A Nature Trail Through a History Park

Trail02-smAlthough I’ve done a fair amount of hiking in the past few months, I haven’t had my hiking shoes out of their box since I wore them to Uganda back in January. Flecks of Uganda’s rust-colored clay still line the crevices of the shoes’ treads.

The shoebox I pull them from says “Keen,” a reminder of a former hiking companion who’s now far off. I might be as apt to wear my running shoes out on the trail; they were bought in Keane, New Hampshire—a variation on the same theme. Either way, I’ll hit the trail in the footsteps of ghosts.

I’m living on the Fredericksburg battlefield for the summer. A network of trails runs like a circulatory system through the park’s forests and fields. We often forget, as lovers of history, that these landscapes are likewise stunning natural environments. I’ve been hiking the park’s trails over the past few weeks in an effort to remind myself of this salient fact that I might better appreciate it.

I lace up my shoes and a grab a bottle of water. I also grab my walking stick—a shillelagh my grandfather brought back from Ireland that I will handily use, as my ancestors did, for driving off any snakes. Then I push through the brush to intersect with the trail behind my quarters.

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To the right, the trail runs a few hundred yards to the top of Howison Hill, where the trailhead starts behind the artillery emplacement perched there. I go left, where Prospect Hill awaits me five miles down the line.

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There’s much tucked away back in these woods. Aside from lines of earthworks that the trail frequently parallels, I find the remains of an old redoubt constructed by Confederates in the winter of ’63. One would be hard-pressed to see it as anything other than a steep embankment to the right of the path if you weren’t looking for it. Trees and bushes grow on the surface like the thick whiskers of a disguising beard. But knowing the redoubt is there, I see steep fortifications that run for dozens of yards.

This is mostly a chance for exercise and fresh air, so the lack of historical interpretation along the trail doesn’t bother me in the least. Few of the park’s trails have interpretation, actually, although the Chancellorsville trail does have a sprinkling of signs along the way, and the Brock Road/Plank Road trail has some good wayside signs. Several other trails have corresponding brochures. Mostly, though, it’s a whole bunch of nature.

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When I visited Chickamauga a few weeks ago, the trail system there amazed me because of its endless labyrinthian routes—most of which led to monuments and memorials tucked away deep in the woods, forgotten by most visitors. I’ve also hiked parts of Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Shiloh, and Gettysburg, although most parks have plenty of trails for anyone looking for a good walk.

Friends at those various parks have told me that their natural resources generally go uninterpreted. That struck me as odd at first because nature interpretation seemed like a good way to build a totally different constituency of support for a park. People who might not care about the history might still care about its ecological identity. In an age where the perceived worth of a park—and thus its public funding and private fund-raising potential—is dependent on its public usage, it seemed like a good idea to build as many constituencies of support as possible.

The rub arises when those two constituencies come into conflict over landscape renewal and maintenance. For example, in order for a visitor to understand why a particular piece of ground is important, park officials might need to clear that ground so it regains its historical appearance. That is, after all, why the ground was preserved in the first place—because it had historical significance. But to clear the ground in the name of historical integrity creates ecological upset for the flora and fauna that have made their homes on that piece of ground.

That has upset the naturalists who lay claims to these parks beyond the historical integrity of the landscape. One such conflict brought landscape restoration to a screeching halt in Manassas several years ago, and it stirred up heated debate when it happened in Gettysburg more recently.

I’ve written before on this conflict, and my thinking has been very much shaped by my friend Gregg, who’s a natural resource manager for the Park Service.

Being out on the trails and walking the battlefields is made all the more poignant for me when I understand the stories behind that natural beauty. But it’s good to know, too, the story of that natural beauty: the flora and fauna, the snakes and squirrels and snails, scrub pines and the whiplash oak.

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That’s most dramatically illustrated in the Wilderness, where the second-growth forest played as much of a role in the battle’s overall story as the fighting itself. “This, viewed as a battleground, was simply infernal,” a Union soldier said. A Union officer offered details: “stunted trees, such as scraggy oaks, bushy firs, cedars, and junipers, all entangled with a thick, almost impenetrable undergrowth, and criss- crossed with an abundance of wild vines.” Said one Northern soldier, “You had a tangle through which a dog could hardly force its way.”

As exurban development continues to swallow so much of the countryside, our parks become increasingly important places of refuge for the wildlife that’s otherwise getting squeezed out of its habitat. In fact, habitat destruction here in central Virginia has been almost catastrophic in its scale. Fields get paved and forests get razed, and parking lots and strip mall become the replacement crops.

I saw the same habitat squeeze happening in Uganda last January. The once-vast herds of zebra and impala are almost exclusively constrained to national parks. The only monkey I saw outside a park was monkey roadkill that might just as well have been a dead possum on a Virginia back road.

So I walk along these trails, in part, to remind myself that although we didn’t necessarily set aside these landscapes as wildlife refuges, that’s in effect what they’ve become. We need to be sensitive to the ramifications of that and the consequences that result from our management of that land.

As if to be reminded of that, I flush a deer from the underbrush beside the trail. I see a flicker of its white tail as it crashes through the bushes, but it stays largely invisible even though it’s still only yards away. Later, I stop to admire a snail. Farther down the trail, I nearly step on a snake, springing over it at the last second the way a gazelle might leap up and away. I don’t need the shillelagh, though. The black snake looks at me and I look at it, and I hunker down as close as I can to snap a picture. Once it realizes I’m not going to eat it, it slowly curls back on itself and slithers into a hole that might have been made by a piece of grapeshot near the root of a tree.

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It takes just under two hours to make the walk to Prospect Hill, a trip that would’ve taken me less time had I not stopped to wonder. Seeing the scaly texture on a snail’s neck, as if it was never before discovered by any other human, was worth the stop.

The park offers more landscapes to hike, more trails to explore, more wonders to be in awe of. There is, indeed, a whole lot of nature out there. What a beautiful story it tells.

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