Sunday, April 2, 2017

Friendly Snakes, and Not

After a string of rainy days, Mantua seems to birth snakes. Most are harmless.They gravitate to wood piles, waiting to ambush chipmunks or moles (if the foxes don't get the scurrying critters first).
Snakes also climb small trees, so always check above as well as below before you relax in the yard under trees.
Snakes hide under old timbers that edge my garden, tamping down deer netting. Several years ago, a Northern Copperhead snake reclining near the garden gave me a good reason to never, EVER again go outside shoeless. He slithered away after I poked him with a stick--what a pretty rock, I'd been thinking.
My neighbors once discovered a Timber rattlesnake in their backyard near the pool. They caught it and released it in Eakin Park. (Keep your shoes on ALWAYS there!)
It's good to remember that most snakes are harmless, except the two mentioned above.
Fairfax County's website says we are home to a diverse range of reptiles--lizards, snakes, and turtles.
Eighteen species of non-venomous snake inhabit Fairfax County. They are:
• Black ratsnake, Eastern garter snake, Eastern hognose snake, Eastern kingsnake, Eastern milksnake, Eastern ribbon snake, Eastern smooth earthsnake, Eastern worm snake, Mole kingsnake, Northern black racer, Northern brown snake, Northern red-bellied snake, Northern ringneck snake, Northern scarlet snake, Northern water snake, Queen snake, Red cornsnake and Rough green snake.
Two species of venomous snake (mentioned above) inhabit Fairfax County:
• Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
• Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortix mokasen).

Adventures with Lardbutt

Once a friend's kid told my kid that I had a big butt. Which surprised the heck out of me because Terrence's mom's butt was significantly larger than mine.

But hey, for some of us, it just IS. No amount of exercise or dieting or walking will reduce the size of what I've come to call my lardbutt. However, one way to keep things in perspective is to walk or bike, not drive, and to eat at places near home that we can reach on foot.

Mantua is a beautiful neighborhood. You can walk to Nutley Street toward Vienna Metro for Pan Am restaurant gyros and souvlaki; to Mosaic District for restaurants, Target, and the weekend farmer's market; to Fairfax Circle for Artie's restaurant and other places; and up toward Route 236 for Trader Joe's and the post office on Pickett Road.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Fairfax County's 275th Birthday

275th Commemoration of Fairfax County Neighborhood History Project

      In 1742, Fairfax County was created out of Prince William County.  The mostly rural population was about 4,125. Today, more than 1.1 million people live in this urban area. Because Fairfax is on the doorstep of the nation's capital, residents come and go. Some people grow lifelong roots. But many don't know the history of their own neighborhood community.
       As part of Fairfax County's 275th Commemoration, neighborhoods are being encouraged to document their own history. Fairfax changed significantly after World War II as the federal government expanded. Workers populated new suburban communities. Schools and shopping  centers were built. Parks were born.
      The Neighborhood History Project encourages communities to do their own history--to help citizen historians to document their micro-level, grassroots area for future generations. Your community can be part of it by generating interest in the project:  Post this on your neighborhood or community website, in your newsletter, on your blog and Facebook pages. Ask your neighbors and civic association members to share photos  (to compare places then and now), for images (such as posters or signs), for vignettes about life in earlier days, for short articles about famous (and infamous) people who lived there. Mine your early newsletters and community directories for information about significant events that took place, traditions and how they got started, etc.  Ask the oldest residents what they like and dislike about the neighborhood. Ask new ones the same thing.
      If your neighborhood already has documented its history, share it.
      Information about The Neighborhood History Project will be shared during a public history fair on Saturday, June 17, at the official Fairfax County 275th Commemoration at the historic Fairfax Court house. (You'll even have a chance to meet the current Lord Fairfax, whose forebear Thomas, the sixth Lord Fairfax, owned the land in 1719!) 


Monday, May 16, 2016

Our Mistaken Identity?

            How do we pronounce the name of our neighborhood: MAN-Chew-ahh or Man- TOO-ahh?
            Residents new and old debate it. Are we named after Mantova in northern Italy?  The UNESCO World Heritage site has its Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace)--a residence inside the city similar to the Vatican inside Rome--where dukes ruled for 400 years. But about 25 years ago, a visit to Mantova to search for similarities with our suburb yielded zilch. (I remember a sleepless night under sixth-floor attic rafters, scratchy towels, and brown faucet water. You get what you pay for..) (This photo shows us in Mantova/Mantua, sketching with local artists.)

             Perhaps our Mantua is connected somehow to the Georgian brick mansion of that name in the Northern Neck of the state. Some of our houses have front porch columns and impressive foyers.

            There are five other places called Mantua in the United States -- in Utah, Alabama, Ohio, New Jersey and Maryland. And besides the one in Italy, there's one in Cuba. But there's only one Mantua Hills, and that's here. Here's a little history on what makes ours unique.
            Mantua was within a land grant parcel. Grants were often given to speculators, or wealthy men (yes, almost always men). Tenants lived on the land. The earliest grants were along the Accotink Creek, which flows through Mantua on its way to the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Before that, Native Americans lived near the water.
            We were not always wooded hills. Mills were on current parkland (and there was an Eakin who developed much of Mantua).  See
            Once, some of Mantua was open fields. Fairfax was farm country, and in the 1830 and 1840s Northerners were lured by cheap land. In 1860, west of Mantua, what is now Historic Blenheim on Old Lee Highway in Fairfax City was part of a 368-acre farm. Later, after Civil War troops left their graffiti on the walls there, the family farmed and had a dairy operation until the1940s. Suburbia moved in as the federal government expanded. In the 1950s, houses sprouted in Mantua for federal workers. Some houses preceded the suburb as we now know it. The oldest houses are on Route 236 and on Chichester Lane.
            Our Mantua is its own 2.4-square-mile census-designated place. In 2012, our population was about 7,135. In 2002, 7,485. By comparison, in 2015 Fairfax City population was 24,013 on 6.3 square miles. We're (on average) 371 feet above sea level, which most of us never notice until we go to places like the Sierra Nevadas and camp at 7,000 feet.  
            Many houses in Mantua were built from the 1960s until the1980s (split level styles like this one on Santayana Drive were popular).  In the 1960s, Route 50 from Barkley Drive extended as far as Hamilton Drive. It did not go through to Route 236.

          In 2014, the Mantua Citizens' Association invited some original homeowners to talk about the old 'hood. Chuck Sanders of Southwick Street shared this: "We moved into our home during the 1963 Thanksgiving Weekend.  The price at that time was $36,000.
            "At that time a large segment of Prince William was unpaved between Lido and Route 236.   There were no homes on the west end of the  south side of Southwick Street.  Clearly a lot has changed over the years. Our own home has had two additions, front and rear."
            In 1990, Mantua residents were both unified and divided when an underground oil spill from the Pickett Road tank facility was detected.  Housing values plummeted, exacerbated by a recession. Still, many Mantua residents planned for the future, emphasizing Woodson pyramid schools and our choice location for commuting to jobs. After decades of remediation and monitoring, the Environmental Protection Agency  determined  that further oversight was not warranted.
            Today, Mantua is desirable. Location is paramount. Homes sell quickly. Older homes are torn down and replaced. Additions and remodeling are common. Schools are good. The neighborhood is stable. Many residents are still federal workers, military, and business owners.
            Now, Mantua has its own weather station  There are even  two curbside little libraries (on Chichester and Hamilton). There is community. (P.S. It's pronounced Man TOO aah.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Under Water

I live at nearly the top of the hill, yet a river flowed in the backyard today. But nothing like below--this is the same area of Accotink Creek where volunteers with Friends of Accotink Creek picked up trash on Saturday. The bottom photo shows the bike path completely under water. Good the county picked up the collected debris and trash this morning.

Every time there was a break in the deluge, two adult foxes ran around my yard, foraging. Animals sometimes know about weather events before humans. What does this portend? Should we build an ark? Some roads have been and still are closed.

Monday, April 28, 2014

They Got Down and Dirty

The Potomac Watershed cleanup this April 26 run by Friends of Accotink Creek yielded a lot of trash. On three sites that run through or are close to Mantua, volunteers picked up more than 600 pounds of trash NOT including more than 100 packed-full bags of recyclable and non-recyclable trash.

In the Accotink Creek, more than 200 volunteers ages 4 to 73 found: a leather golfbag, numerous tires (for autos and trucks), room-size carpets, a bicycle, a washing machine motor, bed box springs, a metal baseball bat, a bra (that's Ron Wilcox modeling his find below!), and thousands of plastic water bottles and metal soda and beer cans, plus other stuff. For some, it was a family affair, as for the McKnights in the bottom photo. Thanks to the several Scout troops who showed up, and to our neighbors on Barkley who brought their friends and all the kids to pitch in (last photo here)!

Next time you're walking along the Cross County Trail in our parks, remember that these people worked so hard! Take your trash back home with you to recycle or dispose of properly.

There's another cleanup May 3, the final one until the Fall. See the site for more info.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Scat: A Wild Twist

I know my scat. Foxes, raccoons and deer routinely leave it on old wood railroad ties, on slate pathways, in piles of oak leaves, and sometimes right near the front step on my house. I don't mind sharing the outdoors with them. (Their scat doesn't scare me; bear scat, that's another story. When we see that in Mantua, I may stop my daily walks.)

Neighbors in my forested area just a (hard-pitched, long) stone's throw from Washington, D.C., have sighted coyotes frolicking in their yards. Definitely not dogs, they say, but wild animals prowling for food. 

The first coyotes were reported  in Northern Virginia a few years ago, so this is no surprise. Two years ago after a snowfall and before the snowplow came, two coyotes sauntered up the middle of my street, illuminated by the private Kmart parking-lot type light that an elderly neighbor paid to erect. The coyotes were yellow against the snow, with a loping walk unlike most domesticated dogs.

In 2011, I reported this on our community website:
A neighbor reported that an animal that appeared to be a wolf had been hit on Route 50. Another neighbor reported that he saw what looked like cougar in the woods. So what wildlife lives in Mantua?
We are fortunate to be near parkland and woods, and it helps to remember that critters like raccoons (Mantua Elementary school’s mascot) have been here for a long time. For about a decade, we’ve been seeing more foxes.
We called federal, state and county agencies to ask whether wolves and cougars are among us. Here’s what an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says:
“I can tell you that there are no wild wolves in any part of Virginia, but you all do have a healthy population of coyotes, and these can get rather large and be confused as a wolf. The other thing is the possibility of someone owning a wolf or wolf hybrid (wolf crossed with a dog) and one of these being possibly hit by a car. It is my opinion that the animal hit on Route 50 was most likely a coyote.
“As for cougars, the only ones that would be in your area would have to be some person/s pet. There are too many people in this country who feel they need to own such animals, and they often hurt someone or get loose. I work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and our agency is responsible for those plants and animals that have been federally listed as endangered species. The eastern cougar is listed as endangered, but a recent review by our agency has found that there is strong scientific evidence that the eastern cougar is extinct. This does not rule out the possibility that some western cougars may be making their way east.
“Northern Virginia does have bobcats, but these animals are very shy and elusive, doing most of their hunting for prey at night. I have worked with resource agencies for 23 years and have only seen a bobcat two times.
“I feel it is very safe to say that there are no wild cougars in Fairfax County.”
To learn what wildlife lives in Fairfax, go to
But here's the twist on the recent coyote sighting: A neighbor says a wildlife biologist analyzed the coyote scat and found wolf DNA. Does this make the animals more dangerous, or less, or does it matter? Do we need to do more to protect small domesticated animals? Do we need to protect the baby foxes in the neighborhood? (One is shown below near a tree.) Coming soon: The Coyote Wolf? I've got my camera ready!