HOW MUCH do I love thee, Virginia? I can't even count the ways, nor the persons and places. My Virginia love stretches from the wild ponies on Chincoteague Island to the black bears hibernating in the mountain hollows; from the sand fiddlers on Virginia Beach to the hawks circling over Big Stone Gap. My family, friends, colleagues, students live and die in Virginia. Only here can I, like Prospero, give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name.
My native state is "her," not "it." My feeling for her is complex, conscious and unconscious. But this much I know: This land is good. I have walked on it, dug it, owned it, and I know it. Being here is being home. Going away is missing the mountains, the soft-spoken conversation, the modest elegance, the slow sure pace. We still live by a code of gentility and chivalry that exists not in our books but in our hearts. Critics say ours is not the noblest or wisest of codes. Maybe so. But we keep it -- full of pride and prejudice -- because it is ours, honorably and decently come by. We try to adapt and improve as we go along.
Like many Virginians, I admire the British, Shakespeare, the King James Bible. Just last summer, I was at Oxford searching for a book. "You're from overseas, aren't you?" the librarian said.
"Yes. The United States."
"Oh -- which state?"
We both smiled. My state is named for Elizabeth, the virgin queen.
My parents were English immigrants, who set sail not with the Elizabethans but the Victorians. They put down roots in Roanoke. Their children went to public schools named Jamison, Lee, and Jefferson. They sent me on to Mr. Jefferson's university in Charlottesville. They even encouraged me to go "abroad" and do graduate work in New England. But I am back now; still thinking, speaking and writing about Virginia.
Yes, I am held prisoner by my inheritance. But I do not deplore the weight of history -- I exult in it. Ours is the germinal culture from which our nation sprang. Jefferson supplied the intellectual energy for the Revolution, and Washington the military daring. The Virginia dynasty of presidents set the new republic on course, and Virginia's John Marshall made the Supreme Court supreme.
It means something to be a Virginian. It always has. "When I speak of my nation," wrote John Randolph, "I mean the Commonwealth of Virginia." Decades later, A. H. Verrill wrote: "There is some intangible atmosphere about Virginia that makes her confines as sharply defined as those blazoned in five-foot letters on a signboard. A young Robert E. Lee, coming home from army duty in the West in 1840, wrote: "I felt so elated when I found myself in Virginia that I nodded to all the trees as I passed."
That Virginia does not display certain attributes of "the American character" has been obvious for generations. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on Americans' feverish pace, anti-militarism and stress on the future. But we Virginians put great value on a leisurely pace, the past and our glorious military heritage. (We even keep our own Virginia Military Institute, which is flourishing.) Allan Nevins lists vertical mobility, wastefulness and egalitarianism among American characteristics. Not in the Old Dominion.
I live not only in a state but with a state of mind. And as the "Mother of States," we still have a lot to teach our offspring. While the federal government is a trillion dollars in debt, we have a large surplus. We still find time to hunt and fish and are not as inclined to seek instant solutions to eternal problems.
But -- of course the Virginia I describe (mellow, moderate, rural, land-loving) is shrinking. Northern Virginia and the Capital Beltway have become part of the East Coast megalopolis. So let's give the District of Columbia statehood, and throw Northern Virginia in with it. To be sure, we will expect some compensation -- the return of the "lost counties" taken from us illegally when West Virginia was created during the War Between the States -- Monroe and Greenbrier counties and a couple up around Martinsburg and Berkley Springs. Clearly we've got to have White Sulphur Springs back. Difficult, you say? Not really. The VMI cadets whose forebears once held the line against the Yankees at New Market should be able to handle anything West Virginia can field.
What we may not be able to handle is the Trojan Horse south of the Beltway: the mushrooming urban corridor extending from the Washington suburbsto Richmond and on to the Tidewater -- what Prof. Larry Sabato (at the University) calls "a grand urban coalition -- a juggernaut that rolls over rural preferences . . . ." To put it differently: that turns Virginia into the homogenized, standardized fast-food fast-buck conglomerate that many of us deplore.
South of Culpeper and west of Richmond, we have more or less held fast. The blue mountains haven't changed much over the centuries. Clear cold water still rushes over limestone rocks; mountains turn dogwood-white in the springtime. Keep your wall-to-wall suburbia and bumper-to-bumper traffic. We'll remain poor country cousins.
Or will we? To my dismay, a group of peppy promoters are trying to build a theme park that would lure two million tourists a year into our beautiful Roanoke Valley -- one million paying admission to the American Wilderness Park, another million shopping, trashing up our landscape and jamming our already jammed roads. There's a trendy name -- Explore -- and a 141-page master plan that says the new theme park's centerpiece would be "the world's largest zoo of North American animals." Just why we want Rocky Mountain goats, Great Plains bison and Wisconsin gophers outside Vinton is not made clear. But wait, there's more: an Indian park with re-created Indian villages, a re-created frontier town, even "a re-created St. Louis, with a stagecoach depot." And, of course, an 11-story luxury hotel.
Can this be -- in my Virginia, right in our own back yard? The plan "conservatively" projects that Explore would be the first step "in transforming the Roanoke Valley into a major tourist destination." Have you been to a "major tourist destination" lately? Have you seen the traffic snarls in overcrowded national parks, the endless lines at public buildings, monuments, restaurants?
Not only have the promoters "hired a Washington fund-raiser to plot a national fund-raising campaign"; they now are turning to state and local governments to pick up part of the tab. Roanoke County, it seems, will be asked to shell out $2.38 million just to run sewer lines to Explore. And of course it will take another $2 million to develop a public golf course.
Never mind that a University of Virginia research group says the economic impact has been overstated. Ask a more basic question: Do we surrender our autonomy for our economy? Our folklore for fakelore? Our beautiful natural environment for a handful of silver?
Of course we want economic growth, and we must accommodate new plans and plants. But surely not this one. Tammy and Jim Bakker built Heritage U.S.A. for footloose Christians with a few extra bucks for entertainment. Will Explore do the same thing for footloose Yankees?
At this rate we'll not only get rid of "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia." We'll get rid of the Virginia that anyone would want to be carried back to.
Meanwhile, down in Richmond, Gerald Baliles (a son of our southwest who knows a lot about the Virginia tradition) was having reporters into the Governor's mansion for breakfast and a little politics. To get everyone in the right mood, he served grits, ham biscuits, coffee cake and plenty of java -- but not much information about Explore. He is too good a politician to commit himself too early.Finally, on Wednesday, the governor broke his silence and recommended in his State of the Commonwealth address that Virginia provide $6 million this year to support construction of Explore.
"Just what we wanted," a prosperous contractor told me. I didn't comment. But I was tempted to remind him of C.S. Lewis' definition of Hell: "Getting just what your want."
Marshall Fishwick is a professor of humanities and communications at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.