Saturday, November 12, 2016

MD Hampton National Historic Site: An Earth-Quaker Outing

I didn't take a very long hike today as I had planned to meet a group of Quaker folks for a pre-planned visit to Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, Maryland. We had arranged for this tour of "the other side of the road" many months ago and it had been on my calendar since mid-summer. Our guide was cultural historian Angela Roberts-Burton, who in the past year has legally changed her name to honor her ancestry of Ghana and Ivory Coast. She introduced herself with the beautiful name, Naquali. As she said her name slowly again for a hard-of-hearing elder, a breeze blew through a tree nearby that seemed to whisper names long forgotten or never known on this old plantation, the largest in the state of Maryland during the 1800s, holding in bondage over 300 enslaved people at its height of iron and agricultural production.

Our group is very diverse. We call ourselves the "Earth-Quakers" and try to arrange a Meet Up every few months. We are all concerned for our environment, but because we have many older members we try to make sure to arrange outings that don't involve hikes that are too long or difficult. This seemed like a great place to gather after a contentious and often nasty election cycle not only to enjoy our time outdoors together, but to make sense of where we should each focus our attention on issues of environment, climate change, and conservation. Some came with heavy hearts, others with smiles on their faces hiding deep concerns, and others (like me) who were hoping to find some meaning in today's experience to help us make sense of what happens next.

Laborer, unnamed.
Naquali gave a beautiful tour. She did not enter into character, but spoke to us frankly and openly about the language of oppression. "I do not use the word slave," she said. "I prefer the word enslaved. The word slave objectifies the person, who like you and I right now, had fears, joys, hopes, and identities that were as complex as any of you standing in this circle." She explained her decision to legally change her name. "Although my birth name is beautiful and I love it, I did not know who, really, I am. Where did I come from? Who were my ancestors known by before capture and sale?" She pointed out that even with the precise record keeping of the plantation offices, enslaved blacks and whites were often not known by their original names. Names were given to them upon the slaver's auction blocks. And what about those enslaved who worked here before the African slave trade had even begun? "The British emptied their own orphanages, workhouses, debtor prisons, and jails. They poured their unwanted people into the colonies as free labor."  

Slave quarter cabin window reflects the stone tenant farmer house across the yard.

As we walked quietly down the lane to the slave quarter cabins I thought about the power of names and naming. The ugliness that has taken hold of our society is full of name-calling and threats against those different from and threatening to others. Some in our group had stories to share from the past few days. Naquali explained the role of oppression and oppressors in a modern context, comparing the use of the term slave owners to those holding bondage over others. How does this occur today? How do we recognize in respectful as well as in derogatory terms those who hold power over others?

Overseer's house with bell.
Overseer's Office door.

Our tour-turned-discussion lasted for over two hours. The sun was getting low when we finally said goodbye to a most excellent host who delivered such a brave and thought-provoking talk. I am so happy the National Park Service has her here but I am especially happy for her students who were also in attendance. She serves as an adjunct professor of African diaspora history at a local university and I really loved seeing their faces as she came down the lane dressed in period clothing to greet us. As we left the overseer's house, she rang the big bell to send us off. I walked uphill towards the mansion, once the largest home in Maryland, but I did not care to go in. Instead I wandered among the big trees

House servant nurse minding child.

Old trees have a calming nature about them. They've witnessed a lot, but they stay pretty quiet about it. Although there are no hiking trails at Hampton National Historical Site, I made a good mile just wandering from tree to tree. I wandered until I felt a little better about things then sat down to have a snack at a picnic table. I heard a familiar voice call my name - a friend from where I live up in PA. We chatted about things and about each of us was feeling. She voted differently than I did, but she understood the pain that many are feeling. She had hope, however, that things would change. I expressed my concern for things like climate change and the protection of wilderness and federal lands. We both agreed that our beloved National Park System needed much more support than they are getting. Staffing is at an all time low. Morale is low. Pay is low. "This makes the NPS vulnerable," she said, "And I agree we need to work to protect it and find the support they need." 

Basswood twin trunks connect at the middle leaving a view space.

Here we were agreeing on issues, having good conversation, and hoping for a better future for our shared environmental concerns. I looked up at the tree over our picnic table and saw that it was a joined basswood. Two huge strong trunks growing from the enormous ancient base, somehow connected in the middle creating a beautiful little space to see through. "That's us," I said to my friend, "You are one trunk and I am the other, and see how we two can see ahead through that space we make?"

A two-hundred year old springhead hasn't stopped flowing.

We walked back to the other side of the road, leaving the manicured grounds of the plantation house to re-enter the working landscape of the plantation farm. We carefully stepped down into the ice house where enslaved workers delivered ice cut from the ponds and rivers nearby to fill the cavernous cylindrical stone-lined pit beneath an earthen dome. We stopped to admire the stables where champion thoroughbreds were kept as well as the valuable carriage horses. Across the road the two hundred year old spring continues to empty water into the cooling channels of the spring house. 

Up from the underground ice house.

Stone-built stables of two centuries.

Double beech.

A tenant farmer's main room- what was rented - what was made (and owned?)

Tenant farmer's empty bed.
Our Earth-Quaker group had been pretty large so I didn't get a chance to peek inside the converted tenant house. It had been a former slave quarters, but after emancipation many of the quarters were transformed for share-cropper families - another form of oppression in its own right. Nothing was owned by the farmer, neither the equipment, horses, even the beds and chairs were rented to the occupants. What little was left after a harvest toll was taken barely afforded the furniture unless it was made (as some of it here was) by the craftsmen-farmer and his family. I spent a god deal of time just breathing in that space. The empty bed, again.

Yin-Yang Scyamore!

On the way to the car I saw a most incredible sycamore and I had to go visit her. My friend from up home went her own way but reminded me that a local bluegrass player, a local legend, was minding his store up our way for the last weekend before closing for the winter. Oh! I had to go visit before he closed - I have wanted to ask him about mandolin lessons for a long time but wasn't sure if he was taking winter students. I had to hurry. But the tree called me back. Look closer. Ah, yes, Earth-Quakers, a tree for the times. And whisper of a breeze blew through...

Two opposing forces containing the seed of the other.

P.S.  I made it to Gatchetville in time to see Carroll before the stored closed. Yes! I'm his winter student! Another story for another (winter) day!


We discussed reading this book over the winter. Naquali highly recommended it as the authors address both the pre-African slave trade in British laborers (mostly children) and the African slave trade that fueled American plantations. These are the historic landscapes that have shaped our ideas of resistance and rebellion, she said. We were standing in the middle of one of the largest.

 Image result for Rebel on the Plantation

Hampton National Historic Site is located just outside the Baltimore Beltway (I-695) on the Dulaney Valley Road exit.

Monday, November 7, 2016

MA Walden Pond: The Cormorant Preferred Hawthorne

A view to the inside - recreation of Thoreau's cabin.

I met two writer friends at Walden Pond early in the morning on Friday for an ambling stroll around Walden Pond. Patty earned her doctorate many years ago doing research on Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House in Concord. Paul is a farm-based educator and writer on at a community farm not far away. He fancies himself an essayist in the style of Thoreau.

National Historic Landmark designation declared in 1965.

We met at the reconstructed/recreated cabin near the path to the pond as soon as the park opened. This is not the original cabin and does not stand where the original stood. But it gave us a good starting point to decide who was going where, for how long, and when to meet up again and go over our thoughts and any writing we did. I haven't had a decent writer's group experience in forever, so I was pretty excited. "Walking around the pond is a pilgrimage for a lot of folks," said Paul. "I suggest - if you haven't been here before - do that loop first." I hadn't been here before, so that's what I did. Patty headed uphill to the Esker Trail. Paul walked with me until he found a warm spot of sandy beach on which to compose his essay.

It was not always dry land where we dwell.
- Henry David Thoreau

Black oak - the bark was used for tanning leather.

I was having Pleistocene thoughts as I rounded the bend of the Pond Trail towards one of many grass meadows that farmers in Thoreau's day would harvest for hay. These hollows can be from an acre to hundreds of acres. The meadow grass was the critical piece in a complicated agricultural matrix that dated to settlement times and centered upon livestock husbandry. Without the meadows, there would have been no Concord. The meadows are as much an artifact of Colonial farmers as they are of Pleistocene glacial comings and goings.

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
- Henry David Thoreau

A giant pine was laid down in sections.

By the time Thoreau occupied his cabin for his two-year experiment in solitude, colonial agricultural traditions had changed in Concord. The agroecological methods and practices that had made  Colonial farmers very successful was switching over to a commercial-consumer brand of farming, not a bad thing for the farmers who found eager buyers for their dairy products in the bustling city of Boston. But the old ways were rapidly disappearing. Thoreau and his dear friend Emerson would often take long walks together and talk about the changes.

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and you have lived well.
 – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Duff layer under a canopy of white pine and red oak.

Walden Pond is a kettle hole, a deep lake of water left from a chunk of glacier ice that broke away during the retreat of ice sheets a mile thick over Concord, ten thousand years ago. I used to work in a state park in Vermont that had a kettle hole pond. Shallow on the edges. Deep in the middle. The land around the pond is a rubble pile of glacial till and gravel. The esker ridge where Patty was hiking was a remnant river bed, now a ridgeline that marked where meltwaters coursed over and through the retreating glacier. The sandy shore on which Paul was writing is the ground-up remains of mountain tops and bedrock released from the melting berg, lake sediments, and sand. The woods grow thick on the boulder rubble of glacial debris.

The good news is that the moment you decide that what you know is more important than what you have been taught to believe, you will have shifted gears in your quest for abundance. Success comes from within, not from without.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Layers of white pine and red oak.

Winterberry was bright against the dry browns of the forest floor. New England, parts of the Mid-Atlantic, and the South have been experiencing a summer and fall drought so I was surprised to see this native holly in such bright profusion when everything else was frost-killed or dried up. But then I looked a little closer. The winterbery were growing on some of the best glacial soils for moisture retention, old lake bottom silts in a small cove of the pond. Juncos flitted from branch to branch ahead of me. They'll soon be in my neck of the woods in South-Central Pennsylvania.

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.
- Henry David Thoreau

Winterberry, a small native holly.

I came to the site of Thoreau's original cabin, outlined in granite blocks. (Later, on a conference tour, I learned from a woman who lives in the farmhouse down the road from here that the cabin had been moved to a place in town, then to her farm for use as a pigsty until it weathered away.) Henry lived in solitude here but walked into town every few days, worked as a surveyor for farmers in the area, and rambled a lot with Emerson. The old roads are all still here. I wandered around them for a long while. Rough, marginal land. It wasn't much good for Colonial farmers, so it stayed in woods for a long while until wood became a commodity sold to markets "away." But what was this place like before Colonial settler farmers improved what they could? What came before the native people who practiced shifting agriculture throughout the area for thousands of years?

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
-Henry David Thoreau

Dr. Marjorie Winkler, paleoecologist with the University of Wisconsin, conducted a lake sediment core study here in the 1979. Core samples revealed some pretty amazing changes on this land. Combining this study with core samples taken from other kettle holes in the area, she and her team have described a 12,000 year-old tundra blanketed by spruce mat and grass. 9,500 years ago the scene had shifted to alder thickets, jack pine, and mixed spruce boreal woods. The pollen samples drawn from the cores vividly show the coming of the hickory woods, ash, white cedar, chestnut and white pine. Then the shift: ragweed in abundance! Here came the settlers! The sediments describe early American farmers preference for white pine over pitch pine. There were layers of charcoal ash from numerous forest fires (one of these was started accidentally by Thoreau himself), and precisely in 1913 - the disappearance of chestnut pollen. What becomes evident in this study and several others ( I swear Walden Pond has been the most studied pond in U.S. history...) is that there is no stable state for the forests here and across the glacial landscapes of New England and northern Pennsylvania. It is a long, complex story of constant change.

The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Election cake fungi." (See Notes at bottom)

Forest dynamics are governed by changes in climate, adaptations, soil types, and disturbance cycles. Hurricanes and wind events, fire cycles that are natural as well as managed by people. Disruptions caused by diseases and insect outbreaks can reset certain growth cycles and introduce phases of release for different plant species. Late comers to Walden Woods story are hickory and chestnut, crossing the Appalachians from west to east five thousand years ago. There seems to be no clear idea of what a typical New England forest should be because, it seems, there never has been one.

An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
- Thoreau, Journal 1859

Red oak.
White pine.

I wandered the old roads and imagined walking behind Emerson and Thoreau, imagining I could eavesdrop on their conversations. Emerson owned these woods and made it possible for his younger friend to engage in purposeful, simple living here. It was a project Thoreau had long dreamed of doing. He would go on to write later about his experiences in Walden.

 Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such, — This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.
- Thoreau, Walden

Wyman Road.
I found my way back down to the pond and saw that Paul had picked up his camp chair and was walking back. I hadn't yet written a word, but I upped my pace a little to see if I could find a place near the Esker Trail to write a few thoughts. I penned some not-too-deep questions. Is this where the long tap root of America's environmentalism began?  Are there deeper roots yet among the skilled, place-adapted farmers who knew their soils? With evidence of great stewardship for the land, well documented by historian Brian Donahue and others, I wondered in my journal how to connect the environmental movement of the 20th century to farming of the 18th century. Thoreau, however, sometimes had different ideas about farming and farmers of his time, when large commercial networks began to drive the rural production pipeline to urban markets.

I would rather save one of these hawks than have a hundred hens and chickens. It is worth more to see them soar, especially now that they are so rare in the landscape. It is easy to buy eggs, but not to buy hen-hawks. My neighbors would not hesitate to shoot the last pair of hen-hawks in the town to save a few of their chickens! But such economy is narrow and grovelling. It is unnecessarily to sacrifice the greater value to the less. I would rather never taste chickens’ meat nor hens’ eggs than never to see a hawk sailing through the upper air again. This sight is worth incomparably more than a chicken soup or a boiled egg. So we exterminate the deer and substitute the hog.
- Henry David Thoreau, Journal 1853

White cedar shake roof to the woodshed.
I wasn't making a very good attempt at thinking deeply about anything, however. I just sort of stopped thinking. I hadn't actually walked the "pilgrimage trail" around the pond. Instead, I had wandered everywhere in every direction. I watched a man fish from his canoe then went in search of birds in the young pines. I poked around a patch of dry summer stalks and leaves. I stood very near a double crested cormorant and asked him how the fishing was. He was a great listener. I read to him from a National Park Service brochure on Concord's famous authors. He preened.

The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

" A clear, deep and green well," wrote Thoreau of Walden Pond.

Walden Pond is nothing as it was in Thoreau's day. Winkler's core studies and subsequent water quality work on this and other nearby ponds have shown that in the last century a great change has occurred. The presence and persistent impact of humans in the modern era has tainted, even polluted, the water with agricultural chemicals, sewage seepage from nearby homes, and the direct effect of 600,000 visitors a year, most of whom will who swim (and pee) here (and apply copious amounts of sunscreen).  Even the cormorant, who was clearly very used to people coming very close, has left an impact on the pond. His stately glacial boulder perch showed that he has fed from the pond throughout the season!

Take time by the forelock. Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.
- Thoreau, Journal 1859

Double-crested cormorant.

Not using zoom. He allowed me to walk right up to him as he preened.

So there I was reading to a cormorant, and the thought occurred to me that I should probably take some notes on the conversation. For every sentence I read, he preened a row of feathers and slicked them with oil from his gland until he shone like an armored knight. This went on until the brochure had been read then he looked out over the water. I told him about Louisa May Alcott and Nathanial Hawthorn and the great house, Wayside. He preened his breast. I read to him some quotes I'd copied from a book I'd been reading the night before, snippets of the meaning of friendship and the art of the saunter. He carefully worked across an underwing then arranged and oiled every scale-like feather on the topwing. Then I wrote a few lines about the experience of reading Hawthorne to a cormorant while visiting Walden Pond. It seemed sort of naughty, somewhat daring. Sorry, Henry, but I think the bird preferred Hawthorne.

We dream in our waking moments, and walk in our sleep.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Rock pile near the original cabin site.

I wrote about the cormorant in my journal.

I am close to a cormorant, able to study him oily gleam in early November sun. He eyes me with no curiosity, but certainly tolerance. I am not his first human companion. He preens when I read and looks out over the water when I stop to write. I am so close that I can see the pupil of his eye whirl around under its goose-pimpled top and bottom lid. I was once closer to a cormorant than this when I carried a dying bird from the edge of surf on a South Carolina barrier island beach. The gleam had gone out of his feathers. He died waterlogged and cold. But here, this guardian of Walden Pond, handsome in his shining suit of feathers, snaps his bill and winks into the sun. "Read me more of that Hawthorne," he says, "I tire of Thoreau."

Memorial to a cabin.
I said goodbye to the cormorant and thanked him for the inspiration. At least I had a paragraph and all was not lost on this writer's ramble. I found Patty back at the cabin and Paul sitting on the steps of the new visitors center. We joined him there and read some of our work. Paul wrote an essay about what he imagined Thoreau would say about the upcoming election day. We giggled and clapped. Patty read a short poem, one of several she composed while sitting on a log on the Esker Trail. For us she read a poem about the dying of her cat Walden, named for the pond. She found him here as a stray kitten wandering around the parking area fifteen years ago. "He was a cat philosopher," she said later.

Wally lived in slow motion, the slow stroll, the slow stretch.
Wally passed in the garden, 
his leaving gifted with marigolds the color of candy corn.
Old, slow Walden.
Circled back to the garden path,
sniffed late summer twilight,
the air dry as old bones.
No rain.
No rain.

- Patty C.  (transcribed with permission)

Thoreau in heavy metal.

The weekend conference did not allow me much time to wander as I love to do on lunch walks, on travels, or afternoons after work. So this morning ramble with two writer friends was a special treat. I enjoyed my visit to Walden Pond and was glad we didn't encounter the throngs of people pictured in photographs of hot summer days. The conference was wonderful and energizing, however, and I am so honored to have received an award for my work in ag education. But take no offense conference goers and planning committee, but reading Hawthorne to a double crested cormorant was a hard act to follow!


There is a brand new Visitor Center at Walden Pond State Reservation, though the main exhibit area is not yet open as of this writing, the bookstore of the Thoreau Society is. What a beautiful shop!

Election Cake Fungi -

Park Info -

Anyone having access to scientific journals in paleo studies can easily find Winkler's published work on core samples of Walden and neighboring ponds. Here's the quick and dirty from an old NYT article for the rest of you:

Reading on the friendship between Thoreau and Emerson:

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

VA - Booker T. Washington National Monument: A Reconstruction Landscape

On my way home to Pennsylvania from South Carolina this week I stopped at Booker T. Washington National Monument in the Piedmont hills of Hardy County, Virginia. It's an interesting park to roam around, especially for reading the layers of landscape that portray an historic, commemorative, and conservation chapter in the American story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. 

Booker T. Washington

This is hard-scrabble farm country. The Virginia Piedmont hills and a long history of working the land hard, mainly for tobacco, stripped topsoil and nutrients from the ground. Clay and hard pan peeks up from overused areas and paths not covered in tarmac. Out on the pastures, a small mixed herd of livestock drops manure that revives, in a small way, some pretty tired land. "The livestock have only been around as long as the park," Ranger Betsy, park manager, explained. "Before acquisition  by the park service, this was quite a busy little tourist attraction. Before that, from when the farm was sold by Mrs. Burroughs after the Civil War to NPS acquisition, it was run-down, neglected, and very scrubby."  A small post office was constructed over the site where a slave cabin may have stood, where Booker was born into slavery in 1856. They issued commemorative stamps and minted coins to sell to visitors. "It was a booming attraction - but a lot was lost because of the lack of conservation concern. Hopefully we're making strides to correct a lot of those problems."

Tobacco hanging in the reconstructed drying barn.

I took a hike around the park, following the farm paths and then wandered down through a wooded valley on a mile-long loop trail. There are several open fields and a few meadows that at the time Booker was a boy, would have all been in tobacco. A hungry and labor-intensive crop, tobacco feeds heavily on the soils where it grows. It doesn't take long, less than a decade, for tobacco lands to show nutritive exhaustion. Considering that tobacco was grown through the Virginia Piedmont and Coastal Plain since the 1700s, this would have been some very tired land. Still, it was a cash crop that - in a good year - could make the farmers a decent dollar. In a bad year, when insects, drought, or blight got the better of a crop, families like Booker's worried that their masters would sell one or more of them off to cover the loss of tobacco earnings.

Tobacco in the demo garden.

Booker's family was owned by the Burroughs family who also owned the land they farmed. Land ownership was an important source of social position and wealth, a carry-over from colonial times thanks to the English concept of the estate, landed gentry, and social status. Even small holders gained a certain amount of prestige and respect from their community for owning land, and even after American won its independence from England, this very English system of class and position lasted well into and beyond the Civil War. But what didn't transfer quite as well as the class system, as an environmental student from Roanoke pointed out on our hike, was the idea of land care. "Every minute of the day, nearly year 'round, time was given to the tobacco crop or preparing the ground for the tobacco crop or curing the crop or weeding the crop. Setting time and effort aside to address issues of soil exhaustion, especially for small holders with limited labor forces - it affected the bottom line."

Slave cabin reconstruction.

At the time of the Civil War, scrubby, washed out edges of tobacco fields might erupt in pioneer stands of white pine or red cedar. These grew quickly and were certainly harvested as the wood was needed. A white pine sapling stand of a hundred trees could provide enough 8" round logs to build a cabin. The red cedar splits from trees less than a decade old could shingle its roof. 

Burrough's family home.

Today the site is a pleasant mix of fields and woods. Some of the wooded valley exhibits maturing stands of oak but there are signs of the nearly constant change that has defined this valley since early settlement. The small creek that starts at the livestock barn as a spring bubbling up from the meadow, descends into a valley where it begins to widen and meander. Here you can see up to four feet of soil atop a rough layer of weathered rock on the creek bed. This is washed away soil from the field upstream - two centuries of lost soils laid across a wide creek valley where a neighbor's cattle graze now.

Four feet of rich topsoil layer the valley.

Further along the loop trail the small creek joins a river. The trail leads through several open glades where high flood waters deposited berms of soil several feet high and almost block the view of the river. Hillsides show evidence of caving and scouring where floods impacted the high ground. Without forest cover upriver, or protective ground cover of any kind, naturally occurring flood cycles must have been dramatic during spring rains and hurricane season in fall as rivers ran thick with washed out soil.  By some accounts,  18th century to 19th century Virginia Piedmont lost two feet of soil when the land was nearly cleared of its forests and tobacco was King.

Former tobacco field, now meadow.

The eroded soil in the creek bed banks and the high flood berms along the river were some clues, but there were others. Looking up the hill at the high ridge of maturing poplar forest, interspersed with old pine and tulip poplar, I could see gullies running straight downhill from what would have been cleared land at the top. Hillsides too steep to plow were often left as scrub and when the farm was sold and later neglected, this scrub land released the next generation of forest. 

Maturing forest of white oak, tulip popular, and maple.

The woodlot where Booker and his family spent their precious free time, usually Sunday afternoons, offered wild berries in season, plenty of mushrooms sprouting from timbered ground, and some game hunting. Even a scrappy old woodlot provided a wide variety of forage food from second growth hickories, sumac, and walnut. This was a landscape of constant disturbance where the pioneer stage of a forest and its shaggy succession stages were most common.

Old field gullies are now thick with forest

My walk didn't take too long, but I spoke with some students about landscape history and we were back in the woods for over an hour. We heard downy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker, a pileated woodpecker. A red-tailed hawk wheeled overhead in a game of chase with a crow. We watched as the crow first dodged the hawk, then the pursued became the pursuer and the crow chased the hawk. Booker loved the woods and wrote often about  his time when he was a young boy on this land - watching nature, enjoying his time watching birds, insects, collecting leaves and flowers. As a father, he raised his children on a steady diet of nature study. The nature study movement, an important part of our conservation and education history, influenced his work as head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Nature was always a powerful influence and inspiration for Washington throughout his life and in the work of his students. 

Old red cedar on the edge of a pasture.

Looking around the woods we decided that most of the forest type we observed was transitioning from pineland to hardwood. Old pines stood sparsely among the canopies of maple, oak, poplar, and hickory. Few young pine trees can survive in dense shade, so as the hardwoods grew through and over the pine woods, young pine were shaded out. We noted that most of the young pine we saw were along the sunnier trail sides as we returned to the main farm site. I wondered out loud how long it would take for an abandoned meadow or pasture to revert to pine. One student from the area laughed and said "Don't blink!" White pine was the predominate sapling pine along the trail, but we also found pitch pine, shortleaf pine, and a few loblollly pine - all mature with a few saplings nearby. It was fun to teach students how to tell the species by the needle bundles!

An old loblolly pine in the dense woods

After saying goodbye to the students I continued my walk around the park, poking my head in the reconstructed cabins, barns, and outbuildings. These places are used for living history and program activities, so they are open, cool, and uncluttered. The tobacco barn smelled sweet and I stood under a low rack of drying leaf, remembering my Uncle Mack who smoked his own homegrown tobacco in thick cigar-like "fingers." There were, in fact, so many things in and around the log buildings that reminded me of my late uncle and aunt who lived in a cabin near the Shenandoah, that I got a little teary-eyed! I remember helping to string beans, thread apple rounds, smoke venison, and care for bees who lived not in a box hive but in a "bee gum" - a hollowed out black gum log on end with a slab of wood for a roof.

Beans on the string. 

Two holer and a smoke house.


Red cedar "bull walls" to keep large swine in.

A friendly heritage breed sow.

The theme of the park seems to focus on the idea of reconstruction both in the physical appearance of the place and in the period of time that the end of slavery would usher in. Although some of the farm's former slaves stayed in the area and negotiated for paid farm labor with area land owners, Washington's family decided to move to West Virginia where Booker worked in a salt packing plant and later, in a coal mine, before enrolling in a school (and continuing to work full time in the mine!).

"Snake fence" typical of Mid-Atlantic farms 1760 - 1880s.

The Reconstruction is - in my opinion - one of the most understudied period for environmental history, a period I hope to sink my teeth into a some point. From the end of the Civil War to the days of Jim Crow and the onset of World War One, there was so much social change that we can barely parse it out as it is. From the perspective of rural America, both North and South, however, women were empowered to stand up for more representation.

The Burroughs lost all three sons to the war. Only Billie is buried in the family cemetery.

It was on the farms and in service jobs once held by men who had gone off to fight, that women proved that they were smart, tough, and resilient. Former slaves, free at last to claim their own futures, worked for wages, built and graduated from higher education, and took positions once only the domain of white men. It wasn't easy for either women or African Americans during Reconstruction to claim and protect new economic and political ground. Owning property was no longer a requirement for upward mobility but both groups fought hard against institutional discrimination and racism that sadly we still deal with today. Just listen to the rhetoric of today's election cycle!

Pines along the edge.

After the war, the federal government under Andrew Johnson confiscated and redistributed agricultural land to encourage black farmers to settle and work on forty acre parcels. Named the "Sherman Reserves" these lands were given then - in a spectacular turn about - returned to former owners who worked to reinstate the plantation system in the share system.  The possibility of Southern land reform slipped away as disenfranchised land owners attempted to recover what they had lost by rebuilding a private land ownership system that closely resembled what had existed before Emancipation. Federal policy-makers were split on how to appease angry land owners and prevent what many believed would be an insurrection among freedmen farmers. White land owners were warned that they could not coerce freedmen back into an exploitative labor situation, but that they could contract with them to work those forty acre parcels as sharecroppers. Land, power, status, fear, and a new brand of terror ensued.

The bell that rang freedom for the slaves owned by the Burroughs family.

The ideas of Reconstruction and failed land reform floated around the farm as I ducked into one building then another. I tried to imagine former slaves working for wages on this land and surrounding farms. I could feel the tension and fear of intimidation and threats, even violence, that white landowners brought to bear against former slaves. Though the reconstructed farm site looks quaint, even peaceful today, we can't really get a grip on what happened after that bell rang. Fearing the retributions of their former owners, the Washington family headed west to live with Booker's stepfather who had escaped the farm years before and waited for them there. I wondered, though, what happened to the others who elected to stay. Their stories are not as well documented as Booker's. 

My head was spinning. Maybe fall allergies? Maybe overwhelmed by all the possibilities for future research into Reconstruction environmental history? I walked back to the park visitor center and sat with Betsy for awhile. She helped me regain a little balance. She agreed that landscape studies are all but non-existent for what came after the freedom bell rang on the Burroughs farm. The students from Roanoke College were just leaving, reflecting on all they had learned. It was a great afternoon of hiking, exploring, and asking lots of questions for which there are - for now - few answers.

Hey, Ranger Betsy!


Booker T. Washington National Monument
History page

A really nice NPS publication I bought from Betsy, The Reconstruction Era, I took with me on my hike to read and reflect upon. It's available here and through the online bookstore (Eparks) at (the most excellent) Eastern National, an interpretive and publishing organization that supports our Eastern National Parks.