Tag Archives: Volunteer

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

Something Old, Something New

New Nature Programs Planned at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

This is no time to get lost in nostalgia. True, December holidays are a time of tradition, and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) is reaching back to its past by continuing its annual holiday festivities, such as Holidays at Walney Farm. But staff has eyes peering ahead to the future.

Snow-covered holly berries

Snow-covered holly berries

New programs are coming in the new year, and with them come opportunities for you to spend time outdoors, to imagine the past in the very place where history happened, and to become a park steward. Stewards are caretakers and adventurers, seeking knowledge and understanding, new and special relationships. Many people visit Ellanor C. Lawrence Park each day and enjoy its natural beauty as they walk or jog. Some seek a connection and would heartily agree with Ellanor Lawrence, one of the park’s greatest stewards, that this place “seems to have a kind of living spirit that needs the kind of love you and I have for it.”

Interpretative programs are an important and fun means to developing that special connection with stewardship. William Carr, the high school graduate who taught the first class on outdoor education at Columbia University, wrote, “Not having an interpreter in a park is like inviting a guest to your house, opening the door, and disappearing.” Programs reveal the amazing web of life that exists within the park’s many habitats and allow voices from the past to speak once again. They provide opportunities for learning, inspire curiosity, and engender a sense of wonder that we often leave only to children to enjoy. In a program with an interpreter you can uncover millipedes that smell like almond cookies, stroke the smooth, cool skin of a live snake, or try a taste of hard times washed down with sweet potato coffee.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

January provides an opportunity for you to learn how you affect a forest and how that forest shapes your life. It may not be obvious, but we live in a forest biome. How we treat that land, whether it is our parkland or our own backyard, has lasting impact. The new programs start with a January expedition to see Winter Birds at Mason Neck. You’ll join naturalists Michael Gregory and Megan Tolosa in exploring the Great Marsh Trail at the Elizabeth Hartwell Wildlife Refuge. By the end of this trek, you’ll have an understanding of the ways in which ECLP, the river, its winter birds and you are all connected. Families and dedicated birders both will fit well in this program.

February rolls out the Forest Treasure Campfire. Bundle up and hear the crackle of fire-licked logs while learning how trees helped to build our nation, figuratively and literally. You can bet the guides will bring along s’mores.

By March, it’s time to get down and get your hands dirty. Uncover the diversity of soil organisms and the crucial role that invertebrates play in keeping forests healthy at the new Life in the Leaf Litter program. Then, wash the dirt off your hands because you may want to return to the park for some Confederate cake and sweet potato coffee.  That’s part of another new program in March. Hard Times, Difficult Choices will take a look at the struggles and critical choices made by some of the people who lived and worked at Walney, the Machen family farm that once encompassed Ellanor C. Lawrence Park.

RAC debuts in March when spring critters are shifting out of winter patterns. The Reptile and Amphibian Club is for kids 6 to 15 years old. Award-winning naturalist Hayley Ake guides them through a one-hour adventure with snakes, lizards, salamanders, turtles and frogs. RAC will join ECLP’s already-established Bird Watching Club as a regular, once-a-month gathering at the park.

Along with spring showers, April will produce ECLP’s first Wild Bird Spring Camp (registration begins February 14). Kids will be able to spend the week of April 14 through 18 searching the park’s diverse habitats to discover and identify species that reside in the park or that may be passing through on their spring migrations. Naturalist Megan Tolosa will keep the week lively with her enthusiasm and her love of birds.

So set aside the nostalgia, plan a new adventure this year, attend some programs and become a park steward. Who knows where that will take you: park contributor? Advocate? Volunteer? Spend time in your parks this spring and discover a new you.

For information more information on programs at ECLP, visit their web page. Information about nature programs throughout the park system also is online.

Author Cheryl-Ann Repetti is a naturalist at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in western Fairfax County.