The Blacksmith

I needed help with my fireplace.  When we built the house twenty years ago,  we selected a plan that located the fireplace in the center of the house so as not to block gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge Mountains through large floor to ceiling glass doors that opened onto a series of decks.  We knew that all that glass in a house facing northwest, even though double paned, might result in keeping the living room a little cool in the winter months.  A woodstove clearly would have been more practical, but we wanted a fully viewed fire in a fireplace. Most modern fireplaces don’t do a good job of warming a room.  What to do?

We had noticed that friends of ours that lived in nearby Albemarle County on an estate that had been in their family for seven generations always had radiantly warm fires burning in their fireplaces on cold, snowy days.  These fires were significantly warmer than any we had ever experienced, and certainly warmer than those produced by the fireplace in the Northern Virginia home we then owned. We shared our observations and our friends responded that all the fireplaces in their 1810 home were “Rumfords.”  They explained someone named Count Rumford (a Tory from Colonial days) figured out that the only real heat a fireplace emits is radiant heat.  Therefore, the firebox needs to be tall, wide and shallow and flush with the floor to allow for the maximum amount of radiant heat   

Intrigued, I began to research Rumford fireplaces.  As this was in the days before widespread use of personal computers and the internet, it was not as easy as it would be today.  But I found and ordered a pamphlet entitled, “Energy Efficient Masonry Fireplaces” from the Centre for Research and Development in Masonry in Calgary, Alberta Canada.  The pamphlet extols the virtues of a Rumford fireplace and provided clear blueprints on how to build one.  I handed this over to our builder who, in turn, gave it to the masons subcontracted to build our fireplace.  You don’t have to order the pamphlet from Canada; you can read more about Rumford fireplaces at:

The stone masons were Nelson County craftsman, but former school teachers who had emigrated to the peace of rural central Virginia from the frenzy of Northern Virginia.  They had learned their dry-stone masonry technique from a local master. When they visited Naked Mountain and the building site, they urged us not to buy pretty stone from a building supplier, but rather to use the dark, streaked and lichen-covered stone they found lying on the ground everywhere near the building site.  They said they had never seen stone like this.  Many of the fragments were right-sized and required little more effort than being picked up, brushed off and fitted, like a puzzle, with other found stones.  The finished fireplace, they argued, would look like the rocks we could view just beyond our windows.  

Many years later, we learned how special those rocks are:  amphibolite that has been metamorphosed through geologic forces from basalt and that is rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium.  These chemicals leach into the soil and help nurture robust and diverse flora on Naked Mountain.

But back to the fireplace… convinced we should have a site-stone fireplace, we said go ahead.  I worked with them to try and scale the firebox opening to fit the tall, 13.5 foot fireplace, faced with amphibolite and flanked with slanted antique heart-pine boards.  The opening was tall and very shallow, but needed to be much narrower than most Rumford fireplaces.  It looked right, but when we lit a fire, the opening was so high, smoke drifted out into the room.  We then had to purchase two lintels that we could stuff up at the top of the opening and seal the gaps that occurred between it and the natural stone with yellow insulation that came in the package.  The effect was less than appealing since the lintels were shiny black and ill-fitting with bits of yellow insulation showing through.  But, the fireplace then worked very well and the fire threw out radiant heat like any other well-designed Rumford fireplace.  Over time, the yellow insulation acquired black soot and visually disappeared, more or less, into the black rock. 

Fireplace before with dual store-bought lintels

A few weeks ago I resolved to fix the fireplace; to replace the make-shift lintels with a properly fashioned, iron lintel that would be shaped to fit into the natural stone gaps.  I got the name of a good local blacksmith, Scott Hingley,  from a neighbor. 

Scott is a character who drives around Nelson County in a Model A 1930 Ford Coupe that he has re-worked so it functions like a small pick up truck.  Scott is a highly independent person who is completely self-taught.  He can do many things:  stonework, carpentry and metal work.  He came to my house in his old truck, neatly dressed in a button-down striped blue shirt.  He showed me pages and pages of pictures of beautiful work he has done over the years, most of it metal work, ornate gates, doors, hinges, etc.  It was very impressive. 

Scott Hingley and his 1930 Model A converted Ford Coupe

Scott squeezed the horn and it sounded just like you would expect!

I just needed something quite simple.  Scott measured the make-shift lintels and the fireplace opening very carefully.  He looked everything over and then told me what he would do and gave me what I thought was a very reasonable price.  And… he could do it tomorrow!  After 20 years of an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful and interesting fireplace, I was going to get it fixed tomorrow!  

Scott showed up the next day and spent about four hours carefully carving out curved areas so they matched the uneven shapes of the rocks flanking the firebox opening. He set up just outside the house on the gravel walk, carefully raking away any dry leaves to keep the resulting sparks from causing a fire.  He trimmed the metal piece first with a cutting torch and then refined the contours with a hand-held electric grinder.  He then checked the progress of the shape he was making against the fireplace rocks, then back out again to re-work the metal, then back into the house again to check it. 

Scott shaping the metal lintel to fit into the natural stone

He probably made 50 trips before he was satisfied he had the right shapes and the right fix.  Then he fit the metal piece in tightly and sealed it with a fireproof sealant so any remaining cracks (I couldn’t see any) were eliminated.  He came back the next day to paint the sealant black and then it was done.  I waited a week before using the fireplace to be sure the sealant and paint were properly cured.  The new, beautiful lintel worked perfectly.

 Well done Scott!

Finished fireplace with new lintel.

Celebration of the just published Flora of Virginia!

Yesterday, December 9, 2012, was a momentous day in the natural history of the state of Virginia, one of the original 13 colonies and so one of the nation’s oldest states.  Yesterday, marked the celebration of the publication of the Flora of Virginia, a 1,554 page compendium of all of the plant species known to persist and reproduce in the state without cultivation. The hefty manual, 11 years in the making, includes descriptions of 3,164 species organized into 189 families, accompanied by 1400 original illustrations.  There are fascinating introductory chapters describing the history of plant discovery and documentation in Virginia, the ecology and natural history of plant species as well as descriptions of accessible natural area sites that showcase the rich variety of species within Virginia’s borders.  Because Virginia encompasses five physiographic provinces, from low lying coastal regions to mountainous plateaus, it harbors an unusual diversity of plant species matched only by a handful of other states that are much larger in size.

Stacks of Flora of Virginia at publication celebration.

Most important of all, the manual includes a key to the general classifications and to the families within them that is described as “user-friendly and innovative” and should reduce the need to bring along a dissecting scope for a field trip (but do bring your magnifying lens).  The key, the essential aide to field detective work, is prefaced by a quick explanation of the whys and wherefores of botanical keys and a review of the most common terms for botanical structures.  There is also an extensive glossary of terms and the index includes listing by common as well as Latin names.  You can read more about The Flora of Virginia Project which produced the manual and order a copy of it here.

Until yesterday, Virginia was the only state without a modern day flora.  Until yesterday, when I ventured out on Naked Mountain looking for new flowers to identify, I had to take along the West Virginia Flora to accomplish this delightful task.  I own the Second Edition published in 1978. Until yesterday, it was the best approximation I could find to a resource that might describe the species I would likely encounter on Naked Mountain.

Why Virginia was so late in developing its own modern flora may be due, in part, to the fact that this is not the first flora of Virginia to be published. The first publication took place in 1737 and was entitled, Flora Virginica. It was based on the collection and classification of plants by Virginia colonist, John Clayton, which he sent to European botanists.  Clayton’s findings were astonishing to men like Carl Linnaeus, the famous originator of the species classification system used today by botanists around the world.  The story of Clayton’s collaboration with European scientists is described in the new, 2012 Flora of Virginia.  

Yesterday’s celebrations began at noon at The Wintergreen Nature Foundation(TWNF).  Executive Director, Doug Coleman, provided an overview of the Flora of Virginia Project which enlisted support and direct input from a Who’s Who of Virginia’s botanists, botanical organizations and their leadership.  

Doug Coleman, Executive Director of The Wintergreen Nature Foundation. To his left is Lara Call Gastinger, main illustrator for the Flora.

Many of them were at TWNF yesterday to bask in the glow cast by the culmination of a major piece of work that is a significant contribution not only to Virginia’s natural history, but to the natural history of the Southeastern region of the United States.  The Flora’s three authors were present: 

  • Alan Weakley, a Virginia native, is director of the University of North Carolina Herbarium and an adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Christopher Ludwig is Executive Director of the Flora Project and chief biologist of the Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
  • John Townsend is staff biologist with the Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, previously curator of the herbarium of Clemson University.

    Chris Ludwig, Executive Director of the Flora of Virginia Project, speaking at the Flora celebration.

Chris Ludwig, Gary Fleming, who wrote two of the introductory chapters, and many other botanists present at the celebration have been on Naked Mountain and inventoried the plants growing in the barrens there, or in several of the vegetation plots that have been established to conduct research.  The Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation holds the easement for Naked Mountain and provides me with stewardship assistance to control invasive species.

Also present at yesterday’s celebration were two of the illustrators, including Lara Call Gastinger who illustrated the bulk of the Flora.  Lara is an exquisite artist who won a Royal Horticultural Society gold medal in 2007.  You can see some of her work here and on the Flora dust jacket (pictured above) which features one of my favorite wildflowers that I see in various locations on Naked Mountain:  Claytonia virginica, Spring Beauty — a well-chosen example for its relevant historical name and its proliferation in many of Virginia’s habitats.

The Flora of Virginia is a monumental contribution for many reasons and purposes.  It is designed to be used not just by scientists to further study and knowledge of Virginia’s plants, but by amateurs who simply love wildflowers.  There has been attention, all along, to the next generation and how to draw them in to the fascinating world of plant biology.  Efforts are already underway to convert the whole Flora into a digital app that can be downloaded onto handheld smart phones or tablet devices.  The Flora Project is building a library for its website of gorgeous photographs, including a few by Kenneth Lawless of Naked Mountain’s sentinel plant, Dodecatheon meadia, or Shooting Star.  As many of yesterday’s speakers emphasized, the most important hoped-for outcome of this massive, heroic effort is conservation.  The more more of us know about Virginia’s hertitage, the better equipped we will all be to protect it and preserve it. 

Author’s note:  If you purchase a copy of the Flora of Virginia, and if you live in Virginia, or visit it on occasion I hope that you will — don’t try to read it in bed!  I think it weighs about five pounds and trying to perch it on your stomach may give you indigestion!