My Virginia

My Virginia
I am a Wisconsin guy by birth and a Virginian by choice. I have been in Virginia, with gaps for diplomatic duty, since 1984. Some people say that you cannot be a Virginia unless your family has been here for at least three or four generations. I don’t know about that, but I feel part and accepted in my adopted state. I have owned a home in Virginia since 1997 and forest land since 2005. All three of my kids graduated Virginia public universities: UVA, James Madison and George Mason, respectively.

A “disposition to preserve” combined with an “ability to improve.”
That is what I found in Virginia, what I treasure about Virginia. The deep history and heritage is remarkable. We can visit Washington one day, Jefferson, Madison & Madison the next. I know that people now sometime disparage our history.

It takes a smart man to be cynical but a wise man not to be.
My guess is that I know history better than most of those critics. They generally are intellectual adolescents, who have discovered flaws and are eager to signal their “insight” aggressively. They don’t yet know what they don’t know. Intellectual adults understand that all humans have significant faults and individuals who accomplish great things also often have bigger than average ones. The same energy that produces greatness enables and accentuates good can also empower flaws, or at least make them more salient. The same fire that makes our civilized lives possible can also burn and destroy.

Putting down deep roots
The Virginia I know best, however, are the Commonwealth’s forests. This was a big surprise for me. I didn’t think of Virginia as a forest state, but 62% of Virginia is covered in forests. Trees cover only about half of Wisconsin, and a lot of that is up north in national and state forests. Most of Virginia’s forest land is owned by non-industrial individuals and families, and I could get in on that.

What a hare-brained idea, an urban Yankee becoming a forest landowner in rural Virginia. I had a lot to learn. I knew next to nothing about forestry in Virginia and some of what I did know was wrong, but I got a lot of help. My new neighbors in Brunswick County were eager to give me good advice. They knew “my” land intimately, having hunted, hiked & sometime cut timber there for generations – literally generations. Loggers and other contractors were honest and easy to work with. The Virginia Dept of Forestry guys were so available. Virginia Tech and others provided free, or low-cost events to learn the business. The evidence of their friendliness and competence is that an unconnected novice like me could so quickly thrive.

I drive a lot around in Virginia and there is no part of Old Dominion that I have not visited, yet I am always finding something new and interesting. Change is inevitable. Virginia has changed remarkable in my time here and I expect it will continue. This fitting and proper and I welcome positive change, but I take offense at the implication that we should reject and even obliterate old Virginia.

I think we need the ability to improve, but with the disposition to preserve.

Walking in Northern Virginia suburbs

Went for a two-hour walk to listen to my audio book and take advantage of the hot & humid day. I have learned to like humidity.  You sweat, but if you don’t have to wear a suit or sit still it doesn’t matter after a while. And it was a beautiful day, as you can see from the pictures.  Besides, it only got up to about 90, despite weather reports of higher temperatures. Even so, this is one of the hotter days in what has been a cool summer.

I have been walking around this neighborhood since we bought the house in 1997 (and I sure am tired after walking those 17 years :)) There are lots of changes near our house. The whole area has been transformed for the better. We now have a town center with restaurants and a movie theater. I like to be able to walk to these attractions. Near the metro, they are building another complex that will include a Harris Teeter grocery store. I won’t need a car very much anymore.

But most of the place where I was walking are changed less, although there has been a steady knocking down of little houses and replacement with more elaborate ones. It remains mostly a typical Northern Virginia suburb of the 1960s-70s varieties. I cannot tell the age of the houses, although you can guess by the styles. But you can get a reasonable estimate by the size of the trees and the sorts.

Silver maples were very popular during the 1960s and you see lots of mature silver maples in the area. I have come full circle on silver maples. When I was a kid, I liked them a lot. My uncle Ray planted one for me on our hill. It is still there. Then I “learned” that silver maples were not good trees. They were weak-wooded and short-lived. But I have been observing them now for forty-five years. They get big and stay reasonably healthy for at least that period of time. Nice trees but maybe not a great idea to plant them near sidewalks or sewers. The roots seek water enthusiastically enough to break up concrete.

We chose the neighborhood because it was near the Metro and the W&OD bike and walking trail.  These are my roads to work – bike in summer, Metro in Winter. There are other things. Navy Federal CU has its headquarters and a big park-like campus that includes a walkway with boardwalks over the wet places. Above shows the variety of trees popular in the 1960s and 1970s.  From the left, we have the silver maple; in the middle are some Norway maples crimson variety. On the end are some new ginkgoes.  You really cannot see the row of loblolly in this picture, but I have included another at the bottom, with a white pine in the foreground.

I was thinking about what makes a neighborhood nice. Space and parks are nice, but security is most important. There are nice places in DC that have lots of parks, but I would not feel as free to wander lonely. Around here, there is no significant vandalism, no spray paint, and as I walk through the woods I pass lots of other people just walking. People feel safe and that opens all this place to be used.

My picture up top is the new construction around the Dunn-Loring/Merrifield metro.  When we moved to the area, there were some fast food places, a lot of parking lots and a mulch yard.  Supposedly, the town center etc were going to be build in a few years. That was 1997.  Finally, it is happening.   The next picture is W&OD trail, then some new construction replacing the little houses (notice solar panels). Below that are some of those big silver maples I mentioned.  Next is the area around Navy Federal and finally a weeping willow on one of the quiet suburban streets.

My audio book, BTW, was “The Half Life of Facts.”  It is very interesting so far and maybe I will write a note re.

Tobacco Heritage Trail in Southside Virginia

The Tobacco Heritage Trail (THT) follows an old Norfolk & Southern right of way in Southside Virginia.  We walked about a mile up and back on the part near the CP tree farm in Brodnax.  Besides the location in tobacco country, I didn’t see much sign of tobacco heritage, but it was a great trail.

You can see from the pictures that the trail is well designed with some good infrastructure.  The surface is perfect for running.  I think that next time I go down I will try it out.

When complete, the THT will include 174 miles of trail in five Southside counties. The East Coast Greenway will use 55 miles of the trail, stretching from Lawrenceville to Clarksville.

Blue Ridge

I went down the Blue Ridge Parkway to pick up Alex in Harrisonburg. He wanted to come back to see his friend Colin, who is moving to Oregon, and to pick up his amp. I don’t mind driving down to get him. It is a pretty drive; we get good mileage on the hybrid and I can listen to NPR or my audio books. Gas is cheaper outside the Washington metro area. You get it for $2.39 a gallon in the Shenandoah Valley; the best you can do in Northern Virginia is $2.69. 

Lots of the turnouts are under construction with signs that our stimulus dollars are a work. I saw lots of such signs, lots of barriers and lots of port-a-johns, but no workers. I suppose it put people to work setting up the signs and port-a-johns, but we might have hoped for a little more actual construction.

The Blue Ridge is very pretty. You can see why they were called blue ridge. It is almost all secondary growth. They cut most of the trees off during the 19th Century  Some was done for agriculture, but a lot of the wood was used to make charcoal for small steel and lime production. There are still lots of place names in the hills with forge or furnace in their titles. Farming was not very profitable with the thin and soon eroded mountain soils and most of the farmsteads were abandoned. The hillsides reverted to the thick oak-maple & tulip poplar forests you see in the pictures. Actually, at the time they were oak and chestnut forests, but the chestnuts were wiped out by a blight that came in 1904. I am hoping GMOs can bring them back.

It was a little hazy when I took the pictures yesterday. They would have been better today, since the wind left over from Hurricane Earl cleared the air.  Today is beautiful weather. We are getting into the nice fall weather, IMO, the best time for Virginia weather. October is usually the best month.


Northern Virginia has an interesting hitchhiking system called slugging.  Drivers who want to use the HOV lanes, but don’t have the required three passengers, pick up “slugs” at various lots south of DC.  The occupants allow the use of the HOV lane and get both drivers and passengers there much faster.  No money is exchanged and there are some simple rules, such as no talking unless the driver initiates it. This form of transport has been around since 1975 and it is evidently as fast or faster than taking the bus and significantly faster than driving as a single person in traffic.  A couple of my colleagues slug to work w/o any significant problems. 

It is interesting that such a cooperative market has grown up w/o outside regulation.  Local governments accept it and welcome it as a way to reduce congestion.  There have been occasional calls for the government to somehow regulate the system, but that would probably make it collapse.   If it ain’t broken …  

More information is at this link.


We are back home in Virginia and we have evidently missed spring, at least late spring. It is now summer.  The leaves are all out. Today was hot & humid, mostly humid, at least compared to the cool weather we had when I was last here a couple of weeks ago. It will get more or less cooler again. May is a pleasant month; we usually don’t get that oppressive heat until late June. 

I went to see Alex just before I left for California. We went to the arboretum in Harrisonburg, but I never wrote a post or posted the pictures.  It was a pleasant spring day. I am posting the pictures today, but they are a couple weeks out of date.

The Shenandoah is one of most pleasant places on earth in the springtime. The picture on top I-81 that passes through the valley. It is a busy truck route, that carries much of the goods along the East Coast. The trucks make it a hectic drive sometimes. They are bigger than the cars and they know it. The middle pictures are flowering trees in the arboretum.

Above is the pond on the arboretum. Below is a pocket park in Arlington. It is near the place where we first lived when I joined the FS. It is just one block of green, enough to give kids a place to play and provide a nice space for the neighbors.

Below is the lawn in the park. It is a “real” lawn with clover and some weeds. I like this better than the chemical lawns so common around malls and new developments. The Chesapeake Bay is polluted with run off. They blame farms and farms do contribute, but at least they also produce something.  But it is just wrong when we use chemicals and fertilizers to create perfect lawns. This one is better all around.

Arlington Cemetery

I have been riding my bike to work again through Arlington Cemetery, as I wrote in yesterday’s post. Daily exposure to something can desensitize you to its details, but it can also help you see and appreciate it more. I am not sure which side I fall on most of the time. Maybe I see it new again each season. Anyway, I took a couple of pictures.  

Visiting Mr. Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable guy.  He thought deeply about almost everything and made the world a better place.  On his tombstone he wanted to be remembered for founding the University of Virginia and authoring the statutes of religious freedom of Virginia the Declaration of Independence.  Any one of those accomplishments would make him a great man.   He didn’t even mention being president of the United States.

We first visited here in 1985.  Chrissy was pregnant with Mariza and I remember thinking that it would be nice if our expected child could become part of this legacy by going to Thomas Jefferson’s university.  She did.   So besides his contributions to our freedom and prosperity, I have a very personal reason to thank Jefferson.

Monticello is owned and run by a private foundation that makes its money from ticket sales and donations.  The foundation supports historians, archeologists and researchers in addition to maintaining the house and grounds.  

Alex and I talked about the pros and cons of a private foundation.  It seems like a place like Monticello should be government owned, but why?  A private foundation is more flexible and can often do a better job.  Many of our best American universities are private and they are the best in the world. A foundation works out just fine for Mr. Jefferson’s home.  

Jefferson always considered himself a farmer.  He grew tobacco and wheat as cash crops and produced vegetables, apples and other fruit for consumption on the farm.  Like other plantations, Monticello was self-sufficient when possible.  They made their own bricks from local clays. Carpenters from the estate made furniture from the wood of the local forests.  Jefferson owned 5000 acres, which gave him a diverse landscape to draw from.  Below is Jefferson’s vegetable garden.  It is set up to take advantage of warming winter sun.

Jefferson was an active manager of his estate. Washington’s Mt Vernon actually turned a profit, not so Jefferson’s Monticello.  The difference was top management.  Washington didn’t have Jefferson’s intellect, but he had practical abilities.  Jefferson was an idea man.   And his house – and our country – is full of his ideas, but he was not a good businessman. He died deep in debt and his heirs had to sell Monticello.

Of course, Jefferson didn’t do much of the real work. The paradox of Jefferson the hero of freedom is Jefferson the slave owner.  Slavery had existed since the beginning of history, but by Jefferson’s time the Western world was beginning to see the moral contradictions of the practice.  Jefferson shared the revulsion of slavery in theory, but couldn’t bring himself to take the practical and personal steps against it.  I guess he was just a true intellectual in that respect and unfortunately remained a man of his times. 

In any case, Jefferson’s contributions far outweigh the negatives of his personal life. All human being are flawed.  They make their contributions based on what they do best, not what they do poorly.  

We Americans were truly blessed during our founders generation.  Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton & Madison all were greats.  But the remarkable thing is how their skills and even their personalities complemented each other, even when they fought and hated each other. Their differences created harmony and their joint efforts filled in for some serious individual flaws.

The American revolution is one of the few in world history that actually worked (i.e. didn’t end in a bloodbath followed by despotism). We can thank good luck & favorable geography.  But the biggest factor was the moral authority, courage and intellect of our first leaders.  We are still living off their legacy. 

Above is the visitor’s center that opened last year. In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, it takes advantage of natural forces and uses appropriate technology.  This is a green building, earth sheltered, energy efficient and heated & cooled to a large extent by geotheromal energy.  The wood and natural stone construction is simple, but elegant.  I like it.

Bringing Back Bobwhite

Bobwhite quail used to be common in Virginia.  Their population began to crash about forty years ago because of changes in their habitat.   Some of this was obvious.  Farmers became more efficient and in the process eliminated lots of the bugs and weeds that quail need.  Suburbs expanded and suburban dwellers are probably even less tolerant of bugs and weeds.  Both suburban lawn owners and rural landowners also got new and better techniques to achieve their goals, which usually involved creating a “neater” landscape.  The thick green lawns, beautiful but ecologically barren, are widely possible only because of chemicals and techniques developed in the last generation.   

Wildlife habitat in general and quail habitat in particular is ragged and messy from the human perspective.  Above is an early succession field, a lot of goldenrod and ragweed. A lot of people would feel the urge to mow.  Even the gardens of “wild” flowers many of us plant are NOT really natural.   Ideal Virginia quail habitat consists of the weeds and debris that comes the year after a clear cut.  It is the disturbance itself that is the key to success. Many of us demand that this kind of thing be “cleaned up” or avoided in the first place.

My friend Mike Jones led the wildlife habitat field day to discuss ways landowners could create places for quail and other desirable animals.   This is Mike just above. He is a landowner who recently retired from the NRCS and smartest person I know when it comes to the practical creation and protection of wildlife habitat.  Mike has tried out all of what he talks about on his own land and seen the results over a lifetime. The State of Virginia is wise to take advantage of his expertise and his credibility when explaining programs to landowners. 

These field days are a sweet deal.  It cost me only $10, which probably didn’t cover much more than the lunch.  The lunch line is pictured above.  But field days are really a kind of advertising and education.  Landowners make decisions about what happens on their land and it is in the best interests of everybody in the state if they make good ones.  I didn’t really comprehend how important this was until I bought the farms.   I have spent thousands of dollars and many hours of time making improvements to protect wildlife and water resources.   I am eager to do that, since I consider improving my land a long-term investment, but I need advice about what to do.   But there is no right way to do anything.  We need to learn from scientists and experts, but they also need to learn from our experience and we have to learn from each other.  These field days are part of the extension outreach done by the State of Virginia and our universities such as Virginia Tech and a great way to share practical knowledge.  

You can make improve the environment and make profit from your land at the same time, but everything is a trade off.  Wildlife tends to thrive in a less dense forest with more space between the trees and some of that ragged and messy weed patches I mentioned above.  Of course, different animals favor different environments too.  All life is trade-off. You can see the open woods at the top of this post and you can easily see how this does not maximize timber production, but most people like it better on their land and they may be able to make back some of the money with hunting leases. I lease both my farms to local hunt clubs.  They provide a local presence and take care of boundaries.  

Hunting is a virtuous circle.  What is good for wildlife habitat is usually good for the environment, so hunters have an incentive to protect the environment.   Above is a wildlife corridor Larry Walker, a member of one of one of our hunt clubs, made for me on our land.  It will provide diverse edge community AND it allows me to get down to the creek w/o bushwacking.  He cut it through a couple of weeks ago and planted the cover that you can see coming up.  The hunters on my land have been there for a long time, in some cases for generations. They make the effort to understand the land in a way that almost nobody else does.  They have to understand and provide for the needs of deer, turkey or quail.   Hunters pays for a lot of wildlife conservation.  They also control numbers.  The deer population has exploded in the last twenty years.  In places w/o enough hunting, they are destroying the forests and preventing regeneration.  Of course, we don’t have that problem with quail.

Above is part of Genito Creek that crosses our property.  Larry’s path makes it much easier for me to get down there and it is a nice place to visit. The creek meanders around, moving sand around the bed.  The water undercuts banks and brings down the trees periodically.  The creek used to be the boundary of the property, but around 1960 the whole thing moved around 100 yards in, so now both sides are on my land … for now.

I mentioned some of the reasons for quail decline.   A habitat is only as strong as its weakest link.  When they are chicks, quail need lots of bugs to eat, so they need the mix of plants that bugs like.  This included weeds like goldenrod and especially ragweed, grass not so much.   When they get older they need seeds to eat.  They also need places to breed under cover, which is why they like blueberry thickets and they need brush and trees to hide from predators.  In other words, they need a great diversity of habitat type, with a lot of it in the early stages of natural succession.  By definition, the early stages of natural succession pass quickly, so we need a fair constant cycle of disturbance and recovery.

The State of Virginia wants to bring quail numbers back up.   They have devoted $9 million over the next five years and will hire five regional biologists to study the problem and provide advice to landowners.  They have some cost share programs for landowners targeted to five Virginia counties in order to focus efforts rather than spread them out and lose benefits too thin to do any good.  Brunswick is not among the counties.  Besides, they are aimed at crop land conversions, so I cannot get my forest lands in on any of them.

But my farms do have a lot of good edge habitat, even if they are not part of the program.  The wildlife plots we established last year are doing well and the pre-commercial thinning has done a good job of establishing biological diversity.  I visited the CP farm after the wildlife field day.  As I walked down the road just before sundown, I spooked a covey of quail.  At least a half-dozen exploded out of their cover as I slowly walked by.  I took a picture of the spot and posted it above.  I can be plenty ragged and messy w/o cost share from the state, thank you. You can see that it has the goldenrod and ragweed.  It has the cover trees and the bramble blueberry and the combination of edge communities.  The edge is plenty weedy and ragged. Not bad. I should hold a field day on my farm(s).

Blue Highways

I took US 50 through southern Ohio and West Virginia. You get a different impression of the geography from the older highway system.  The Interstate System flattens the hills, straightens the curves and bypasses the towns.  The older highways pass through the older America. The Interstates have drained both the traffic and the vitality from the highways, especially when they run parallel, as US 50 does to I-70 and I-68. 

US 50 was very peaceful through Ohio and I often had the whole road to myself, so I enjoyed driving leisurely past the farms and small towns. The land looked very lush and green. US 50 is mostly single lane, but it turns into a divided highway part of the way and it gets to be essentially a superhighway in parts of West Virginia.   West Virginia is a unique case.  Senator Robert Byrd got to be so powerful that he could direct an unusually large amount of Federal dollars to the Mountain State.

There are lots of really nice, empty highways connecting little towns in West virginia. Lots of the off ramps lead to a couple of houses or sometimes to almost nothing at all.  US 50 from Parkersburg to Clarksburg is probably the loneliest stretch to fantastically built highway in America.  It must have cost a million dollars per car, our tax dollars at work. There is an even more impressive highway to nowhere a few miles south, the so called Highway 55 corridor.You can drive from Wardensville to Moorefield and on to Seneca Rocks in complete comfort and near perfect isolation. Maybe we should move that modern perfect highway to Chicago, where the roads weren’t so good.

I stayed on 50 after Clarksburg, which was a mistake because it becomes a truly local road. This is some of the roughest geography in North America.  The folded mountains make road building a challenge. Even Robert Byrd didn’t try to make this a superhighway. It is very pretty, very steep and very curvy. And there was an amazing amount of road construction and repair to slow what traffic there was.   All things considered, I am still glad I went this way, but it probably added a couple hours to my journey.   I got to see lots of nice vistas and even the Allegheny front windmill farm.