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.