Golden fall

October is one of the best times for Washington.  We get crisp clear days, cool and not very humid but sunny.  I am taking advantage of this window of beauty, riding my bike to work and walking as much as I can.

Today I wandered over to the Botanical Gardens at lunchtime.  It is a small area but packed with pleasantness.  They used plants from around the middle Atlantic region, so we have the familiar longleaf & loblolly pines and lots of oaks and cedars.   I just like to be there.  You really don’t have to own your own stuff if you can use these nice places.  But I also find it humbling.  They mark the trees and plants.  I pride myself on being able to identify trees, but my pride is misplaced.  I can tell the general groups.  For example, I can tell a loblolly pine from a longleaf or a white pine.  But they have pond pines and pitch pines that I could not separate from the loblolly.  I also have trouble telling black oaks from red oaks.  When I know that is it a black oak, I can see why it is, difference in leaves etc. but I would be unable to do it in general.

I have also been trying to get to the Smithsonian Museums.  The great thing about Smithsonian is that all the museums are free, so you can go in for a short time w/o having to spend the big bucks or feeling that you have to see everything to “make it worth it.”  I went to the National Gallery of Art.  You could spend a lot of time there.  They provide comfortable places to sit surrounded by light and beauty.  This is the proper way to appreciate art, taking the time to hang around.   I looked at lots of the paintings but I lingered in the Impressionist section.  Chrissy likes Monet and Renoir.  I am no expert.  I could not tell one impressionist from another and don’t expect ever to learn, but I enjoyed the brightness, the light.

We went to see the movie “Fury” over the weekend.  It stars Brad Pitt, who looks so much like me.  Anyway, it is a very violent movie with scores of people being killed every minute.  It takes place in Germany in April, 1945.  The war is almost over but there remains desperate resistance, with children and old people pressed into service.  I was thinking about that as I walked around my beautiful Washington on a perfect day. Germany was so utterly destroyed by the war.  All over Europe centuries of culture and art were lost, stolen or destroyed; life was reduced to its basic elements.  The most civilized, progressive and prosperous parts of the world debauched into barbarism that killed millions and brutalized millions more.  The Impressionist light was out of place.  Washington could be reduced to this someday.  It seems impossible now, but I don’t expect the Germans, Poles, French and others really thought it would ever happen to them, or at least not in their lifetimes of that of their children.   I think of the Romans watching the Visigoths come over the hills and uttering the Latin equivalent of “Oh shit; what the hell happened?” Nobody for hundreds of years had believed such a thing even remotely possible.  We like to think such savagery is in the past, but there are place right now that it is going on like then.

But we cannot let it end like that.

My pictures are from near the Capitol.  You can see that they are reconstructing the Capitol Dome.   It is made of iron, which has rusted and needs to be fixed.  The other pictures are from the Botanical Garden, except the one on the bottom, which is a big zelkova tree near the pool in front of General Grant’s monument.  Zelkovas are in the elm family and resemble shorter versions of the American elm in that they have a vase shape.  But they tend to be squatter and thicker, as you can see above.   They don’t usually get Dutch elm disease, which is why they were planted to replace dying American elms in the 1970s.  Washington is a pleasant place most of the time.

W&OD bike trail

I have been meaning to ride the W&OD trail from the start and finally got around to it.  Alex dropped me off at the start of the trail in Purcellville.  It was about forty miles to my house.  It was a perfect day for it, with temperatures at around 65 degrees and a wind of about eight MPH from west/northwest, i.e. mostly a tailwind.

The trail is pretty flat but tending down from west to east. You can see above the deep cut and they cut into the hills and filled in the low points. W&OD was the Washington and Old Dominion railroad line. Trains were unable to go up grades that were too steep.  Standard maximum grade for the 19th century railroads was 2.2% or 110 feet per mile. What was good for trains is good for bikes.

One drawback to the trail is that there are no shops and restaurants right on the trail.  I suppose this is not generally a problem. You can find accommodations not very far away, but besides one establishment called Carolina Brothers Barbeque at mile 27 in Ashburn, you don’t have a direct trail access.  I stopped at a place called Old Ox Brewery just before mile 25.  You had to go a dirt path from the trail, but it seemed a nice place.  I had a small beer before going on. You can see from the bike rack that others had similar ideas.

I am glad I finally made the journey. I have been thinking about it since I first discovered the trail back in 1997.  I run on part of the trail and I use it to ride my bike to work, but going the other way is harder.  It is more uphill and there really is no place to go.  I enjoy riding my bike, especially on these nice October days. But I think that when you get much beyond an hour of riding, it becomes more a challenge than just a pleasure. It is one of those things that is good to have done. I doubt I will do it again.

Everything is free; you just have to go and get it

Chrissy wanted some rocks to shore up the side of her garden. The local garden shops sell rocks and they cost a lot. On the other hand, they are just kind of lying around on the farm. So I brought some back, saving hundreds of dollars.

The farms are looking good. The picture that I am taking with the truck as comparison is getting harder to do as the trees grow bigger.   I have to get farther back. Above is my recent picture, below is 2009.  We are getting to canopy close, a phase transition.  The farm seems smaller now.  You can’t see long distances.  On the other hand, you can now see into the forest as the lower branches are brush as dying back.

I have to say that it was an act of faith.  I am not sure I ever believed the trees would really grow.  The picture below is near the same place in 2007.  Didn’t have a truck back then, so you can see the boys for comparison.

Besides picking up rocks, I didn’t do much work. I chopped out some brush to protect my bald cypress. This is kind of my pet tree. I figure it will be magnificent someday as long as I keep down to competition, mostly box elders. I have nothing against box elders in general. They remind me of Milwaukee.  Lots of them grew near the railroad tracks where we used to play. But they are weedy and will overwhelm my cypress.  I also pulled out some vines climbing my pines.  We have Japanese honeysuckle.  These are beautiful vines with nice smelling flowers, but they are invasive and can cover trees in short order if left alone. I know that my efforts are only a piss in the ocean, but it gives me an excuse to do something with my trees.  I cut brush and pulled weeds for more than six hours. It was enough exercise to make me very sore the next day.

George C Marshall and Loudon County

George C Marshall was a model soldier & civil servant. Winston Churchill called him the organizer of victory in World War II and FDR relied on him. He took his duty very seriously and was uniformly excellent the things he did. He was crucial both to winning the war and securing the peace after the fighting was over. The Marshall Plan is probably the greatest act by a victor in any conflict in world history. But he was a fantastically modest man. He never pushed himself forward and unlike most other great men of the time refused to keep a journal or write memoirs. Winston Churchill quipped, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Marshall refused to make is easy even for others to sing his praises.

Alex and I visited his house in Leesburg today. It is a modest place considering the greatness of the man, but houses were generally smaller back then. Marshall was attracted to the garden. Gardening was his hobby and preferred method of recreation. He also rode horses.
The house is modestly furnished, but the furnishings are interesting as they reflect Marshall’s career and many of the great people he knew. He spent a lot of time in China and has furniture and art from there. Madame Chiang stayed at the house her gifts are still there. There was a painting by Winston Churchill. A copy still hangs there depicting a scene in Morocco, but the original was worth too much and was sold at auction. There are two portraits of Robert E. Lee, one as a young man and the other the more familiar one when he was older. Marshall admired Lee and tried to model his own behavior on Lee’s.

This was the first house Marshall really owned, having lived in U.S. Army quarters most of the rest of his life. He and his wife shopped estate sales for most of the other furniture.
The house is complicated because parts of it accreted onto older structures. There is an original house literally swallowed by a newer one. You can see this in one of the halls, as the internal wall has windows that used to face outward.

This part of Loudon County is very pleasant, rolling hills and lots of green. It is full of historical sites, mostly well-maintained. We also went to a place called the Oatlands, not far from George C Marshall’s place. It was a big estate that grew mostly grains. Later it became mostly a residence. There is a wonderful garden in that traditional Virginia style.

The house at Oatlands had lots of interesting stories. We met a delightful old lady who seemed to know all of them.   She told us the about the family, related to “King” Carter, once the richest man in the colonies and about the Corcoron side of the family that endowed the famous galleries.   Behind a door was maybe the most interesting thing, if small.  It was a lock of George Washington’s hair. One of the extended family members, Robert Livingston, was the one who administered the presidential oath to Washington and got this as a gift.  The family had quite a network.

A great man I had never heard about

Westmoreland Davis lived a long and interesting life. He was born into a rich Virginia family that had most of its money investing in Virginia state bonds just before the Civil War. It seemed like a good safe investment. His father died and left his mother with those bonds and not much else. But Westmorland came back. He got a full-scholarship to VMI and then went to UVA and Columbia to study law, went into the law and made a fortune. After he made his fortune in the law, he decided to do something completely different and become a farmer.

Loudon County in those days was a backward, rural area with soil depleted by poor farming practices and tobacco. Most of the farmers still practiced farmed the way their grandfathers had but with less to work with. It was not an auspicious place to start, although I suppose no experience in farming might be a bit of an advantage when those with experience are doing things wrong.

There were other pluses. Westmorland was well-financed. He wanted his farm to make money, but it really didn’t need to. But his biggest advantage was his scientific mind. He scanned the world for best practices, tried them out in Virginia, improved them and then shared them with his neighbors.

Besides providing a good local example of what could work, his main vehicle to communicate was a magazine called “The Southern Planter.” In this, he discussed what he had learned and he never wrote about anything he had not understood or tried himself. He brought in better quality animals, including Guernsey cows to improve Loudon dairy herds. Among his biggest contributions was more extensive liming of the soil. Liming to sweeten soil was understood, but imperfectly. Westmorland discovered that it took a lot more than most people thought, or could afford, so he also worked with suppliers and railroads to lower the costs.

Besides farming, Westmorland’s passion was fox hunting. He was the master of the hunt, which meant that his job was to get permission from local landowners to cross their land and offer compensation for any damage. This and his farming examples put him in touch with lots of people and he became locally famous and well-esteemed. Which helped in his next unusual career move; he ran for governor of Virginia. And he won. He came into office at an interesting time, in 1918 just as the U.S. was getting into the full swing of World War I. Of course, troops from Virginia were participating.

Virginia governors, then as now, can serve only one four-year term. After his term, Westmorland ran unsuccessfully for Senate and then returned to his farming. He became one of America’s leading producers of turkeys.

I learned about this great man who I had never heard of before when I went with Alex to visit Morven Park, his home in Loudon County. As part of Alex’s classes on preservation, he has to visit various local historical sites in order to analyze how they are presented. My pictures show the outside of the Morven Mansion. Taking pictures inside was not allowed. Pity. Westmorland traveled the world and collected all sorts of things. The house is kind of a museum. It is very pleasant and bright. He had a whole wall of Flemish tapestries that were very nice, but you can imagine some of furniture in the collections on the set of the Adam’s family.

Clean Water: Pass it Along

My quarterly contribution to Virginia Forests magazine. They will make it better but the raw deal is below. I get to write the tree farmer of the year article, plus three more articles talking about tree farming in Virginia.
Clean Water: Pass it Along
About half of Virginia’s timberland lies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and most of that forest land is privately owned and a significant part is managed for forestry. Since forests are essential to protecting the quality of water that flows into the Bay, forest landowners play a special role in keeping the Bay healthy. Forests absorb nutrient runoff that would otherwise harm the ecology of the Chesapeake. They slow and often incorporate sediment. Tree farmers are committed to sustainable land use and a big part of this is sustainable water resources.
You cannot understand the ecology of the Chesapeake area without considering how humans have modified the landscape. As the first area of English colonization, nowhere in the United States has been altered more or for a longer time. Most of the Chesapeake watershed was deforested centuries ago to grow food and cash crops like tobacco. Tobacco rapidly depletes the soil and our ancestors understood less than we do today about how to keep soils healthy and in place. As Virginia soils eroded and became poorer and as richer soils became available farther west, many Virginia farmers went west for better opportunities. Much of Virginia returned to forest.
It is a gift of nature that trees grow rapidly and well in Virginia and that has allowed our forestry industry to thrive, but it is also a tribute to the men and women who manage those forests in ways that keep them productive – and improving – year after year. The forest industry employs thousands of Virginians and pumps more than a billion dollars into the State’s economy each year. But the forests value does not stop there, not by a longshot.
Our well-managed Virginia forests produce a variety of “ecological services” things like carbon sequestration, flood control, wildlife habitat, and recreation. These things rarely turn up on balance sheets, but you clearly see their value if you don’t have them.
Protecting the Chesapeake is like that. Clean water is one of the most important products of a well-managed forest. Water is almost always better quality coming out of the woods than it was going in, as the forest ecosystem absorbs excess nutrients and allows silt to settle. As I wrote above, about half of Virginia lies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but we also contribute to water that runs into the Atlantic Ocean, much through Albemarle Sound, in North Carolina, the Mississippi that runs into the Gulf of Mexico and there is even a little that ends up flowing into the Atlantic Ocean via the Pee Dee River in South Carolina. We are part of something big and important and we can be proud of the part we play.
The American Tree Farm System was established in 1941 to guarantee that in the future family forests could supply forest products while sustaining water, wildlife, recreation and natural beauty. We are living in that future the founders envisioned. We can best thank them for what they gave us by making sure we pass it along to our future.