Archive for Climate

#119 Fernbrook Natural Area hosts winter landscapes and much more

Massive hunk of sooty mold

January 15, 2009

Fernbrook Natural Area in northern Albemarle County near Stony Brook is host of images of death, decay, and resurrection in the flora and fauna of the Piedmont woods.

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The January cold spell has arrived – always a harsh reminder, especially here in Virginia – of the intractability of winter.  Being from New England, it feels welcome, like a patch of remnant habitat – familiar and necessary for my survival.   The bite of cold when I first leave the house for my walk, the peeling back of layers as heat of my body meets morning chill. The knowledge of light that has come with experiencing over half a decade of Januarys, as the skies are brighter, the days are longer, but still, somehow, muted by the cold.  My need to be outside is greater at this time of year than others –against the inertia that a warm house foster, an urgency tugs at me as the voices of the winter landscape are calling.

I went to feed this winter hunger last weekend at Fernbook Natural Area, the  63-acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy in northern Albemarle County near Stony Point.  This time of year, it is a palette of earth tones, rich with every shade of brown, red, yellow, orange, and black.  Green pokes up here and there: running cedar emerging from the layer of leaves, the rhododendron on the northern slopes; and the ever-reliable, Christmas fern, though sagging from the weight of wingter, it is still standing, ready to be counted. The trail slopes down through a tall stand of red oak, hickory and yellow poplar towards a small stream that drains the ridge.  Only the beech trees and few oaks still hold their leaves, browned now, quaking in the slight wind.  The late afternoon light is mediated by clouds, occasional patches of blue lingering before a darkening sky.

This winter in particular, I am attuned to disintegration and death, and a forest like the one at Fernbrook is as good a place as any to find it.  Decay is everywhere:  dense downed logs along the trail are scuffed by travelers’ boots into light tufts.  The bark of Virginia pine still standing, is pocked by holes that spiral round the trunk marking the drill of the downy woodpecker.  A cavity higher up could be home to a pileated.  These are some of the larger agents of change in the forest, foraging for a meal beneath the bark of host trees giving way slowly to insects.

Still on the branches of beech trees, are black clumps of sooty mold.  A hunk the size of my fist has dropped to the ground at the base of a beech, and I pick it up – light as a sponge, this is final stage for the mold that is unique to the beech tree.  Scorias spongiosa, as a species of sooty mold that grows below colonies of beech woolly aphids, whose honeydew – or excrement – provides nourishment through its life stages.  In January, these aphids are long gone, but when I pry the mold apart, I find shiny black ants feasting on the spores.

Cleared in colonial days for timber, Fernbrook was abandoned sometime after the Civil War.  But here and there, the pencil-sharp snags of Virginia cedar point skyward, and from time to time, the slope is anchored by a mound of rocks that marked perhaps the corner of an old field.  The small stream has the characteristic steep banks of our Piedmont streams that have been cut vertically during the years of high erosion when no protective measures stemmed the flow of topsoil from newly logged acres.

Just as surely as I am looking at death and decay, I am also witness to rebirth, in everything from the defiant fist-like buds of the dogwoods in understudy, to the delicate, cigar-shaped twist of the beech bud.  Each soggy, rotten log hosts its own ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, and insects, thriving in dark spaces, drunk on the nutrients they release back to the cycle of life.

Through the bare trees I can see upward to the sky, another gift of winter and my spirit, likewise, has been lifted by this time in the woods.

Contents Copyright 2009 Leslie Middleton


#114 Winter Stoneflies

February 28, 2008

In the midst of winter, there are bugs in the stream that are alive and well – and some, eve, are hatching out to become insects, having found their aquatic niche at a time when no others compete.  During StreamWatch sampling on the upper Doyle’s, we find several families of winter stoneflies.

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This show originally aired on February 28, 2008 and again on December 4, 2008 on “The Rivanna Rambler,” a weekly public affairs show airing every Thursday at 11:55 a.m. on WTJU 91.1 FM or

The upper Doyles River, like most headwater streams in the Rivanna watershed, is about as pristine as they come.  The waters that collect from springs and drainages of the land that is protected by Shenandoah National Park do not suffer the assaults of sediment and runoff that challenge the health of streams at lower elevations.  For this reason, the community based water monitoring program, StreamWatch, has chosen a spot high on the Doyles as one of several headwater streams that will be used during the next few years as “reference streams” – a standard of “as good as it gets in our watershed” — against which other tributaries of the Rivanna will be evaluated.

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#111 Autumn on the Rivanna (Encore)

November 13, 2008

A warm day on the river traveling to Rivanna Mills to sample provides opportunity to reflect on the need for both the short and long view of changes in the watershed.

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This show originally aired on November 8, 2007 and then again on November 13, 2008 on “The Rivanna Rambler,” a weekly public affairs show airing every Thursday at 11:55 a.m. on WTJU 91.1 FM or

There is something not altogether right about this day.  Here it is, November 1st, and we should be bundled in fleece and wearing high rubber boots to venture out on the water.  Instead, we’re wearing light rubber wading shoes that sink into the mud as we shove the canoe from the launch into the Rivanna at Hells Bend Farm, striving for a patch of water that will be deep enough to float the boat.  Though the water is a cool 56 degrees, the air temperature is climbing past 65 as the sun arcs into the autumn afternoon.  I’m not sure what doesn’t feel right: is it the air temperature? or the water level? which is still near historic lows in spite of patches of rain we’ve had.

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#106 Carbon Cycles at Scheier Natural Arera

October 9, 2008

At Scheier Natural Area in Fluvanna County, forester Steve Pence describes how a forest in succession contributes to the carbon cycle.

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This show originally aired on October 5, 2006 and as an encore on October 9, 2008  on “The Rivanna Rambler,” a weekly public affairs show airing every Thursday at 11:55 a.m. on WTJU 91.1 FM or

Summer is having its last licks in the Piedmont, spreading a layer of warm heavy air over the southwestern reaches of the Rivanna watershed in Fluvanna.  My destination is Scheier Natural Area 10 miles west of Palmyra.  Rolling hills farmed in hay give way to patches of forest and modest houses set back from the road.  Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace offer patches of color and light.  Here and there, I can see the peaks of pine emerging like soldiers from behind an unruly patch of trees, evidence of land reclaimed for growing timber.  In the distance, the mountain to the west sit blue and cool on this muggy Sunday afternoon.  I’m headed for a talk offered by the Rivanna Conservation Society, who owns the 100 acre preserve.

As I join the group late, Steve Pence, of the Virginia Department of Forestry, has already warmed to the subjects of the role of trees in our lives and the changing climate, a complex subject at best.  Steve has worked with trees his entire career,

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# 64 Sugar Hollow on Halloween

This show originally aired on WTJU 91.1 FM at 11:55 a.m. on November 1, 2007.     “The Rivanna Rambler”  can be heard every Thursday at 11:55 on WTJU or on the web at



With additional alarming information regarding climate change, the writer reflects on the local impacts — including prolonged droughts – that are already being felt in this watershed.

The newspaper reports that we are not, by a long shot, out of the woods with respect to water supplies, in spite of the four inches of rain we got last week. And we are not alone. At Chesapeake Climate Action Network conference held at Clark Hall last weekend, it was reported that 100 water systems in North Carolina and Tennessee have less than 100 days of water available for their customers. More alarming is that the Naval Postgraduate School, which has been studying the rate of loss of sea ice at the North Pole for many decades, is predicting that by 2013, there will be no summer sea ice at all. And, that as the polar ice shrinks, the jet stream and the moisture it holds are pulled north, which is exactly what we’ve seen this summer and fall.So on this crisp, bright Halloween Day, I drive up to the Sugar Hollow Reservoir to see for myself. Noontime, weekday, it is quiet up as I pull into the parking area at the top of the dam. The water mirrors the soft changing colors of the turning trees in the headwaters above. The reservoir itself is with rimmed with dry, hard clay and rock. According to the Water & Sewer Authority’s online record, it is down 12.2 feet. Below the dam, a stout hose is spewing a wash of water into the shallow pool below, a small concession to the Moormans River and the ecology of downstream needs.I walk down through a grove of pines and hickory, the hardened brown leaves tapping out a rhythm on the bark as they wave in the slight breeze. Past the trees, I sit down in the sloping intertidal zone, between the line of “lots of water” and “not enough.” The reservoir is at 86% capacity, but the view from here does not look so encouraging.Others have been here before me. A large rounded boulder protruding from the slope next to me has a flattened top and must have been a tempting target, for it is strewn with broken glass from shattered beer bottles. Gold metal tabs from bait cans glint in the high midday sun. I feel like I am witness to the barrens that will be left behind when drought forces masses of us to live in other places or, possibly, to live in other ways. At the water’s edge, stubs of tree trunks emerge from the water, testament to the staying power of the anaerobic environment, preserved as they have been since 1947 when the dam was built and the reservoir filled the valley.The longer view is more reassuring. Across the reservoir, the soft tree line slopes towards the mountains, along the course of the South Fork of the Moormans River. The wind’s fetch over the reservoir makes it look like the water is flowing back upriver. A lone bird sits on the elbow of a tree limb bent up and out of the water. As it turns its head, I see a patch of light gray that reminds me of cormorant, but it’s too far to see. High in the noontime sky, the waning moon sits above the Blue Ridge. A raven calls from a ridge beyond.I have been struggling to find my own core of optimism since attending this weekend’s conference. All the feedback loops — atmospheric, hydrologic, ecological – forces that help maintain life in a delicate but dynamic equilibrium on this planet — are now presenting themselves in ways that have been mostly underestimated with consequences that are unavoidably stark. Even a modest sea level rise will inundate 3000 miles of shoreline in the Chesapeake Bay region, impacting all the major cities along the fall the line and hundreds of thousands of people.Across the reservoir, I see the former high water line, incised into the bank and scribed across a large boulder with a dark line of weeds that divides the upper and lower halves as though a mirror reflection. Like the glass half empty, it reminds me of the dry times ahead. But maybe the other half is what I cannot see, but can feel as sure as I am this human body warmed by the sun and touched by the light breeze. This half is the hope, vision, resolve, and commitment that we are all being called to bring forth and contribute. May this reservoir always be sufficiently full.

 2007 Copyright by Leslie B. Middleton 

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