Clean water, open land, ancient rocks, teeming wildlife and even strong spring winds are part of what makes Nelson County special, said Betsy Agelasto at the 10th Annual Rockfish Valley Foundation Kite Festival in early April.
Right on schedule, the wind came up for the popular event, as the crowd made kites, competed in parachute races and sampled the offerings of food trucks on a sunny day near Nellysford. The kite festival is a lot of fun, said Agelasto, but it has another purpose: to draw attention to the mission and work of the Rockfish Valley Foundation.
The Foundation’s museum is housed in a former pottery studio in front of the fields where children launched homemade paper-bag kites and grown-ups sampled cider from Bold Rock. In the well-organized interior are displays highlighting the County’s unique features, with plenty of opportunities for school children to touch stuffed foxes and coyotes, or open drawers full of dried scat and pelts. They can trace the way a drop of rain becomes first a stream, then a river and then part of the mighty Chesapeake flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.
“This is also a resource for older students and adults doing research on Nelson County natural history,” said Agelasto. “If someone needs a topic for a research paper, we’re always glad to help.”
Later in the week, the Foundation welcomed a unique learning partnership of high school students and Nelson County youngsters. In “Naturally Nelson,” led by master naturalist and volunteer Leah Jung, dozens of ninth graders from Western Albemarle High School’s Environmental Studies Academy became natural history instructors for fourth graders from Tye River Elementary in what has become an annual spring event.
For two days, the Western Albemarle group manned outdoor, hands-on educational stations of their own design to teach the younger students about food webs, animal adaptations for survival, plant structures and function, pollination, and how to find and use the tiny critters from Spruce Creek to measure stream health. On another day, environmental educators for Nelson County set up the same kind of experience for fourth graders from Rockfish River Elementary School.
The events made good use of the Foundation’s well-marked, hands-on series of trails for children, who traveled through the interactive stations to learn about distinctive Nelson County water, rocks, plants and animals.
All are threatened by the march of progress, said Neil Laferriere at a seminar later that day, sponsored by the Friends of Nelson County. In particular, the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will destroy large swaths of habitat for important plants. Beth and Neil Laferriere own Blackberry Botanicals in West Virginia and were at the Rockfish Valley Community Center to help volunteers identify and save plants that would be destroyed by the impending clearing of Nelson County land. They’re also part of a multi-state plant rescue effort called the Pipeline Native Plant Rescue Group.
“It’s not just the plants that get bulldozed or poisoned along the 125-foot-wide swath cleared that will be lost,” Neil said. “Loss of the shade canopy will kill plants that are on the edges on both sides of the clearing, too.”
This is not an insignificant loss, Beth explained: “Our mountains are home to 1,500 plants that have important medicinal use. Of that number, 500 are not found anywhere else.” Volunteers trained in plant rescue painstakingly dig up and move the plants to plant sanctuaries, to universities for research, and to individual herbalists for propagation.
The Laferrieres brought samples of ancient wild herbs like goldenseal, bloodroot and blue and black cohosh for the volunteer rescue team to examine. Also of interest, said Beth, are some of the ancient cultivated botanicals our ancestors planted around their homesteads and cabins: “For instance, there’s a component in daffodils now being researched for a component that prevents dementia,” she said.
Kathleen Maier, of Sacred Plant Traditions in Charlottesville, spoke about the importance of mountain herbs to our Irish ancestors in these mountains. “This was their apothecary,” she said. “There’s nowhere else quite like our temperate rainforests.”
Blackberry Botanicals will return to Nelson County in June for more workshops, but much of the recent work done by Neil and Beth has been plant rescue along the Mountain Valley Pipeline path in West Virginia. This construction drew recent national attention because of the protestors and tree sitters in strategic sites.
“If I could have my wish, the pipeline would go away,” Neil said. “But what if it doesn’t? Our wish is to be respectful so we can get permission from the utilities to go in and save the plants before they’re gone forever.”