Monthly Archives: February 2014

Riverbend’s Bluebell Watch Has Begun

FINAL UPDATE: April 9, 2014

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Our phone has been ringing constantly this week and the main question is “How far along are the bluebells?” One caller said that she has a friend who visits every year around this time and that her two favorite things to do are see the cherry blossoms and come to Riverbend to experience the bluebells. Some of the flowers are blooming now, and for the next two weeks the bluebells will put on a spectacular show.

As I walked the river trail this morning I saw all the tightly packed pink blossoms that look like they are about to burst. Insects were flying around and crawling on the leaves. For me, I like to take in the whole forest floor covered with wildflowers and then kneel down for a close inspection of all the life on and near each plant.

“What could be better than sitting near a patch of Bluebells on sunny afternoon, watching a bumblebee foraging for nectar among the flowers.” Marijke Gate, naturalist, Riverbend Park

Don’t forget to join us this Saturday (April 12) at Riverbend Park from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. as we celebrate the bluebells at our second annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival. The event costs just  $5 person and features live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family fun activities. For more information, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

Written by John Callow, assistant manager, Riverbend Park

UPDATE: April 2, 2014

Bumblebees are big fans of bluebells, too.

Bumblebees are big fans of bluebells, too.


UPDATE: March 28, 2014

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Snow earlier this week and frigid nights can’t stop the progressing bluebells. Their leaves continue to push through snow, ice and whatever else the weather brings. These hardy plants are starting to take over the forest floor. The dark leaves have now taken on their familiar succulent green color and the deep purple flower buds are clustering.

Riverbend Park visitors Mona Enquist-Johnston and Gary Johnston describe the annual explosion of color this way: “Carpets of purple and blue ring in the spring.”

The coming weeks will offer visitors one of nature’s finest floral displays. Spring beauties, cut-leaved toothworts, trout lilies, and a host of other beautiful wildflowers will mix in and add texture to the bluebell palette. One of the earliest wildflowers, harbinger of spring, is already in bloom. This small member of the parsley family stands only two to three inches tall.

When the flowers are in bloom, take time to thank a pollinator. Pollination of spring wildflowers is completed by a host of insects. Bees and butterflies visit the colorful blooms spreading pollen. Some wild flowers like the sessile trillium do not rely on brightly colored blooms that attract visual pollinators. Their flowers produce a rotting smell which attracts beetles and flies to spread pollen. Stop at a cluster of wildflowers for five minutes and observe the wide variety of bees, butterflies, flies, and beetles hard at work.

Julie Gurnee, senior interpreter at Riverbend Park, said, “When the bluebells blanket the woods of Riverbend, it reminds me to take a closer look, for this is the time of year there are many more elusive treasures to be found.  This is the time to stop, look, and discover other spring ephemerals that may be tucked away in the woods.”

Don’t forget to join us at Riverbend Park on April 12 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. as we celebrate the bluebells at our second annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival. The event costs just $5 per person and features live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family-fun activities. For more information, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

Written by John Callow, assistant manager, Riverbend Park

UPDATE: March 14, 2014

Virginia bluebells push through the floodplain at Riverbend Park.

Virginia bluebells push through the floodplain at Riverbend Park.

March has arrived with snow, sun, and temperatures that are bouncing around like a rubber ball.  Despite the dramatic weather, Virginia bluebells continue to push through the fallen leaves and soil as they progress toward their breathtaking explosion of color in April. Leaves are just starting to transition from deep purple to hints of delicate green.

The cherry blossoms are predicted to peak April 8 through12. At Riverbend Park, we expect the bluebells to peak between April 8 and April 15, just in time for the Bluebells at the Bend Festival slated for April 12, 2014. Unlike the cherry blossoms, which were a gift from Japan, the bluebells are a native gift to river floodplains and Riverbend Park provides the perfect garden.

Bluebells, along with many other spring wildflowers including spring beauties and cut-leaved toothwort, are called spring ephemerals. They bloom early and then by May all that is left are withering leaves and seeds. Come mid-May, bluebells pull a vanishing act, leaving no visible trace of their existence. All of these hardy wildflowers take advantage of the sunlight reaching the forest floor before the towering trees re-grow their leaves and close the forest canopy. In March more than 50 percent of the available sunlight reaches the forest floor. By mid-April this drops to 30 percent and then to 10 percent come May.

The bluebells and other spring wildflowers produce a different experience for everyone. The experience is personal and cannot be duplicated by pictures or stories. I enjoy talking to visitors and staff about the bluebells and hearing their stories. Each experience is unique and private, but I am glad they decide to share it with me.

“When you’re standing at a certain point on the trail and you can see just a covering of this cheery blue color all over, it gives you this sense of peace and tranquility that couldn’t possibly be found in any other setting,” said Michelle Brannon, an interpretive naturalist at Riverbend Park. “My favorite part about walking through the bluebells is finding the odd ones; the random little bursts of pink or the rarer blooms of white are like the flowers are sending you on their own little scavenger hunt.”

February 24, 2014

Virginia bluebells resemble dark purple spinach leaves.

Virginia bluebells resemble dark purple spinach leaves.

Winter’s grip gradually relaxes with each passing day. Patches of snow cling to every bit of shade as the late winter sun shines through the leafless trees. Something stirs just under the surface that reminds us of nature’s yearly cycle and the interaction between ecosystems.

Spring wildflowers are taking in nutrients and available water and pressuring the soil as they prepare to erupt with an array of blooms that magnificently display the season. One wildflower in particular shows its colors like no other, the Virginia bluebell (Mertensia Virginica).

“The most important part of bluebell season is when the purplish green leaves start breaking the soil in late winter early spring. It gives one hope that spring is riding the longer days to arrive,” Fairfax County Park Authority Naturalist Jim Dewing said.

The scientific name honors the German botanist Franz Karl Mertens, a German botanist (1764-1831.) The species name refers to Virginia, where the plant was first identified. Thomas Jefferson grew Virginia bluebells at Monticello. The bluebells at Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Va., were not planted by anyone; the river, wildlife, and climate have all pitched in to create this native garden.

Bluebells thrive in rich floodplain soils that are replenished each year by floods. This time of year they superficially resemble dark purple spinach leaves slicing through the sand and silt. By mid-April their purplish blue blooms will adorn acres and acres of forest floor at Riverbend Park.

Bluebells spread like a carpet of blue at Riverbend Park.

Bluebells spread like a carpet of blue at Riverbend Park.

I invite you to come to Riverbend Park on Saturday, April 12, 2014 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as we celebrate spring at our Second Annual Bluebells at the Bend Festival with live music, wildflower walks, live animals, face painting, wagon rides, and other family fun activities. Admission to the event is $5 per person. For more information, call Riverbend Park at 703-759-9018.

This page will be updated weekly with photos of the blooming bluebells, so check back often.

Author John Callow is the assistant manager at Riverbend Park.

What’s Going On At The Mill?

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When the Colvin Run Mill Historic Site first opened to the public in 1972, it was the culmination of over four years of exhausting preservation, restoration and recreation efforts.  Thanks to the hard work and craftsmanship of many individuals, the mill proudly featured an operational pair of millstones capable of grinding grains. Now, some 42 years after that date, the rest of the mill is being restored.

Based on the designs of the mechanical genius Oliver Evans, the Colvin Run Mill Restoration Project will complete the work started during the Nixon administration. With functioning grain elevators, wooden line shafts, grain cleaners and product sifters, the fully restored mill will stand as living testament to America’s industrial infancy, all the while producing wheat flour and cornmeal as it did over 200 years ago. The massive oak timbers and hand-crafted gears of the mill will once again provide a working link between the past, present and future of Fairfax County.

Leading the team on this monumental project is Ben Hassett, America’s only classically trained millwright (mill restoration specialist). Together with our miller, Mason Maddox, and the rest of the mill’s professional and volunteer staff, this expert assemblage has but one common goal – to make Colvin Run Mill the finest working example of federal period technology anywhere.

Funded in part by a Partners in Preservation grant from American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this exciting work started in January and has an anticipated completion date of November 2014. During that time, special tours featuring not only the history of the mill but also the restoration work in progress will be given.

Author Mike Henry is the site administrator for Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. The mill is supported by the efforts of the Friends of Colvin Run Mill.

Shared Stewardship Versus Stolen History

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The citizens of Fairfax County celebrate their history and take pride in the county’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.  For this reason, when a co-worker sent me a photograph published in the January 4, 2014 edition of The Washington Post, I initially responded with distress only later tempered by introspection.  The image depicted the dark silhouette of an adolescent contrasted against a snow-brightened landscape.  The caption indicated that the young man and his father were metal detecting for, “whatever the ground will offer us,” somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Fairfax, a county-owned and operated park.  I was worried that this activity occurred on publicly-owned parkland.  For, although metal detecting is allowed on private property with the expressed consent of the landowner, it is a violation of park regulations and a Class 4 misdemeanor to use a metal detector on parkland.  According to the Virginia Antiquities Act, metal detecting on a state-designated archaeological site is a Class 1 misdemeanor.  The former is punishable by a $250.00 fine; the latter by a fine of $2500.00 and/or a year in jail.

Introspection came with the realization that otherwise concerned, well-intended, and respectful citizens sometimes engage in these activities because professional archaeologists and resource managers have been remiss in their responsibilities to engage and educate the public.  We have a poor record in returning to the community what we learn through careful, scientific study.  We often come across as boringly technical and aloof, at best.  At our worst, we are perceived as indifferent, snobbish, and elitist.  This is a huge disservice not only to our profession which relies on public support to continue in our roles; but, more importantly, rather than empower citizens as responsible stewards, oversights in public engagement can result in what is tantamount to the theft of our shared heritage.

Archaeology is a discipline of context.  We often gain our most valuable information about lives past through mundane items, casually discarded.  For an example, let me turn to the recent work of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s, Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve.  With funds derived from a land swap and dedicated to understanding our natural and cultural resources, CART has been conducting scientific archaeological studies at the park.  Recently they discovered a pit, filled and forgotten centuries in the past.  Archaeologists recognize this type of pit as almost exclusively the work of enslaved Africans and African Americans.  Careful laboratory and special analyses were conducted on the artifacts and even the soil was carefully excavated from this pit so as to preserve the context of each and every find.

The dirt contained neither Civil War memorabilia nor articles of any inherent value.  Yet, the everyday refuse within the pit proved a fount of knowledge.  Simple hand-made nails demonstrated that a structure, perhaps a kitchen, had overlaid the pit when it was in use.  Broken pottery and tobacco pipe fragments indicated that it had been filled during the mid to late 1700s.  Meticulous methods allowed CART to find the smallest of artifacts, straight pins and tiny glass beads, likely evidence of a woman’s presence.  Thousands of miniscule fish bones and scales indicated specific species of fish that were being eaten.  Analysis of seeds revealed not only the composition of the native forest at the time, but also evidenced the introduction of cultivated species for both consumption and ornamentation.  In short, professionally-led archaeological study revived the landscape and life-ways of an enslaved Fairfax woman who lived over 250 years ago and who, until now, circumstances excluded from our understanding of our shared past.

These new understandings were only possible because of the application of detailed archaeological methods designed to preserve the context of even the smallest artifacts and seeds. We are able to understand the information from this feature because we can see all of the components together. Removing objects from this assemblage paints an incomplete picture, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Recent, popular television shows and profit-driven events have romanticized metal detecting, even suggesting that its practitioners are part of the preservation process.  However, the reduction of artifacts to a monetary value or conversation pieces deteriorating on fireplace mantles wastes a non-renewable resource.  Unless done as part of a professional study and under the supervision of trained archaeologists, it deprives the many of their past for the benefit of the few. It steals our history, robbing our citizens of that which inherently belongs to all; our cultural heritage.

Our work is only possible through the support and understanding of the public we serve.  Towards this end we attempt to give back what we learn through talks to school groups and scouts, the conduct of youth summer camps, college internship programs, and participation at public and professional events and conferences.  Perhaps our best outreach comes from our active volunteer program which is essential to our success and which we invite all interested parties to join.  It is our goal that all residents will understand, enjoy, and respect our heritage and through common interested become stewardship partners.

Written by Christopher Sperling, senior archaeologist, Fairfax County Park Authority

Mysterious Timbers Unearthed At Sully

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You never know what might turn up. Miss Utility is always warning us not to dig without checking where utility lines lay. And as we well know, in this historic Chesapeake area, something valuable may be there.

There’s a new sewer line being laid near the new Sully Historic Site Visitor Center. On December 19, 2013, the Park Authority’s Cultural Resource Management and Protection Branch (CRMPB) received a curious and inviting message from the installation site. Senior Archaeologist Chris Sperling went to check it out.

After an initial reconnaissance, he set aside a day to record his findings. In the words of the cultural resource professionals, the excavation of the sewer trench impacted an archaeological feature.

In short, they found something.

What they found was another trench, generally oriented along a southwest – northeast axis.  The crew excavating the sewer trench ceased working after noticing metal roofing and wooden logs in the ground and contacted the CRMPB.  Chris found that construction debris at the base of the discovered trench contained logs and modern (within the last 75 years) roofing materials.  However, there also were large, hand-hewn timbers, including one with a mortise and tenon joint.  There were “voids” below the logs and timbers, which suggests that the trench goes deeper into the ground than what could be seen.

The critical part of this discovery is that the construction technique of these hand-hewn timbers has not been much used in the past 100 years and hasn’t been common for 200 years.  The timbers are inconsistent with the rest of the deposit, which also contained a 1960 penny.

Chris’ first guess about the area is that sometime in the mid-20th century a ditch or gully was filled to grade. There were areas where the logs, timbers and roofing materials were covered with plastic, and the plastic had approximately three feet of “clean” fill dirt placed on top of it.  The logs and roofing are contemporary, but the timbers must have come from a historic structure.  Where that structure was, and what it was, cannot be determined.

If we assume that the timbers came from a structure that was located on that spot, whatever was there likely was there in the early years of Sully Historic Site.

Sully Historic Site Manager Carol McDonnell noted that the find is around the site’s 18th century barnyard, so those timbers may have been ones that were saved, but it would be hard to place what structure they came from.  A total excavation of the barnyard area is among the future plans for Sully, but there’s no funding for it at this time.

The excavation crew did not need to dig deeper, so Chris asked for a layer of stone to be placed above the discovery and that the sewer be laid on top of the stone.  Although that means no more searching at this time, it also means Chris’ records will show where this feature is so that any future workers in the area will know it’s there before they start digging.

Chris’s early notes cite the excavation crew and their managers for taking the time to call the CRMPB office and allowing cultural resource staffers to do what was needed. As a result, something was found, and nothing significant was impacted.

For the time being, we know that some structure was there, and we’ve opened the door for someone in the future to have some fun digging up a piece of the past that isn’t going anywhere.

This blog was compiled from notes written by Fairfax County Park Authority Senior Archaeologist Chris Sperling.