Archive for North Fork Rivanna

#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


#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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#110 Here Comes the Hydrilla (Part 2)

November 6, 2008

Hydrilla may improve certain aspects of water quality, but it is an invasive aquatic weed that has caused numerous problems around the country.  The future maintenance of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir will need to address this growing problem in the reservoir.

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  This show originally aired on October 30, 2008 on “The Rivanna Rambler,” a weekly public affairs show airing every Thursday at 11:55 a.m. on WTJU 91.1 FM or

Last week, we learned about the aquatic weed, hydrilla, an herbaceous, perennial freshwater herb originally imported from southeast Asian for aquariums and water gardens – and a plant that has taken over millions of acres of shallow standing and moving water in the United States.  Unfortunately, it has taken root  in our watershed, particularly in the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, but it has also been found in tributaries like the North Fork as well as the river itself downstream from the reservoir.

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#99 Restoration on the North Fork

August 21, 2008

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Landowners along the North Fork take advantage of VDGIF’s Landowner Incentive Program to restore a section of stream bank and habitat for the James Spineymussel. 
This show originally aired in August 21, 2008 on “The Rivanna Rambler,” a weekly public affairs show airing every Thursday at 11:55 a.m. on WTJU 91.1 FM or

On a still, hot morning, I head out of town to visit some friends who are transforming their own corner of heaven in northern Albemarle County. Vickie and Mark Gottlob live in a house they finished building four years along the North Fork of the Rivanna.  It sits on a wooded slope of Buffalo Ridge, named for the mammals that once roamed these parts.  The Gottlobs are working with Louise Finger of the Virginia Department of Inland Game and Fisheries to help restore habitat in the river for another species rarely seen here: the Jamesriver Spineymussel.

This is my third visit to the site. Before Louise and her team of heavy equipment operators arrived earlier this week, I had come up to visit the river “before” so I could better appreciate the changes “after”.  I had donned appropriate river wading gear and dropped down into one of the deeper holes.  With cooling water up to my waist, I could see the bank slumping steeply into the stream and showing the signs of instability even an untrained eye could see.  The Gottlob’s small floodplain pasture was being eaten away by storm flows and gravity, and all this dirt was settling in the river and clogging the very life out of it.  But there were solid gravel bars, mounded here and there with piles of small cobble left by chub and other nest-building species.  It had the potential to be good habitat for the spineymussel if it could be stabilized.

The Jamesriver Spineymussel is a rarely seen mollusk in our parts – but its influence has been felt for years

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#58 Rebuilding the Rivanna at Bentivar

Originally Aired on April 19, 2007 (the week of the VT tragedy)

It’s another cool spring day, faint sun intermittently lighting up the pale greens and golds of emerging leaves. I am walking down a rough road from Bentivar Farm onto a vast floodplain. Sretched out before me are acres of lowland and wetlands that reach toward the point where the North and South Forks of the Rivanna meet. I know the banks from the river, having paddled both forks many a time, but today I’ve come to see restoration taking place in the flesh of the land itself.

My guide is Carolyn Browder, a restoration specialist for The Nature Conservancy, under whose care this bottomland has been for the last couple of years. She meets me by a small, unassuming stream at the bottom of the hill. It is here that, over a year and a half ago, the work commenced. The work of redefining the course of water flowing down from the surrounding hills so that it can do so without hauling loads of sediment and stormwater runoff with it.

Carolyn tells me parts of the story as we walk along stream, barely six feet across, and still running full from the rain of the last couple of days. Bubbling across a stretch of cobble, the water drops a foot over a large piece of cut rock, which has been placed strategically where an elevation decrease must be achieved without sacrificing the integrity of the channel. This channel has been purposefully rerouted to follow its historical course. Walking the moist ground, we can see where the rains had forced the water over the banks, the ryegrass bent like a comb-over and still mashed flat in downhill direction.

For decades, this rich bottomland was farmed, but it required work to drain the water from the floodplain enough to make planting corn even possible. This was accomplished by digging ditches to drain the water, and by using tile drains, terra cotta pipe sliced lengthwise and planted open side down, cupping the earth, while capillary action pulled the water along its course and towards the river. Meanwhile, the original stream coming down a crease in the hills above was routed so that it no longer bisected the fields and instead was tucked up against the hills lest it impede the work of farming this swatch of floodplain.

Land alternation had been heavy and significant long before this ditch and drain method was ever used. We know that earliest settlers set to work to clear the land, transforming forest into field, changing the relationship between the river and its floodplain forever. On the North Fork and the South Fork, indeed all along the Rivanna, you can see today the steep banks caused by the incessant erosional forces of mud-laden water washing off cleared land. In fact, the floodplain here sits some twenty feet higher than the river. This meant that the engineers designing a more natural stream channel had to build in a series of drops and slopes that would bring the watercourse into the river at a shallow and benign angle.

Carolyn’s job has been to oversee the work and continue to monitor its success as a restoration – making sure that the new stream reaches an equilibrium with its newly created banks and plateaus. That the disturbed land is kept clear of invasives such as Johnson grass. That high energy storms, such as those resulting from Katrina and Rita in the fall of 2005, don’t wash out the new stream as it’s settling in. That the right time to plant trees to form a protective buffer on either side is chosen wisely.

As we cross the stream, at another ledge of rock placed to create a drop and small pool that is now home to diversity of life, I start to gain an appreciation for the scale of the project. Looking back, I can see the sinuous curves, etched by clumps of grass and sedge that paint the landscape in subtle hues of green. A plover twitters across thirty feet in front of us towards the stream, disappearing into a camouflage of sandy soil and clumping grass. Every pool and every curve that is reinforced with boulders was conceived, then built, to give water a chance to be a stream in a channel that’s been designed s close as one can get to “natural.”

My boots are covered in muddy soil and there is a wide and open sky above. In a week that has been draped in horror and sadness so close to home, it feels particularly to good be walking a landscape that is surely in the process of change and healing.