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Honoring Lee’s Trees

Volunteers fight invasive species at Arlington House.

AUG. 28 - Trees behind Arlington House have stood sentinel for centuries.

The 12 acres of woods behind the home of Robert E. Lee crown the hill overlooking the surrounding Arlington National Cemetery. They pre-date the Civil War, and many were seedlings before the American Revolution was fought.

The soil at their feet is an archeological treasure trove: turning over a few inches of soil almost always yields an artifact of some sort, chipped pottery, bones, musket balls or chipped flint.

On Saturday morning, some hardy volunteers joined National Park rangers and US Rep. James Moran (D-10th) to commemorate the history of the woods, with the unveiling of a new "Arlington Woodlands" exhibit. The unveiling also marked the Park Service’s Founder’s Day, the 86th anniversary of the nation’s parks.

A cross section of a tree provides a botanical timeline to the history of Arlington House, pointing out events that led to the founding of the Cemetery, and through the history of the U.S., up to March 2002, when the tree was felled by a storm. Nearby, a plaque explains the importance of the woodlands throughout the history of Arlington – as a part of Lee’s house and farm, and as a remnant of the forests that once filled Lee’s land.

"The tree was in view of Arlington House," said Kendell Thompson, National Park Service Ranger and manager of the Arlington House site. "Lee may well have stopped and gazed on that tree as he paced the floor, facing his dilemma."

When the 200-year-old tree fell in the spring, it cinched the decision to erect the Woodlands exhibit. "We were thinking about the exhibit before, but that tree is the anchor of the exhibit in more ways than one," Thompson said.

The tree provides a touchstone for history, and serves as a reminder of the continued threat to the environment around Arlington House, he said. Last year, the Defense Appropriations bill set aside 12 acres of woodlands, formerly part of the National Park Service, as a way of expanding the capacity of Arlington Cemetery.

Now, only the 12 acres of woods between Arlington House and the nearby stables remain of the hundreds of acres of forest that once stood behind the house, Thompson said.

<b>AS HE SPOKE,</b> volunteers from Arlington and around the region made their way through the underbrush in the woods, routing out plants not native to the area and planting seedlings, in other efforts to mark Founder’s Day.

The effort could seem futile. A few days earlier, in a clearing down the hill from Arlington House, strands of porcelain berry, an Asian plant, carpeted the ground, smothered saplings, and hung like curtains from larger trees, dragging their branches to the ground.

In that case, Thompson said, the Park Service had resorted to herbicide, spraying chemicals on the porcelain berry around the clearing. By Saturday, many of the vines had withered.

But even without chemicals, it was possible to win the battle against invasive plants, Elizabeth Fortson Wells said. Wells, a botanist at George Washington University, came to volunteer on Founder’s Day with her colleagues in the Virginia Native Plant Society.

"It is doable. But you can’t do it in one day," she said. "We can make a dent, then come back and make another dent."

Along with the Virginia Native Plant Society, some 30 volunteers showed up at Arlington House on Saturday, members of the Sierra Club, the Black Heritage Museum, the Arlington Historical Society, the Maryland Native Plant Society, Arlingtonians for a Cleaner Environment, the Society of Lees of Virginia, the county’s Urban Forestry Commission and the county’s Remove Invasive Plants group organized by the Virginia Cooperative Extension office, joined in work on Saturday.

<b>IT WAS A MIX</b> of cultural, historical and environmental groups, Thompson said, that reflected the importance of the woodlands as an artifact. "That’s what the woods are," he said: "cultural, environmental and historical."

That mix was reflected in the many motivations for volunteering. Some came because they shared a passion for the Virginia’s history, or the role that their ancestors played at Arlington House. Others wanted to show their commitment to keeping Arlington green, and others saw the damage that exotic species can cause to the environment if they grow unchecked.

"I just moved here from Honolulu," where a South American tree threatens to outgrow the islands’ forests, said Stephanie Lu, a volunteer with the county’s Remove Invasive Plants group. "I grew up with the idea that invasive plants are a problem we can do something about."

Lu was happy to have found a way to address the problem in Arlington. "I think it’s good they’re tying historical preservation to environmental preservation," she said as she dug a hole for maple seedlings. "The woodlands was a novel move, because these trees have been here for 200 years."