On a November day, the week after we turned our clocks back one hour, my mood was out of synch with the magnificent weather. Inside, I was feeling the mercurial emotions of an empty nester while outside, the weather was beautiful and tranquil. Looking out the window at a brilliant blue sky, I knew there was little I could do to get me out of my funk other than a change of scenery. I needed to go Take a Hike.
No longer capable of ambitious athletics and with limited stamina (thanks to spine issues and chronic pain), I knew just where to go for some peaceful, natural beauty: Locust Grove Nature Center (click here for Locust Grove on facebook). For years I drove right by the entrance on busy Democracy Boulevard and had no idea it was there until, thanks to a field trip when the twins were in first or second grade at The Harbor School in Bethesda, we were introduced. Decades later, I still enjoy Locust Grove and on this particular day, I really needed the respite it offers.
As I got out of my car and before entering the park, I started taking pictures of the plants lining the strip between the parking lot and stream of cars rushing down Democracy Blvd. I tried to get a few shots of the milkweed with traffic in the background but somehow, the cars faded into the distance and the lens focused only on the pretty shapes of the remaining stems and seedpods.
When I turned around to walk into the Nature Center’s entrance, I saw a trio of women looking carefully at something on one of the signs. They called over to me to come look at what they discovered – a Black Widow spider and her egg sac. I kept my distance while trying to get a few pictures. The shots aren’t terrific but they show the mother enjoying the warm sun while protecting her babies.
The women, Naturalists for the Center, told me how unusual it was to see the female that far out from the protection of the wood and all I could think was how easy it would have been to a) walk right past it, never noticing a web much less identifying the spider or b) brush up against it by mistake. After chatting a while, they asked me why I was photographing some of the native plants near the entrance. One thing led to another and soon, they were trying to recruit me to become a volunteer (they do the training and match your interests with the opportunities). I didn’t commit (yet) but it’s tempting.
Passing the protected Maple Leaf Viburnum and a small area of native plantings, the volunteers asked me how familiar I was with Mid-Atlantic native plantings (answer = sort of) and encouraged me to explore their newly labeled and nicely planted meadow. It excited me to recognize so many of their plants, having started my own small Native Bed last year, and I was intrigued by so many other plants.
As I stood in front of the Nature Exploration Area and Observation Center near the entrance, I was greeted by evidence of one of their many themed programs – this was obviously in celebration of Halloween:
The Observation Center has year round programs, an interactive exhibit and is built around a life sized Oak Tree Exhibit. Although it was closed, I peeked into the windows and saw art and science projects, live animals and numerous nature exhibits. There are maps of the trails and brochures listing upcoming programs – night hikes, guided hikes and seasonal programs. On December 20th at 4:00 p.m. there will be a Winter Solstice Celebration and the Center can be reserved for birthday parties and other activities.
Under the century old sycamore tree there is a fire pit and benches for story telling, educational and social events.
The paths through the Nature Center are clearly marked and you can take a map with you. But what I most appreciate about Locust Grove is the ability to simply walk through the park and get “lost” without really getting lost – eventually, the trails will return you to the entrance/exit. It’s a calm and beautiful respite from the busy life surrounding Locust Grove and benches are scattered along the scenic overlooks. There is no “right” or “wrong” direction or time of year to visit – all that is required is the desire to take a stroll and notice the beautiful picture nature paints and Locust Grove preserves for everyone’s enjoyment.
The blue sky and almost bare trees helped lift my mood and I could see, and hear, cardinals calling to each other across the path. As much as there was to see along the ground, I made sure to look up to see what nests were visible and appreciate the size of many diverse, mature trees.
As I wound my way along the path leading back to the Observation Center, feeling slightly less moody, I couldn’t help but look down at the piles of beautiful leaves and remember the days when I went with a group of kids to the park to collect leaves and made the requisite placemats with crayon shavings melted between sheets of waxed paper. Wasn’t it just yesterday when they were exploring the water in search of tadpoles, frogs and possibly a box turtle? OK, so I’ve become a cliché’ as an empty nester – I can still enjoy the beauty albeit a different catalyst prompting me to explore.
On my way to the car I decided to check in on the spider. There she was and you’ll have to forgive the shaky focus. She had changed her position to enjoy the sun’s angle and the telltale red hourglass shape was now visible. I like her shadow on the red metal strip.
Whether in search of a place to ride your bike, walk the dog, attend an educational program, participate in a social activity, go bird watching or a simply stroll through a park, there are numerous choices in the area – no matter where you reside.
So the next time someone tells you to “take a hike,” please consider doing so – at Locust Grove Nature Center.
Posted By: Emily Stashower, Behnkes Guest Blogger