What connects you to this place, to Fairfax County?
I recently returned from a decade away from the county, my home since 1976. That home was on land George Washington used as a pig farm. Long before the first president had his turn with it, the land sustained nomadic Native Americans.
I’ve reconnected with the natural history of this place through the Virginia Master Naturalist Program. Our class met weekly for three months in the fall of 2016 and explored an array of natural history topics via four field trips led by experts.
We got local. We learned it takes 500 years to create one inch of soil, and we learned how to read soil layers in the Potomac flood plain at Riverbend Park. We learned about a dragonfly citizen science project, and I read that Riverbend provides habitat for 10 percent of North America’s dragonfly species. Here, we collected and released aquatic insects, crayfish, and other macroinvetebrates to determine the health of a stream. We found stoneflies, scuds, netspinners, and other creatures. Late summer was dry, water flow was low, and our sample was too small to determine if the balance of life in the stream indicated the water was healthy for animals intolerant of pollution.
You wouldn’t have known any of this if you had been watching us. I imagine I wasn’t the only one who felt like a kid, romping in the stream, making discoveries. I saw bizarre-looking creatures I’d never known and others I hadn’t seen since I was seven or eight poking around the woods behind my neighbors’ houses.
The class also visited Huntley Meadows Park and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. At Huntley Meadows, we identified birds and searched for frogs, toads, and any of the five salamander species you can find in the county. We found two. Although I grew up near Huntley Meadows, I visited the county’s largest remaining non-tidal wetland this time with renewed interest. It warmed my heart to return for one of the park’s regular Monday morning bird walks and meet a young birder, a girl who visited regularly and knew where and when to see different birds. In my youth, I’d never heard of EC Lawrence Park. What a treat there to find second and third growth forests with striking transitions in the landscape as you walk from stream valley to an upland mature oak-hickory stand.
I knew going into the training that I would value our experience in the field, assimilating more deeply what I’d learned in class. Learning by doing is always a good thing. What surprised me was how much I missed being out in nature for hours at a time.
You use all your senses. You clear your head. You relax. Watch a heron hunt for food, and you slow down. Listen for bird calls, and you tune in on a different level. See a box turtle on the side of the trail, and the botanist stops to talk about turtles.
Follow your nose, and you’ll know when you’re near a wetland. We smell the gases released by microbes that feed on decaying plants and animals, especially at low tide. What I didn’t realize, until we visited the Great Marsh at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, was what happens when you tap your toes at the water’s edge. Here, when you tap at soil that is submerged much of the time, the bubbles you see are from microbes releasing gaseous compounds, such as nitrogen, nitrous oxide, and methane, as they break down decaying plants and animals. Next door, at Mason Neck State Park, we got to know trees by their buds or furrowed bark.
For our final class, we offered five-minute interpretive presentations—as uniquely different as the students. Creative. I especially liked a demonstration of woodpecker adaptations. I was awestruck to learn woodpeckers withstand a g-force up to 1200 while drumming a tree up to 22 times each second, without getting a concussion, while fighter pilot trainees can barely withstand 10.
As I reconnected with local plants and animals, I questioned why Master Naturalist students care about the natural world. Why do we care enough to dedicate time for the class and volunteer 40 hours a year to maintain Master Naturalist certification? As we wrapped up the class, I asked each student to think back to when they were a kid, about a time when they had a meaningful connection with nature. Then, students wrote one word that speaks to their connection with nature.
My word was “awe.” I like University of California Professor Dacher Keltner’s definition of awe: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” We’re all connected to the natural world, though that’s easy to forget as we live in our constructed environment. It’s not difficult to experience awe. Perhaps you’ll see it in a dramatic sunrise, or unique cloud patterns, or when you come upon an especially grand tree. Maybe you’ll marvel in the fleeting moment when a White Egret’s wings are backlit as it lifts off with its catch. Or, you just might stop and listen, really listen, next time you hear a woodpecker drumming.
I may see you at a nature center or on a trail, and I may ask you: What’s your word for your connection to this place?
Learn more about the Fairfax Master Naturalist Program at www.vmnfairfax.org/SitePages/Home.aspx. Spring 2017 applications must be postmarked by January 23, 2017.
Author Maria Parisi is a brand new Fairfax Master Naturalist.