About 25 people of all ages have gathered at Blandy Experimental Farm at the Virginia State Arboretum on a warm August night in Clarke County, Virginia. The full moon, known to Native Americans as the “Green Corn Moon”, is beginning to brighten as it climbs above the Blue Ridge in the east. Blandy’s public program director, Steve Carroll, is greeting visitors arriving for a nocturnal hike that offers a chance to view Blandy’s trees and wildlife in a “different light” from the preserve’s normal dawn-to-dusk operating hours.
Carroll is a soft-spoken man in his 50’s dressed for the night’s hike in khaki pants, short sleeved polo shirt and hiking shoes. He projects a scholarly appearance that would seem just as comfortable in a college classroom as it does for leading tonight’s group along the several miles of winding walking paths that criss-cross through the arboretum.
“I’ve got bug spray here if anyone needs it” Carroll tells our hiking group.
Several families have come to join Carroll for the one-and-a-half hour walk. The youngest hikers are two elementary aged girls. Several grandparents have also come along as well as a few teens.
As we start to hike, the moon, which is just beginning to really shine, looks a bit like a balloon hanging above the distant Blue Ridge. With the sun having just dipped below the horizon, a comforting half-light-half-glow bathes the gravel walking path beneath our feet.
Not far down the path Carroll stops to point out a wild honey bee hive in the rotted trunk of a locust tree near a waist high stone wall. Although our sunlight light is fading fast, Carroll points out a couple of sentry bees that can barely be seen near the entrance hole in the tree.
Several of the younger hikers tentatively ease toward the tree to get a closer glance.
Carroll says that tonight’s full moon hike is just one of a series of environmental programs offered throughout the year as part of Blandy’s environmental education mission.
“This is one of our family-appropriate programs” Carroll said. “It’s a great way to spend a nice evening together.”
Carroll said that an upcoming trip to Montpelier, the home of US president James Madison, is another excellent opportunity for kids and parents to experience a fun and educational day together.
“We’ll probably hear and see more if everyone turns off their cellphones and doesn’t get carried away with flashlights” Carroll suggests in his gentle manner. Several young hikers carry flashlights but older hikers, too, must resist their urge to violate the darkness by turning on cellphones.
As our group follows Carroll to a gentle knoll overlooking Blandy’s community garden plots and a large open meadow, the chirping crickets and creaking cicadas provide a cacophonous backdrop to the twenty-five plus pairs of sneakers and hiking boots scuffing against the graveled path. Cars travelling at the edge of the meadow along US Route 50 nearly a mile away can just be heard.
“We have 26 garden plots here at Blandy that have been adopted by area families” Carroll points out as we stroll along the path toward a low swampy area in the distance. “We don’t charge anything for the plots but I do ask the gardeners to donate some part of the food that they grow to a local food bank or a church.”
This year’s goal is for the gardens to produce a half-ton of food.
“It looks like we’ll make the goal” Carroll said.
As we walk along, the path rises and falls with the hilly landscape of the fields. With the first dip in the landscape Carroll stops to explain the air dynamics that push cool air into the lower spots of the meadow.
“Feel how much nicer it is here?” Carroll asks. “It’s at least five degrees cooler than at the top of the hill. The cooler air is heavier and collects in these low places. Remember that the next time you set-up a tent so you can select the type of campsite that you want – warmer in higher terrain, cooler in lower terrain.”
A little further along the way Carroll uses a brief rest stop to pay respect to the star of tonight’s event, the full moon which has now become so bright that it is casting long shadows across the open fields that have taken on a silvery lunar glow.
“Did you know that the same side of the moon always faces the Earth?” Carroll asks the group. “That’s because the lunar day, the time the moon takes to rotate on its axis, and the lunar year, the time it takes to circle the Earth, are exactly equal.”
“Think about that for a while” Carroll laughs.
As we follow Carroll along the paths of the preserve bats chase fireflies across above the meadows. The moon provides just enough light to easily see the small flying mammals as well as the landscape around us but the normally green meadows and trees have now been transformed into shades of silver, gray and black.
Carroll points out a stand of Atlas cedars in the distance. Standing next to several darker fir trees, the contrast between the silver cedars and the darker firs helps to illustrate our color vision loss at night.
Carroll tells us that as the night continues the cicadas and katydids that were so loud around sundown will stop making noise only to be replaced by the sounds of crickets rubbing their legs together as a method of regulating their body temperature.
“People say that you can estimate the temperature by counting the number of cricket chirps per minute and adding forty to the total” Carroll says.
“Does that really work?” a young hiker asks with, perhaps, just a tad of skepticism in his voice.
“It’s not as accurate as a thermometer” Carroll laughs.
As we walk on Carroll asks everyone to stop on a raised boardwalk over and swampy area known as Rattlesnake Springs. Much of the moisture in the area has long since disappeared due to the year’s minimal rainfall. But even so, a lone frog can still be heard croaking in the distance. The lonesome whistle from a train moving long the track somewhere in the night can also be heard. An airliner descending overhead toward Dulles Airport noisily plows through the sky.
An evening stroll in the country isn’t quite as peaceful as it may have once been in the past it seems.
Carroll leads on to a large viewing tower that overlooks the swampy area. As we sit and soak in the darkness several people ask Carroll about Blandy’s birds, both daytime and evening varieties.
“Blandy is home to several species of owls and raptors” Carroll says. “I’ve seen barred owls and barn owls here, although I’ve seen fewer barred owls lately. We also have the small saw whet owl.”
On this night, unfortunately, no owls make themselves known to our group.
Carroll says that occasionally a bald eagle will drift over Blandy but buzzards are much more common.
Soon we arrive at the edge of Blandy’s Lake Georgette. As with the swamp, Georgette’s water has dwindled with the dry conditions turning it into more of swamp than a lake. Yet, bathed in moonlight, the watery area has regained a portion of its liquid beauty and appears dark and mysterious.
“In the spring the area where we are standing was underwater” Carroll tells the group. Perhaps due to the low water levels, the area around the lake from where we are standing appears still and silent. We stand still and take in the night noises for a few more minutes before walking back toward the lights of Blandy’s buildings in the nearby distance.
Tall cedars lining a walkway in the distance look like silhouetted fingers from a great hand reaching up toward the full moon which has now climbed high in the sky.
Although wildlife wasn’t as prevalent tonight as some probably had hoped, all of the hikers seemed pleased with the opportunity to see Blandy’s familiar hiking trails under a moon-lit sky.
“Part of our mission at Blandy is to raise environmental awareness and outdoor education” Carroll says as the last of the hikers head toward awaiting cars in the parking lot.
It’s nearly 10:00 pm.
“My hope is that maybe the people who came tonight experienced something that they haven’t seen before.”
“Thank you again Mr. Steve” a voice calls from the distance somewhere in the darkness.
Blandy Experimental Farm will offer another full moon hike in October. For more information on the hike or the upcoming Montpelier trip visit http://www.virginia.edu/blandy/2011SummerPrograms.pdf