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2008 News Releases

Longwood professor, undergraduates conduct environmental research

July 15, 2008

Dr. Dan Druckenbrod cores a tree at Mount Vernon Dr. Dan Druckenbrod cores a tree at Mount Vernon, part of the environmental research that he and some students are doing there and at Monticello.

A Longwood University faculty member and three undergraduates have recently conducted environmental research at two of the nation’s most historic homes.

Both projects, led by Dr. Dan Druckenbrod, assistant professor of environmental science, are using tree rings, geographical information systems (GIS), and other documentary evidence to reconstruct the forest histories of Monticello and Mount Vernon. The first phase of the Monticello project, funded by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF), began in the summer of 2007 and is wrapping up. The other work, funded by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, is a three-year effort that began this summer.

"Much of my research is about tree rings and forest change, in an effort to understand landscapes," Druckenbrod said. "In both projects, I’m interested in how the surrounding forests have changed over time, which is largely in response to how Jefferson and Washington used the environment two centuries ago. The project at Monticello is part of a larger effort (by the TJF) to interpret the appearance of Montalto, the large hill behind Monticello."

Rachel Young, a biology major who graduated in December 2007, assisted with the Monticello project. She was the lead presenter of a poster, "Interpreting Landscape History of Thomas Jefferson’s Plantation," at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Boston in April.

The Mount Vernon project involves Heather Carty, a senior biology major, and Michael Thorogood, a rising junior who is majoring in anthropology and minoring in earth science. "I hope to have them develop their own projects this academic year," Druckenbrod said.

Both projects involve coring, which is counting tree rings and measuring the widths of the rings to see how the tree has changed over time. Coring is done with an increment borer, a metal, T-shaped instrument with a hollow bit in the center that cranks into a tree and extracts a thin, cylindrical strip of wood called a core.

Young collected cores at Monticello in the summer of 2007 and did work this spring in the tree-ring laboratory in Longwood’s Chichester Science Center. Carty and Thorogood took core samples at Mount Vernon this summer – Carty for one week, Thorogood for two weeks – and Carty is working occasionally in the lab this summer. Both will work in the lab this fall.

"Beyond the historical significance of these sites and the changing condition of their forests, I also have been excited by the opportunity to involve Longwood undergraduates in this research," Druckenbrod said.

Montalto, also called Brown’s Mountain, is a largely wooded hill that rises 410 feet above Monticello across Route 53 and is known for its breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. It was acquired in 1777 by Jefferson, who had various plans for the site that were never realized, and sold by his daughter in 1832, six years after his death, to pay off his debts. The TJF, worried about possible development, purchased the 330-acre parcel in 2004.

"A field cuts through Montalto, which is the reason people are interested in it," Druckenbrod. "Because the Thomas Jefferson Foundation wants to restore the landscape to its appearance during Jefferson’s time, they want to know if they should restore the field back to forest cover. It’s not clear when the field was created – people want to know if it’s from Jefferson’s time – or how it was used. The earliest evidence of a field in this location is from an 1844 drawing. In our work, we found a few trees from Jefferson’s era in the adjacent forest but not as many as we had hoped, so we’re currently frustrated."

Druckenbrod has been collaborating with two members of the TJF staff, Fraser Neiman, director of archaeology, and Bill Beiswanger, the Robert H. Smith director of restoration. This project is part of Druckenbrod’s ongoing research on tree rings at Monticello that he began in 2002 as a graduate student at the University of Virginia, from which he earned a Ph.D. in environmental science. "I was asked to help in collecting cores to match log structures, and I got to know (TJF) staff members," he said.

In the work at Mount Vernon, which is similar to that at Monticello, Druckenbrod is collaborating with the associate director of preservation, Dennis Pogue, and the director of horticulture, Dean Norton. "I was invited to submit a proposal to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association based on my work at Monticello and Montpelier (James Madison’s home in Orange County), where I’ve also worked with tree rings," Druckenbrod said. "As at Monticello, the staff is interested in what Washington-era forests remain and how forests on the former plantation have responded to landscape changes from the Colonial era. It’s a global change question. I’m trying to look backward with tree rings to see how forests responded to environmental change in the past. That knowledge is necessary to understand the current conditions of our forests and how these forests will respond to modern changes in the environment."

The tree-ring lab, on the first floor of the science building, smells of sawdust and has a shop vac and plastic bins with cores from Mount Vernon and Monticello. Tree cores are mounted on custom-built wooden slats (made by Longwood’s facilities management) and put under a special microscope, which allows the viewer to distinguish "ring boundaries quite clearly and to measure the individual rings in micrometers to compare it to reference samples," Druckenbrod said. "By statistically matching the patterns of wide and narrow rings over time, a particular tree ring can be confidently assigned to a particular calendar year, a process called cross-dating." When samples are under the microscope, ring-width measurements are transmitted digitally to a computer a few feet away. Druckenbrod showed a visitor an oak core from Montalto that dates to 1792 and a 1710 core from a log at a barn in Amherst County, where Carty assisted with his research this past spring.

"Trees are good indicators of climate change and in central Virginia are quite sensitive to summer drought," said Carty, who along with Druckenbrod has been examining about 100 tree cores from Mount Vernon. She has become adept at identifying tree types, which she said is best done by the bark. The biggest hazard of tree-ring fieldwork is ticks. "After about three days, you’re tired of being out there," she said with a laugh. Carty, who has taken two courses under Druckenbrod, is interested in a career in environmental science, possibly teaching.

Druckenbrod’s and Rachel Young’s travel to the Association of American Geographers conference, to present a poster, was supported by a Longwood Faculty Research and Development grant.