Saturday, August 17, 2013

Vanishing Wildlife

One of the blessings of living where I do in Northern Virginia is that I am a scant few miles from the Potomac River. Be it rain or shine, and in any season, I can drive 20 minutes from my home and be at one of several wildlife sanctuaries that surprise and delight me each time I visit. Earlier this week I went with a friend to Dyke Marsh, a preserve a few minutes from George Washington’s home of Mt. Vernon. In an hour, I saw a bald eagle, an osprey, great blue herons and egrets, a red tail hawk and a  number of what birders apparently refer to as ‘little brown jobs,’ small, difficult to identify birds such as relatively unremarkable sparrows, warblers, wrens or finches. After a four-decade-long friendship with a serious birder, I can now identify about a dozen birds, of which I am very proud.

The walks encourage idle conversation. Is that sumac or poison sumac? The two plants are remarkably alike but the latter will inflict a rash that, if you’re seriously allergic, may take you to the emergency room. And look! A giant freshwater snail shell, the largest I’ve ever seen. And why, after years of trying, can’t I get an American locust to grow in my yard?

The talk need not be about nature. This week, it centered on the little-known fact that J. Edgar Hoover, the fearsome first director of the FBI, is buried right next to his lifetime companion, Clyde Tolson in Congressional Cemetery right across the river.*

The same day saw us go to Huntley Meadows, a wetland normally full of beavers, muskrats, foxes, deer and any number of reptiles and amphibians. I’ve been going to Huntley Meadows for years and a large area is now a plant-less mudflats, as the park has been slowly filling with silt and debris, which has reduced the water depth and affected the wildlife habitat. A lot of this is due to new construction with poorly planned drainage systems. A restoration project is underway but it’s unsure as to its success, since beavers (I did not know this) have a tendency to up and change neighborhoods at a moment’s notice if they no longer care for their environment. I’ve also heard that poachers have taken a large part of the deer population.

I don’t know how many miles of trails there are in Northern Virginia. Hundreds for sure, all different. A personal favorite is a hidden bower of bamboo that reminds me of the wilderness in Thailand. Another could have been lifted from Germany’s Black Forest. One thing I’ve noticed as years have gone by is that the fauna--other than birds--is disappearing. Two decades ago a hike would have included rat snakes, turtles of many varieties, skinks, an occasional fox or opossum and, once or twice, otter. It’s been at least ten years since I’ve seen an otter or a possum, and three since I’ve seen snakes, once ubiquitous in this area.

Development is mostly to blame, though global warming is at fault as well. I’m not sure how long what is left of the fauna can withstand the pressure of new malls and parking lot. I do know that the amount of impermeable surfaces in my area of the world is growing at a frightening pace. Trading wildlife for tarmac seems like a pretty bad deal.

*In the 60s and 70s, J. Edgar’s long-standing relationship with Tolson was the best worst-kept secret in Washington. It was common knowledge that the chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation detested Blacks, Commies, hippies, agitators and homosexuals. He kept voluminous files on everyone from JFK to Martin Luther King, and was not above threatening or blackmailing the top politicos of his era. That he was a rampant homosexual himself was well-known. There were rumors of J. Edgar wearing a red taffeta dress to secret evenings for cross-dressers, and he and Clyde could often be seen dining tête-à-tête at the ritzy Mayflower hotel where some said they had adjoining suites. No one, of course, spoke about this relationship openly for fear of reprisals. The FBI chief could make life miserable when crossed. Tolson and Hoover were inseparable for forty years, and when Hoover dies, he left his entire estate of $551,000 to his companion. Tolson then moved into Hoover’s house.

J. Edgar’s grave is a few yards from Clyde Tolson’s. His final resting place is in the Hoover family plot, one of the rare sites in the cemetery to be surrounded by a fence. This, possibly, was done to avoid grave desecration. J. Edgar was a detested man, and in the minds of many remains one to this day.

Both are nestled in what is known as the cemetery’s gay corner. Next to them, sleeping for all eternity, are several gay war veterans, and William Boyce Mueller, the founder of the Forgotten Scouts who died in 1993.

Mueller, the grandson of Boy Scouts of America founder William Dickson Boyce, founded his organization to honor former Scouts who were gay and, according to a 1991 story in the Boston Globe, to counter the Boy Scouts’ beliefs at the time that gay men were somehow at odds with family values. An early member of the Forgotten Scouts was author Armistead Maupin.


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