My Friend Jean

Jean w. trilliums best 8

Jean Kolb and I have a lot in common.  While we have very different personalities — I am more gregarious, Jean is more reserved — we share deeply held commitments to the natural world.  She and her husband Hal own 176 acres of forested land in two separate tracts in the sharply ascending foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains a few miles south of Charlottesville.  They built a comfortable, modest home for their family on the larger tract halfway up the slope of a mountain that, just like Naked Mountain, rises to almost 2,000 feet Some of the oak and hickory trees at the top of the mountain are estimated to be 200 years old. A delightful creek has carved a storm-influenced path through the upper reaches of the forest and tumbles merrily in springtime close to the house. The rich, north-facing mountain cove they live in teems with life of all kinds — an array of native plants, most long-established, some planted by Jean’s hand; numerous birds, year-round residents and migratory;  a busy often secretive community of mammals that includes a fleetingly seen fox, weasel, or bobcat; a woodrat who trades found items for grapes left in an old shed; families of white-tailed deer,  raccoons, and black bears.  Jean and Hal enjoy their neighbors and live harmoniously with them in a peaceable kingdom.

It is perhaps not surprising that Jean is a writer.  Living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in the middle of an older forest provides plenty of inspiration.  We both cannot resist trying to evoke for others, deprived of the natural world experiences  we access so easily, what we see, hear and smell. I have written Naked Mountain:  A Memoir  that will be published soon, and Jean has nearly finished her third manuscript called “Watching the Neighbors.” The “neighbors” in this instance are not humans, but forest creatures of every kind. Here is an excerpt  about some little chipmunks whose underground burrow was in a patch of grass outside Jean’s kitchen window.

On a day when all four siblings were out several feet from the entrance, sniffing about and cautiously exploring, one little fellow ranged further out than the others. He began to move around with growing confidence, and his body language said, “Hey, it’s fun out here.” He nibbled at grass stems, a clover leaf, and a tulip tree seed, and everything he found seemed worthy of inspection. The others were not so bold; they darted about within a four-foot circle from the hole, then suddenly dived into it. The daring explorer was, at that moment, six feet away, and it took a second or two for him to realize the others had disappeared. When he did, he raced for the hole, but the grass blocked his line of sight and he missed it. His manner instantly changed to “Oh, my gosh! Where’s the hole?” He dashed about, trying different directions in what appeared to be real panic. For ten seconds—long enough for all kinds of bad things to happen—he could not find the entrance. He charged this way and that, but the hole was somewhere else. At last he found it and dived in. It was probably a lesson he would never forget. Nobody came up again for a long time.”

Our love of the natural world has also engendered in both of us a fierce determination to protect it. Our properties are under conservation easements – Jean and Hal’s with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, mine with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). This means when we are gone the land will convey to future owners with the easement restrictions intact on the deed.  The easements protect our land against development pressures like roads and subdivisions and, In my case, DCR successfully thwarted an effort to run a 42 inch gas pipeline straight across Naked Mountain right through the precious barrens where thousands of Shooting Stars bloom in the spring and rare flowers bloom in the heat of summer.

But Jean and I also work hard to protect our land from an on-going, also human-caused threat:  non-native invasive plants. We both spend many hours in the woods pulling, and carefully spraying when needed, invaders that could easily overwhelm native plants, destroying  the  web of natural communities that support a fascinating array of life.  It is this web of mutual dependence that Jean’s manuscript illuminates so clearly by describing scenes from the lives of dozens of forest animals, her neighbors.

I have written about my efforts to battle the invaders in previous posts here.  You can read about Jean and Hal’s efforts on the website of the 500-Year Forest Foundation. Theirs was the first forest; now there are seven.  Until recently, many people did not take the idea of combatting non-native invasive plants in forests seriously, so it has been encouraging to have a friend who, like me, was not slowed in her efforts by ridicule such as: “Been out there weeding the forest again?” We commiserate about how overwhelmed we feel, but for us there is no choice; we feel compelled. We compare notes and share techniques.  Here’s one:  to control spreading the seeds from invasive plants herself, Jean told me she often uses a stick to dig out the soil that collects in the deep treads of her hiking boots before she leaves an infested area.  I now carry on old toothbrush in my backpack and use it to scrub the contaminated soil out of my treads after pulling nasty weeds.

Jean and I share something else:  we are both cancer survivors. She was treated for breast cancer six years ago; I was treated for advanced ovarian cancer eight years ago.  We are both in extended remission, perhaps even cured.  Our battles against our respective internal invaders put us back a bit on our work fighting the external  invaders, but we returned to the woods as soon as we were able.  I even backpacked out ten pounds of Garlic Mustard, walking uphill with it for nearly a mile, after three rounds of chemotherapy.  Such is our commitment to protecting the land we love.

It’s really nice to have a friend like Jean.

Dear Tim,

Dear Tim,

My first husband, Timothy Bell

My first husband, Timothy Bell

This month marks seven years since you left the earth. Much has happened since I last wrote you like this a year ago just before Susan’s wedding. So, first of all you should know that your beloved daughter had a charming June wedding at Helen’s gracious house. It was full of love beautifully expressed between Susan and Steven as they said their own vows to each other, but also full of the love from everyone present who wished them well. You were there too, especially in our hearts, but in a toast I stated in words that you were with us and very pleased with this marriage.

Susan-Steven dancing BEST

Steven and Susan Queen at their wedding

I was married too, in September. Remember when you were in the intensive care unit and we knew all was lost and you were dying, you said I should remarry? When I demurred, you answered, “You’ll be sad for awhile, but then you’ll meet someone and move on.” You were partially right. I don’t think you realized how long and deep grieving for you would take. I did meet someone, without trying. He came to me like a miracle. He was divorcing his wife, Alice, your old high school sweetheart. He knew about your death. He hoped we might at least share interests since you and Alice were so devoted to music and hoped to perform professionally. You would like David, I know, because you are the thread that brought us together.

My memoir, Naked Mountain, will be published on September 6th. You remember the very first drafts of the book that I began writing after my cancer diagnosis. I wasn’t sure I would live to see it published so I started it right away. I wanted so much to share the story of Naked Mountain – how we bought a mountain for weekend camping getaways, but as its treasures, one after another, revealed themselves we became passionate about preserving it. And we did — it is the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve, one of 63 in Virginia, and protected in perpetuity.

You were skeptical about this book at first. Do you remember? You were concerned about privacy and you were not sure I could do it. But when it was clear you would not live, that your life would be cut short at age 59, you began telling your doctors about the book and said you hoped they would read it. Well, now they can. I have kept in touch with Dr. Herman, and my own oncologist, Dr. Bristow. I will send them each a signed copy and express our gratitude for their valiant efforts.

I want you to know that the book is dedicated to you:  “In Loving Memory of Timothy Bell.” It tells the story of Naked Mountain, but it also shows how you loved Susan and me – how you devoted yourself to supporting Susan as she encountered a bewildering, often rejecting world. And what you said to me as I struggled with mortal fear, anxiety and pain. Those are words and actions that comfort me still even though the spectre of death from my cancer is truly gone.

Until next time my love,

Marcia