When I’m not pressed for time, I prefer a different path to the familiar. Before the covid lockdown, my wife and I filled a winter afternoon with a visit to the state aboretum.
We drove country roads lined with stone walls and split-rail fences that framed views of century-old farmhouses and horse stables. After about an hour and a half in the car, we entered a vast open place of monumental trees, stark rock formations, intriguing trails, people walking dogs and a few empty picnic tables. What would this grand place be like, I asked myself, in summer?
I went to a map and saw, about halfway to the arboretum, right off the main road, a tiny park commemorating a Civil War battle. I checked–you could walk your dog there and, though I did not see any picnic tables, the park encircled an old stone bridge that was on the National Register of Historic Places. I thought it might make a nice stop on the way.
My home is surrounded by Civil War battle sites. Gettysburg is an hour and twenty minutes to the north. The road you drive is the same one that Lee’s Army took, though it has been paved and widened considerably. Manassas (a.k.a. Bull Run) is a few miles to the south. To the northwest, on the south bank of the Potomac River, is Ball’s Bluff, where Union Army Lieutenant, and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. survived a rifle shot to the chest.
And those are only the ones that have been identified. A neighbor who drives bulldozers for a local site developing company told me he rarely has a day on the job when he didn’t uncover a cannon ball.
The Civil War battlefield park I found on the map was smaller than a supermarket parking lot. It featured a scenic overlook of a section of Goose Creek, which flows a few miles west and south of where I live. The stone bridge crosses the creek and dates from the early 19th century when what is now state Route 50 was a turnpike.
The sign leading to the park was small enough to miss, but we found it and parked on the gravel lot. We walked the dog and admired the bright green meadows along the creek’s flood plain. The stone bridge, which dated back to the early 19th century, had waist-high retaining walls wide enough to form a temporary table for a picnic lunch.
A sign told us that four days of skirmishing and fierce fighting happened here, and several miles to the east. Lee’s army was marcking north toward Gettysburg and a detachment under J.E.B. Stuart had to stop Union forces heading south that wanted to come around and encircle Lee’s troops. Stuart delayed the Union army here and elsewhere long enough to prevent them from catching up with Lee.
Unlike Ball’s Bluff, which has a small cemetary on a tree-shrouded mound, this little park showed no monuments to lost lives. In Jerusalem’s Old City you can see masonry pock-marks and other battle scars from the Six Day War. I found no battle damage on the bridge, which, another sign told me, stayed in use until the 1950s.
The sun rode high overhead in a cloudless blue sky. Everything was peaceful, tranquil, and–when I passed some wild, pink rose blossoms along an abandoned stretch of the old turnpike–quietly beautiful.
My wife, who knows roses, said this variety was invasive. Left on its own, it would soon take over.
We took our time returning to the car. I paused to turn back and take one last glance at the park.
Without the explanatory signs, I would not have believed this to be a place of violence or death. If anything, the park and that spray of cheerful pink roses, suggested that nature’s mission here was a continuation of what nature does best: use as much as possible of what’s close at hand, to create much more than was thought possible.
Of course, not everything nature creates is welcome. I can think many invasive illnesses without which we’d live longer and happier.
But if one of the results is an unexpectedly pleasant flash of exuberance, a bit of intrustive joy in what was once a place of fear, anger, agony and loss, then it let it continue here, and, in our cities, in our hospitals, in our homes and our hearts.
I imagined the place overwhelmed with bright, colorful roses, and hoped someone would let nature take its course, so those roses, which may be unwelcome intruders, remind us that things can, and will, change for the better.