My road

I was heading down my road to work on killing some Ailanthus trees and sprouts (See the August 10th blog about this) when I ran into a tree that had fallen and completely blocked my way.  So, I hiked back up a half mile to the house and called my neighbor Steve.  Steve and Anne live about three miles away from me, but are among my closest neighbors.  My road is 2.4 miles long, narrow and graveled.  Although no road at all in the middle of a


natural area preserve would be preferable, it would mean I couldn’t live close to nature and so Naked Mountain might never have become the 49th Natural Area Preserve in Virginia!  Compromises, compromises.

 Steve arrived on his trusty ATV with two chain saws.  Most folks in the country carry two saws just in case one gets pinched as the log is being sawed, a very frequent occurrence.  Very few women use chainsaws, but I know

Steve arrives on his ATV

several who do.  It is one of the most dangerous activities of rural life, so I consciously avoid it, leaving that job to the stronger men who are used to dealing with two cycle engine machinery.   Even then, most of my male neighbors tell stories of near misses with chainsaws.  Safety equipment, like Steve is wearing is critical. 

Steve cuts the tree with a chainsaw

Tree cleared!

Helpful neighbors are essential when you live in a rural setting.  During the recent derecho, for instance, Steve and Anne provided water for our small Dutch Creek community because they had a generator.  Everyone else, including me, suffered a loss of power and with that water, for six days.  I always stash gallons of potable water in closets all over the house to make it through power-loss occasions. 

Rural living certainly has its challenges, but it is all worth it!

Timber Rattlesnakes on Naked Mountain — Oh My!

I awoke this morning on Naked Mountain to a gentle rain.  The last few days have been a little cooler and the hint of Fall is in the air.  Some of the most glorious sunsets occur in the Fall.  Last evening, I took this photo of the view as I dined on the deck watching the setting sun:    

Sunset on Naked Mountain 8.21.12 – photo by author Marcia Mabee Bell

 Among the beautiful living things on Naked Mountain is a creature most humans find terrifying – the timber rattlesnake.  But, timber rattlesnakes often have beautiful markings and they have their place in the ecosystem.  Here is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, Naked Mountain:  A Journey of Discovery, Sorrow and Solace, that will be published later this year:

 “Like people everywhere, we entice songbirds to draw closer by setting out birdfeeders.  On one June afternoon, I stepped off the deck onto the path that runs under the feeders.  I was about to put my right foot down, but hesitated mid-stride.  Something on the ground wasn’t right.  I instinctively raised my foot and stepped over an object in the path.  I quickly moved away and looked back to see what I had just avoided:  a Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).  Normally, they provide sufficient warning by rattling.  The high-pitched buzz stops you in your tracks and instinctively compels you to back away.  But this one was relatively small, about two feet long, and I counted just two full and one partial rattle.  It was very beautiful with bright stripes of yellow mixed in with alternating wavy grayish-greenish bands.   It had been lying under the deck, hunting the chipmunks that were scurrying around under the bird feeders for any fallen seed.  The snake slowly moved off into the woods.  After this encounter, I never stepped off the deck by the birdfeeders without a careful look around.

“Timber rattlesnakes’ main prey are mice and chipmunks and so provide important, helpful rodent control.   Fortunately, encountering them is rare on Naked Mountain, for you could lose use of a limb, or even your life, if you are bitten.  While there are still major dens in the Appalachian Mountains, timber rattlesnakes are vulnerable and declining in their range at an estimated rate of 10-30 percent over three generations.  Where development has encroached, numbers are near the extinction level.  The loss of habitat due to development is also accompanied by increased motorvehicle traffic which kills many of the remaining snakes as they attempt to cross busy roads. 

“Local lore warned us that there is a timber rattlesnake den on Naked Mountain.  The den’s likely location was confirmed during two visits by Gary Fleming, a senior ecologist with the Natural Heritage Program, a division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.  On two occasions, while searching for rare wildflowers, we encountered what we thought was the same timber rattlesnake at the same, sunny, rocky spot near a gorgeous outcropping of native plants.  It was huge: three inches in diameter and probably

Timber Rattlesnake on Naked Mountain – Photo by Gary Fleming

close to five feet long, but we could only guess as it was curled and in a strike mode.   The snake sent up a loud rattle as we got within ten feet.   We kept a safe distance as Gary photographed it with his telephoto lens.  The snake was terrifying, fascinating and beautiful.”  

 You can read more about Timber Rattlesnakes here.

Elusive Fameflower Blooming on Naked Mountain

Fameflowers blooming on Naked Mountain – photo by author

For the past two months, a tiny, ½ inch flower packed with knock-your-socks-off color has been blooming in the barrens of Naked Mountain.   The common name for this small beauty is Fameflower, its latin name Talinum teretifolium. It is a member of the Purslane Family. It has five bright deep-pink, or magenta, petals and a center with numerous, often 15-20, bright yellow stamens.  It occurs in the Southern Appalachian mountains on rock outcrops, but is threatened in Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  While most botanical reference books state the plant occurs on sandstone, on Naked Mountain, Fameflower occurs on amphibolite outcrops.  

Amphibolite is a rock that was metamorphosed from a different rock substance due to heat generated by massive plate tectonics.  The surface of the Earth consists of giant plates of rock material that are constantly moving.  Over millions of years these moving plates have created mountains, and oceans and formed and reformed the continents we see today.  Plate techtonics are responsible for many earthquakes, volcanoes and related violent phenomena. 

Virginia geologists I have met during wonderful nature hikes sponsored by the Wintergreen Nature Foundation, have told me that Naked Mountain lies in the midst of what they call the “Great Amphibolite Dike,” an extrusion of metamorphosed rock caused by a rifting of the related geologic plates, that runs for miles along the Piedmont of Virginia, encompassing, in all likelihood, Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.   

An analysis of samples of amphibolite rock taken from Naked Mountain conducted by Peter Panish at the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts found that the rock exhibits information in its physical and chemical make up that indicates it originated as igneous rock with a basaltic chemical composition.  The resulting metamorphosed rock is dominated by hornblende, a key characteristic of certain amphibolites, and contains high levels of calcium, magnesium and iron when compared with granite rocks found in Virginia and New England.   Analysis of the soil taken from Naked Mountain barrens conducted by the Virginia Natural Heritage Program staff revealed a soil with high amounts of magnesium and moderately high amounts of calcium, but lower than expected levels of iron.  

It is the substrate of amphibolite rock and the soil characteristics its erosion produces combined with site characteristics of open, thinly soiled bedrock outcrops of the amphibolite that allows the beautiful, tiny and elusive Fameflower to flourish.  The reason I use the word “elusive” is because each plant puts up one slender branching stem from a basal cluster of fleshy, succulent type leaves and just one or two flowers at the end of a stem branch will open from about 12 noon to 3:00 p.m., and only on a bright sunny day, and then that’s it — they close up and never re-open.  As a result of this behavior, a lot of people have never seen a Fameflower in bloom! 

How lucky I am to be able to stroll a few feet from my home anytime between noon and 3:00 p.m. during sunny days in July and  August and see these beauties in bloom!

Killing Ailanthus

Yesterday I had a special visitor to Naked Mountain, Dan Miles.  I first met Dan in 2008 when he came to visit Naked Mountain with a group of local Master Naturalists.  Master Naturalists are ordinary citizens from every walk of life who have a strong interest in the natural world.  They undergo a training program that can take 6-12 months to complete.  One of the most important aspects of the master naturalist program is that 40 hours a year of volunteer service is required for continued certification.  This requirement has been a boon for the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve.  Many of my local neighbors are certified Master Naturalists and have donated hours of their time helping me control, even eradicate, invasive species that threaten the beautiful and fascinating native species that grow, and live, in the preserve.  You can read more about Master Naturalists in Virginia here.  Most states have a similar program.

Dan came yesterday to help me kill Ailanthus trees.  The common name for this extremely invasive species is Tree-of-Heaven.  Sometimes it is called Paradise Tree.  Its formal latin name is Ailanthus altissima.  Those of us who are way too familiar with this tree usually shorten the name to Ailanthus.  You see this tree lining nearly every major roadway in the

Dan Miles using hack and squirt on an Ailanthus tree

mid-Atlantic region.  I have seen it in New England, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, just about everywhere.  It is seriously out-competing our native trees species.  If you have it in your yard, you should get rid of it.  Here is an excellent fact sheet and video published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on how to do that. 

Naked Mountain used to have about 10,000 mature Ailanthus trees.  Since 2005, my husband and I, privately-hired contractors, staff from the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, and Master Naturalists have killed most of them.  Because Naked Mountain is a rich, biodiverse habitat, native tree species are filling in the gaps left behind.  But some invasive species, such as Wineberry, have also thrived in some of the gaps.  You can read about efforts to eradicate Wineberry from the gaps in the August 6th blog. 

Dan is an expert horticulturist who is interested in growing native species from seeds.  He is currently the facilities manager at Clayter Nature Study Center  at Lynchburg College in Bedford County, Virginia.  But he also has a fascinating personal project he is implementing on land that has been in his family for 50 years.  He is growing, from seed, rare and endangered native flora.  He has a vision that his property and efforts might one day be an important repository of native species as the planet continues to warm and extinction of species continues to occur.  His hope is that his special garden might be an important source of reinstituting those native species. 

Dan was volunteering his time yesterday as a thank you for a donation I made to his project three years ago of Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) seeds. Professional botanists that have visited Naked Mountain believe it supports at least 10,000 of these spectacular

Shooting Stars on Naked Mountain
Photo by Gary Fleming

plants.  When they are in bloom in May in a series of small barrens, which are rocky openings that occur in the forest canopy on the steep Southeastern slope of Naked Mountain, they are just stunning:  hundreds of lavender blooms gracing the mossy, seeping rocks in each barren.  Dan took good care of the seeds and began planting them last year and this year.  He reported that they have been the most successful species yet in his native plant project.  Hundreds of Shooting Star plants are growing on his property and at the Clayter Nature Center, and several actually bloomed this Spring after planting them just last year.  Naked Mountain Shooting Stars appear to be very robust. 

As I have no biological grandchildren, knowing the seeds of Naked Mountain Shooting Stars are thriving in other locations feels like I indeed do have grandchildren!  Lovely!    


Blooming Cardinal Flowers

I awoke today to a typically hot, hazy August day on Naked Mountain.  The view of the Blue Ridge Mountains is soft, vague, muted by humid air.  The evening sunsets over the past few days have been like a Japanese print:  a red ball sun, almost like a cardboard cut-out, hanging in a smooth, blue-gray sky over a similarly colored landscape. 

Hot, summer weather brings out the cicadas.  They seem to be particularly numerous this year, possibly due to the emergence of the Blue Ridge Brood, a 17 year cycle cicada that occurs in the upland areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and West Virginia.  Brood cicadas live underground for either 13 or 17 years depending on the specific population.  They hibernate in a nymph stage and survive by sucking on nutrients in the roots of trees.  When they are ready to emerge to mate and lay their eggs they do so by the tens of thousands, sometimes by the millions. 

Male cicadas “sing” to attract females using a complex process involving contraction of their abdominal muscles causing ribbed membranes, called tymbals, to make loud clicking sounds.  First a tymbal on one side of the abdomen is contracted and released, then the same movement is made with the tymbal on the other side of the abdomen.   The resulting sound is a loud, pulsating scream that lasts several minutes before softening and lowering a bit in pitch, but then it often starts right up again.  When a “singing” male cicada is perched on a sunny tree branch near you, it is hard to hear yourself think!  You have to raise your voice to be heard by someone standing right next to you.   You can read more about these fascinating insects here. 

Earlier today I drove down my 2.4 mile gravel road to complete an errand in Lovingston.  Lovingston, the Nelson County seat and the location of the nearest grocery store, is a good ten miles from my house on top of Naked Mountain.  About half way down the mountain, at about an elevation of 1100 feet, a flash of bright red

Cardinal Flowers Blooming on Naked Mountain

on my right caught my eye.  I stopped the car to investigate.  There in a small seep next to the road were dozens of blooming cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). You can read more about the ecology of seeps in Virginia here.  I counted 75 plants, each nearly three feet tall, in an area no bigger than 30 feet by 20 feet.  Wonderful!   


Wineberry Removal

Wineberry Removal 

I awoke early this morning, 5:00 a.m.   Went to bed way too early, had a long lovely sleep, the consequence of which was to wake up way too soon.  But the silver lining was to have a fully tuned ear when the birds began their morning singing at 5:45 a.m.  Sitting on my screened porch sipping coffee I was serenaded by a Wood Thrush and Rufus-sided Towhee that were close by.  Both have clear, tremulous tones that put my amateur flute-playing to shame.  In the distance, I could hear a Scarlet Tanager and its rolling, buzzy song and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo with its gulping remarks that makes you think you are in a tropical jungle instead of ­­­­a mixed hardwood forest in central Virginia.   Soon the more common resident birds chimed in:    American Goldfinches and the loudest, most persistent singer of all, a Carolina Wren.  I listened to the gathering, growing chorus while gazing at the view from my house of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Hazy with weak dawn light, the brightest feature in the view was a little bit of white cottony cloud caught between the layers of shadowy mountain ridges.

Today will be another day of visitors.  My assigned steward with the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, Ryan Klopf, has programmed two full days of work to remove harmful invasive plants on Naked Mountain.   My property is the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve, the 49th of 60 natural area preserves currently designated in Virginia.  Naked Mountain supports important native plants, birds and other animals.  But they are under constant threat by invasive species.  Today’s work will focus on Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius).  This thorny berry plant produces some of the sweetest fruit in the forest.  But it spreads uncontrollably in thick patches that crowd out native plant species.  It gets its best start in sunny spots opened up after ridding an area of another invasive, Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima).  Since 2005, my husband and I, along with various and sundry hired and volunteer help, have killed an estimated 10,000 mature Ailanthus trees growing in thickets across Naked Mountain.  

 Wineberry Removal Crew:  Megan, Ryan and TravisThe work today will involve pulling up the Wineberry plants, roots and all, and piling them into heaps to dry and die.  The moist, rich and airy mountain soil makes hand pulling of the Wineberry more efficient than chemical options.   When dealing with more compacted soil, just-cut stems can be painted, or sprayed, with glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Round-up.  Ryan has implemented an interesting solution to the areas disturbed by the Wineberry pulling.  Seeds from Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix), a native species that looks exactly likes its name and grows all over Naked Mountain, will be scattered in the disturbed soil.  Delightful!