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Urban wetland used as a classroom

Elizabeth Byers used the Kump Education Center wetland as a classroom to train her vegetation ecology students to recognize the plant life and soil conditions present in a healthy urban wetland. On Sept. 12 the old Kump pasture became a certified West Virginia wetland after Elizabeth and her students did their assessment.

Before her students came to KEC, Elizabeth did a preliminary assessment of this wetland. Then she called me to confirm that about 20 students, a soil expert, and other state naturalists would work with her to catalog the plants and analyze the soil in Kump wetland on Goddin Creek. She said enthusiastically, “It’s a lovely little wetland.”

The ecology students discovered 46 different species in the old Kump pasture land that the City of Elkins now owns along with Governor Kump’s historic house. Although there are a few invasive plants, the majority of vegetation is native to West Virginia. The most visible plants now are Canadian goldenrod. It makes a glorious show of yellow blooms this time of year, but it used to cause hay fever for my mother’s generation.

The wetland floor was covered with soft leaves of blue marsh forget-me-nots. A clean smell of wild mint filled the air, bright orange and yellow jewelweed hung on thin branches, and prickly teasel stalks stood tall. Behind these wildflowers and across the road was a red and white roof on Kentucky Fried Chicken and a green and blue diamond on a Par Mar sign. For better or worse urban wetlands share space with human habitat.

Concepts of good land use change over time as natural conditions and social expectations change. Here in Elkins many generations of residents remember seeing horses in the Kump pasture. Now that the horses have been moved away, and hay mowing is not possible in the wetland, the old Kump fence may no longer be needed. We can benefit from finding new ways to appreciate the land itself and the function of the plants to purify the water before it goes into the Tygart Valley River.

Elizabeth Byers told us that early settlers boiled the roots of sweet flag to make hard candy, and they stripped away dark green, outer casing of rushes to make candlewicks. These natural candlewicks smoke less and last longer than cotton candlewicks. In the past people had to make what they needed from the plants they found on the land.

New insights into our relationship with the land are made available by Elizabeth Byers. She is not only studying vegetation in the Appalachian Mountains, but she is compiling an illustrated guide to the vascular flora of Mount Everest for National Parks of Nepal.

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