Walter Hussey and Ida SwensonOn a rainy Saturday afternoon (Feb. 10) Ida Swenson, a Virginia master naturalist of the Rivanna chapter, presented a program to interested nature lovers and potential master naturalists on identifying animals, as morbid as it sounds, by their remains.

The program, called Skulls and Scat, teaches how to identify wild animals by the bits and pieces found along nature trails in the woods and other areas. Swenson laid on a table a box of interesting artifacts, including a mummified worm snake, bones, the skull of a young deer, black bear fur and scat, or animal excrement, preserved in jars.

A retired science teacher, Swenson has been educating the public about nature for some time and her presentation was intriguing and uncomplicated. She began by discussing collecting items – an undertaking not as simple as picking up something in the woods and taking it home. She cautioned that anyone interested in collecting items, even roadkill, from the natural environment has to have a collection or scavenger or salvage permit from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).

“All natural things belong to the state of Virginia, therefore collectors have to have permits to collect dead animals,” she said. “You cannot collect any animal until it is dead.” A Virginia permit is required for educational purposes, but additional permits from the federal government are needed for birds, since some are either endangered or protected. Collecting anything related to birds, native or migrating, including nests and feathers, requires a permit. “There are some things that are illegal to collect, including fresh water mussel shells and eagle feathers,” she said.

She told the story of a box turtle she found at Scheier Natural Area, which appeared to be injured.

“If the shell of a turtle is damaged, it can paralyze it,” Swenson said. She illustrated her point with a couple of turtle shells, tracing the backbone in the underside of the shell to show where the spinal cord was found. She went back another time and the turtle had not moved from the same spot and this told her it was most likely paralyzed. The turtle eventually died and with permission, Swenson took possession of it. Add a comment


Jennings with banjoNearly 20 handmade instruments, including some beautiful banjos, will be on display at the Art Center of Orange beginning Feb. 1 with a meet and greet by the artist and maybe a song or two. The public is invited to see the craft, to hear the music and to learn the history of these amazing and attractive instruments.

The craft of banjos lies in their beauty and design. These handmade works of art by Orange physician Dena Jennings will be displayed at the center’s Morin Gallery which will be open to the public for viewing. Some of these organic instruments look like the banjos with which we are familiar. Some have long, graceful necks. Colors vary: greens and browns and yellows glow in full spectrum.

When one thinks of banjos, though, one generally thinks of music, and these handmade instruments truly sound amazing.

Banjos are “as much a percussive instrument as a stringed instrument,” because of the instrument’s drone string – a string shorter than the others on the instrument, explained Jennings. It offers a percussion tone, a “bumdiddy, bumdiddy, bumdiddy, bum” not offered by a traditional stringed instrument. Used in folk music, the instrument gives the song a “lot more expression,” she said.

But the true beauty of these instruments lies in their history. The craft of making gourd banjos dates back to before the 17th century, and they came to America with enslaved Africans. The akonting, which according to is still played by the Jola tribe in Gambia, is a banjo made with three strings – two long and a drone – and that type of banjo is still played extensively in Appalachian music. The akonting is a precursor to the banjo, Jennings explained.

Jennings’ mother, Virginia, was born on Christmas Day in 1941 in a hollow in Kentucky. Jennings’ family –and their music – moved from those mountains in Kentucky to Akron, Ohio, before she was born. They were a part of the Great Migration north to find jobs in the rubber and car factories there.

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Langden MasonLangden Mason, who writes the popular column Don’t Get Me Started, brilliantly weaves into his writing the influences and experiences of growing up on a farm in rural Fluvanna.

Born in 1963, he recalled being content growing up in an age when one used a phone booth instead of a cell phone, drank from a garden hose instead of bottled water, and sat down as a family for dinner instead of microwaving meals individually. He does not dismiss the technological and medical advances over the last 50 years, but believes we’ve somehow lost a lot of the core beliefs that made us a great nation such as patriotism, trust, and the art of conversation without polarization.

He went on to say his parents instilled in him a belief that one could achieve happiness by working hard, doing the right thing, and being a good citizen without bullying and hurting others’ feelings. He believes they were right. He sees the diversity in his friendships as a path to better understanding and cites his upbringing as something that made him a good writer and a better person.

Smiling and sharing memories and witticisms, Mason is always engaged with those around him. His column and plays capture the lament of what we’ve left behind in our past.

Writing began with his parents informing him that great adventures were only a book away.

“I read a lot and my mother taught me to color within the lines, but left room to think outside the box,” he said. After tackling great literature and poetry, his favorite English teacher had his class diagram sentences to learn the structure of writing.

“I learned the importance of word placement and the need for proper grammar,” he said. “A picture is worth a thousand words, but a single sentence, when structured properly, can provide a pretty amazing picture.” Add a comment


Carolyn HerbertCarolyn Herbert’s 92-year-old mother inspired her wine jelly business. Herbert wanted to do something nice for her mother and went online to look up wine jelly recipes. Her mother, who enjoys half a glass of wine, became the tester for Herbert’s wine jelly. Then her son suggested a jelly made from beer and her friends encouraged her to go further with her products. Herbert built a business.

However, the business soon became less about the product itself, which she enjoys creating, and became more a crusade for mental illness awareness when her son had mental health issues as a result of injuries suffered in an accident. Herbert saw an opportunity to combine a growing business with helping those who are in need of jobs and who experience ongoing mental health issues.

“Did I ever think I would have a business – heavens no – I was a school administrator in special education for years,” Herbert said. What started with an idea to please her mother turned into something Herbert never dreamed of when she made her first batch of wine jelly.

The jelly-making process is tedious and has to meet certain standards before being allowed on the market.

“There are recipes out there for making wine jelly but you cannot sell them because of the alcohol content,” Herbert said. She began research and development a year ago and now is in the process of expanding her business. She has 10 flavors thus far and as ideas flow, more will come. Each has a subtle fruity flavor with a hint of wine taste. The Pear Pinot Grigio can be used in cooking or to enhance the taste of something as simple as an English muffin or cream cheese and crackers. Among the flavors are Apple Merlot, Blackberry Sauvignon, Orange Pineapple Chardonnay, and even Lager. For the winter holidays, she features specialty jellies such as Pineberry Julep and for summer Orange Mojito. Add a comment


Linda StaigerRetired orthopedic surgeon and oil painter Linda Staiger spoke to members of the Fluvanna Art Association (FAA) at their monthly meeting Jan. 19 about her artist’s journey, her painting process and how to create good compositions from photos.

Staiger is passionate about painting landscapes and expressing her love for the natural environment through her artistic approach. Growing up on a farm in Fluvanna reminded Staiger of what keeps her painting. Her favorite subjects are the area’s rivers and woods.

“When I was in college and later studying medicine, I would go to museums,” she said. “I was always fascinated by the variety of artists and wondered how they did what they did.” This is a method that many artists learning about art employ. It can be useful to deconstruct great works in order to have a better understanding of their meaning and composition.

For the last 15 years, Staiger returned to art, taking classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College, including graphic arts and ceramics. Later she attended workshops at The Beverly Street Studio and McGuffey Arts Center, where she studied with artist Rick Weaver. 

“He was a very cerebral artist. Many artists cannot explain the how and why of art,” she said. She then listed the key points of painting: “The formal elements are lines and colors; what is the subject; what is it about.” Add a comment