Vol. 21 Issue 4, Winter 2016
by Nicole Hamilton
Above: Tolbert Road vernal pool as it existed for millennia.
Left: Development on top of what was the vernal pool
Every spring as the snow is melting, we see the signs of new beginnings. Skunk cabbage pushing up from the ground. Tree buds turning green or red. Barred Owls and Red-shouldered Hawks calling from the woods, or standing with a gaze locked onto the edge of a secret pond. Frogs…lots of frogs…quacking, peeping and carrying on, igniting the celebration of the new year. With these signals, we pull on our boots and go out, yet in, to the forested wetlands.
While there are a few vernal pool habitats around the county that we visit, there was one place that told us a unique story. It was the first vernal pool, as far as we know, where Wood Frogs had been documented in Loudoun. When the Smithsonian Institution had their naturalist center on Sycolin Road in Leesburg, they held a collection of local findings there. One was a preserved Wood Frog with a date and location that described the habitat as what we came to know as Tolbert Lane. Mike Hayslett, Director of Virginia Vernal Pools, discovered this specimen in the Smithsonian holdings 20 years ago and through the documentation, found the pool and the forest habitat.
Year after year, we visited this vernal pool. We saw Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders using it. Over the years, we also watched the habitat shrink. We saw the airport expand. We saw residential development go up. Still, year after year, as had happened no doubt for millennia, the animals migrated from forest to pool and back again. This was the pool that they had been born in, that their parents had been born in, and generations before. It was a historic annual trek.
But even as the habitat shrank, we thought it would be safe. We thought perhaps it was owned by the town and even thought how wonderful it would be to restore the degraded areas through a tree planting. But we were wrong. Last year, March 2016, would be the last visit to this pool. A few months later, we discovered that the bulldozers had come.
Upon sharing this news with Mike, a fellow lover of wild creatures and wild places, he asked, “Have you ever written an obituary to a vernal pool?”
“Well no,” I said, and then thought to myself, “But here I go.”
To the Tolbert Lane vernal pool, its forest habitat and the people and creatures that loved it:
May 2016 was the end of an era as bulldozers removed the trees, shaved the earth and cast the final blow by filling in the pool, grading it to nothingness. By the time of that last movement of dirt, the animals that had used the forest and the pool had been killed, buried. Their choruses silenced. Their tracks erased. Their dwellings cleared.
We don’t know when this pool and forest had been formed. The wetland was undoubtedly ancient. The forest itself was not that old, maybe 70 years? We try to imagine what happened on this landscape years ago. Forest cleared for farms, sinkhole pools enlarged for pigs to wallow and cows to drink. Wet forests left untilled because they were too hard to work. Wildlife living by our side, adapting to our moves – which were slower then. Populations of frogs, toads and salamanders rising and falling with changes but holding on as forest regrew and humans moved in. Richness in diversity, layering itself in through all the interactions of animals, plants and time. It was a harmonious, living community with purpose and value.
This vernal pool and forest habitat may be gone, but others still exist in Loudoun. Some are remnants of past richness, while others still thrive. We have great places across Loudoun but they slip away from us each day and often without record, without notice.
I wonder: had the people in the houses adjacent to the pool heard the chorus in the spring? Had they seen a wayward frog hopping with intent to reach that pool to mate and set the stage for future generations? What if the children living in those homes had grown to know and love this wild place of mud and dirt, of owls and hawks, of frogs and salamanders? What if we had loved it more?
This coming March, as we visit different places across the county, we will honor the vernal pools, the wet forests and the animals that rely on them. We will drive by the place that was the Tolbert pool and forest as a reminder of what was and what could be.
Baba Dioum said it, but daily we live it: We save what we love. We love what we understand. We understand what we are taught.
We need to keep teaching, keep loving and keep speaking out and saving the great wild places that are right here in our midst. These are the things that make us feel connected and alive, that nourish our spirits. When they are lost, part of us dies with them. Farewell Tolbert Lane vernal pool.