen was such a small plot. There, in a clearing about the size of our yard at home, surrounded by woods as deep as my eyes could penetrate, were three free-standing tombs, arranged in an L pattern. They were white, stone, chiseled with a faint inscription where the distinctive descending S sliding through the middle of words was often the only thing that could be read. I was a small boy and the tombs came to my chest, like huge altars in a cathedral sacristy and Mother had to caution us children not to climb on them.
A legion of children must have climbed on those stones. The next time I saw them they were enclosed with a cast iron fence, painted black, protecting them from both thoughtless and deliberate destruction.
There’s nothing about Bunnyfield that reminds me of Bellfield other than being B words that end in field. It’s just a thread, woven in the tapestry of memory draped across my mind.
Leon spends a few minutes sniffing around familiar features of the lot—here a toppled tree, there a weed-wrought hollow—sorting through the scents of other pooches and traces of squirrel or rabbit. After he relieves himself I say, “Let’s go home,” and he turns to trot east up McArthur on our routine return trip.
“Slow down, Four-legs,” I tell him.
“Catch up, Two-legs,” he retorts.
“I can’t walk that fast, especially uphill.”
Walking up the gentle slope recalls how often human history has hinged on conscripted peasants gripping hammered ploughshares and plodding up hills toward foreign conscripts.
“Want to know what I’m thinking about?”
“The history of class struggle?”
“Pretty much. I was thinking how war was usually poor people killing other poor people for the benefit of rich people.”