Naked Mountain Visit by Three Vegetation Ecologists

I feel like the most fortunate person in the world!  On May 6th, vegetation ecologists from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage (DCR-DNH) came to Naked Mountain.  Here they are:

From Left: Kristin Taverna, Gary Fleming, Karen Patterson taking a photo of Spring Forget-me-not, Myosotis verna

The principal reason for the visit was to introduce Kristin Taverna to the Naked Mountain preserve because, over the summer months, she is going to conduct vegetative mapping of the whole preserve! I am very excited about this endeavor as we will then have a real sense of the different natural communities across the whole preserve. We will not only understand even more than is known now about the two important, and globally rare, natural communities that have long been identified on Naked Mountain, but will also learn about areas no professional ecologist or botanist has yet seen.

Plant communities in the two areas that Natural Heritage staff, especially vegetation ecologists Gary Fleming and Karen Patterson, have visited many times are:  Mountain/Piedmont Basic Woodlands and Low-Elevation Basic Outcrop Barrens. You can read more about these specific natural communities on the DCR-DNH website here. But to get a sense of the process and prodigious ecological data gathering behind the development of these natural community classifications, read the background on the effort here.  In brief, the classification is based on data collected from 4,500 standardized plots in much of the varied topography across the state and also the region. The resulting classification hierarchy that has been developed has four levels:

1) Systems:  based on gross hydrologic features e.g, Terrestrial, Palustrine, Estuarine, and Marine

2) Ecological Class: “…based primarily on gross climatic, geographic, and edaphic similarities, e.g., High-Elevation Mountain Communities or Non-Alluvial Wetlands of the Coastal Plain and Piedmont.”

3) Ecological Community Group: “… based on combinations of topographic, edaphic, physiognomic, and gross floristic similarities. This level is comparable to the level at which many natural community classifications define their basic units, e.g., Northern Red Oak Forests or Low-Elevation Basic Outcrop Barrens.”

4) Community Types:  “… are the fundamental units of the classification system and are nested within the Ecological Community Groups.” Virginia ecologists assess all vegetative layers in determining community types:  canopy/tree, understory, shrub and herbaceous.

The extensive plot data that Virginia’s Natural Heritage program has compiled is also being used in combination with similar data from other states to define the ecological communities of North America and then rank them with regard to rarity and conservation status/needs. The ranking system begins with Global/State rankings established through NatureServe of the rarity of specific natural resources found at  given sites and then a B ranking is given based on the G/S rankings that signals the site’s overall biodiversity significance. G1/ S1 rankings mean critically imperiled and G5/S5 mean demonstrably secure. Here, for example, is how the Naked Mountain NAP is described by DCR-DNH in a recent letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) with regard to the proposed Atlantic Coast Natural Gas:

The Naked Mountain Conservation Site is located immediately adjacent to the centerline. The Naked Mountain Conservation Site has been given a biodiversity significance ranking of B2, which represents a site of very high significance. The natural heritage resources of concern at this site are:

 Pycnanthemum torreyi  Torrey’s Mountain-mint  G2/S2?/SOC/NL

Central Appalachian Basic Ash – Hickory Woodland  G2/S2/NL/NL

Central Appalachian Mafic/Calcarous Barren (Low-Elevation) G2/S2/NL/NL               

Inner Piedmont/Lower Blue Ridge Basic Oak – Hickory Forest  G3G4/S3S4/NL/NL”                                             

When Kristin is done with her work, all the ecological community groups, based on the community types within them, will be mapped in color for the boundaries of the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve. I can’t wait!

But below is a photo senior DCR-DNH vegetation ecologist, Gary Fleming, took of an ecological value on Naked Mountain that isn’t fully captured in any classification system. In fact, the tens of thousands of Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) on Naked Mountain, that bloom all at once like a conducted orchestra (One, two, three:  Bloom!), aren’t noted as a community type species for Low-Elevation Basic Outcrop Barrens. It is just one of those unique happenings in nature that is a wonder to behold!

Shooting Stars (Primula meadia) blooming a few weeks ago in one of the barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

A close-up of one of the Shooting Stars (Primula meadia) blooming a few weeks ago on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming


Dear Tim,

My husband, Timothy Bell

It has been six years since your spirit left the Earth on this day in May.  I wanted to write to you and give you an update on how things are here on Earth.

First, the most important news is that your beloved daughter, Susan, is getting married on June 27th. She is marrying Steven.  You remember Steven:  steady, supportive, a rock under Susan’s sometimes slippery feet. The wedding will be at Helen’s house. They will take their vows under a gazebo by the pool surrounded by cascading roses.  You will be there in our hearts, but you are also welcome to eat cake and drink champagne!

     I am okay.  It has been six and a half years since I finished chemotherapy and I have not had a recurrence of my cancer.  In fact, I have done so well that my Hopkins’ oncologists discharged me from their care at the five year mark. I live now like a freed prisoner cherishing my unbelievable good luck. If only you could have shared in that providence and stayed with me. So unfair…
     Do you remember when your life was ebbing away, in the intensive care unit at Hopkins, you told me I should re-marry?  You said, “You will be sad for awhile, but then you will meet someone else and move on.”  Well, I am still sad, but the worst of the grieving finally subsided three and a half years after you left the Earth. You are still with me; I will never stop loving you, or missing you.  But, I want you to know that I have moved on, although wonderful widow’s groups I have found in books and on-line would replace that phrase with “moved forward” because we never leave behind our beloved deceased spouses.  I think you would be amazed, surprised, and pleased with who my new love is.
     Do you remember how you used to say, as we drove up our long gravel road to our beautiful little house on Naked Mountain:  “This is the place where all is well, and that Is all?” All is still well on Naked Mountain, but there have been some challenges. Last year around this time I received a letter from a subsidiary of Dominion Power telling me they wanted to access our property to conduct a survey for placement of a 42 inch natural gas pipeline. Their map showed it coming right across the top of the mountain about 150 feet from the house. Panicked, I called Natural Heritage and they went to work. Engaging their parent agency, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), they met with Dominion, and followed up several times, telling them that the pipeline must not come across Naked Mountain, that it is one of their dedicated Natural Area Preserves.  So far, Dominion appears to have honored that request and I have heard nothing further.  Our passion to protect Naked Mountain, “in perpetuity,” by following through with the easement with DCR-Natural Heritage was tested to the limit and it looks like it has been sustained.  We did a very good thing!
     But Dominion still intends to build this massive pipeline and run it through 550 miles of Virginia, devastating  pristine forest, streams and wetlands, people’s farms, homes and places of business.  It has proposed several possible routes, one would cut right through the back of the Acorn Inn – remember how we used to stay there, with Kathy and Martin Versluys, when we were building the house? Some routes cut through John Ed Purvis’ farm at the base of Naked Mountain. Do you remember how kind he was to arrange to get us a “land use” tax rate? One route would plow through the end of our dear friends’ Chapin and Janice’s driveway, steps away from their house.  If that happens they will move; I will miss them terribly.
     Why is this happening?  Believe it or not this seems to be the unforeseen consequence of good climate change policy. Under President Obama’s second administration – he was re-elected by a wide margin – stringent carbon emission policies have been developed that will effectively shut down dirty, polluting coal fueled power plants.  Facing this prospect (the regulations are under legal challenge), companies like Dominion are scrambling to take advantage of new drilling technologies that allow them to access previously untapped riches of natural gas locked in shale formations far beneath the Earth’s surface.
     Is this fracked natural gas cleaner? Probably not. Methane is considered a significantly more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and methane is released directly into the atmosphere during  the fracking extraction process.  In addition, leaking of natural gas that occurs during transport, and processing offers significant polluting opportunities to both air and water while adding to global warming.
     Could Dominion turn to clean solar or wind technologies instead?  Yes, but they think spending billions on fracking, building pipeline infrastructure, and processing is more profitable right this minute. They are not investing in logical, sustainable future technologies, even though those technologies are now coming on fast and are challenging power companies that fail to take the lead in production in sun-drenched states like Arizona.
     You should know that sleepy, charming Nelson County is fighting this pipeline like a pack of ferocious lions. I have never, in my entire professional lobbying career, seen anything like it! We are all in this together, fighting side-by-side.  And who knows, we may just win.  It won’t, and hasn’t been, easy because, as you know perhaps better than anyone, the United States is not a democracy that is “of the people, for the people, by the people.”  Long ago, money in politics began corrupting this process, the corruption now accelerated by the Supreme Court’s decision in the “Citizens United” case.  Our country is run by wealthy individuals and corporations.  In fact, you would be gratified to know that, a few months ago,  political scientists at Princeton University published a well-designed study of the political power structure in the United States and formally declared our system of government an oligarchy.  Believe me, no one in Nelson County is surprised by this.
     But here is some good news. Natural Heritage ecologists, botanists and stewards have visited Naked Mountain often over the years since you have been gone. The stewards have helped me manage the invasives, an on-going head-ache that I know you remember well.  The ecologists and botanists have been establishing vegetation plots to study changes over time, and re-found , then marked with GPS, the rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint in the barrens. That was an exciting day!
     And later this week two ecologists will come to Naked Mountain to begin a wonderful project:  they will do vegetative mapping of the entire preserve! Natural Heritage got a grant to do this as a pilot project and then decided, for a lot of reasons, to do it on Naked Mountain:  close to Charlottesville where the principal vegetation ecologist on the project lives; manageable size; not too disturbed by invasives.  Do you know what this means?  When they finish their work over the course of the summer, we will know every single tree species, shrub layer species, and herb layer species that grows in the entire preserve! Isn’t that fabulous?
      And… I am nearly done with my memoir.  You remember. I started it when I was diagnosed fearing I would not live long enough to write the story of how we bought the mountain, or as you liked to say, how you bought the mountain for me; how we kept encountering charming creatures that lived there; how we discovered the thousands and thousands of Shooting Stars and how, fueled by our growing conservation passion, we sought out Natural Heritage to help us protect it forever.  I have been working on the memoir with a wonderful editor and we are nearly done. I am very hopeful it will be published!  Guess what it’s called:  Naked Mountain.
     I have also developed a powerpoint presentation about the mountain called, “Naked Mountain:  The Delights and Challenges of Owning One of Virginia’s Natural Area Preserves.”  It is multi-media, featuring some interesting video clips, audio of bird sounds and some gorgeous photos that Gary Fleming, one of the wonderful ecologists that comes to Naked Mountain, has shared.  It also features some of my own photos.  My new love has been helping me learn how to take pictures. I enjoy trying to capture the blossoms, especially the context they show up in — their space. I give the talk to the various chapters of the Virginia Native Plant Society.  It has been well-received and I absolutely love doing it.
     Do you remember when we first learned your pancreatic cancer diagnosis and I was so terrified at the thought of losing you?  To comfort me you said, “Scatter my ashes among the wildflowers; that way I will always be with you.”  Susan and I did as you directed.  Here you are, growing so beautifully in the small barren right near the house:

Lyre-leaved Rock cress (Arabidopsis lyrata) and Spiderwort (Tradescantia)

Until next time, my love,