Nature in Potomac

Potomac was not intentionally planned for large houses, but it is how many people define us. In fact, at the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century, one old timer once told me River Road was lined with shacks and much of the farmland was leased to tenants. There were grain mills along streams. There was the Peter's Store in the Glen where people often bartered for goods. The C&O Canal was a commercial route to ship farm goods to the city. But early planners wisely decided to turn the numerous stream valleys into conservation parkland and zone the region low density residential to protect water quality and provide a buffer between the urbanizing Maryland suburbs outside D.C. and large agricultural farms in the upper county.

As Potomac grew, conservation became increasingly important. The narrow corridor of the canal became Federal parkland, considered a 19th century transportation engineering feat allowing us access to 184+ linear miles of walking or biking from Georgetown to Cumberland along the towpath. Such a long riparian corridor supports abundant wildlife and diverse habitats. Great Falls is an international attraction. Numerous tributary streams leading to the mighty Potomac also became County parks with names like Cabin John Creek, Muddy Branch and Watts Branch. Many of our rural roads cross these streams. They shape the landscape of our region.

Potomac also has unique parks that hold rare geologic wonders like the Serpentine Barrens Conservation Park and River Road Shale Barrens. We are rich in park variety from specially designed playgrounds and local parks with playing fields to large tracts like Blockhouse Point Conservation Park. Many parks have trail systems. These can be found at with maps and information on allowable uses within each park.

Beyond the Potomac Subregion proper and easy to reach via River Road extended is the jewel of Montgomery County conservation; the 93,000 acre Agricultural Reserve. Here is an ideal place to revive something many families grew up loving; the Sunday drive. A landscape of farm fields, orchards and roadside markets with meats and vegetables. There are breweries, wineries, even handmade soaps and the most beautiful rural countryside. You can take White's Ferry across the Potomac River or hike on Sugarloaf Mountain.

This year the Covid pandemic has sent our residents flocking to nearby parks. The C&O Canal is crowded with walkers and bicyclists. I live in a log cabin adjacent to Watts Branch Stream Valley Park and though not easily accessible, with no planned trails, it has become a mecca for the local community, especially neighborhood children. It seems like all our parks are busy now, all day, every day. But what I've noticed with dismay is that we can easily forget these places are home to other species. They are not just places to rush through for exercise but forest and plant communities, some of which are rare. They are full of wild creatures, some of which require specialized habitats and they are steam communities of varied, fragile aquatic life. We are just visitors and we need to learn how to respect our wild lands, wherever we find them.

County resident Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of books on trees, Rock Creek Park and Sugarloaf mountain, has recently written Resilience: Connecting with Nature in a Time of Crisis. It is filled with ideas and gentle ways to approach those places which for some have become salvation. Like finding a 'wild home' where we go to feel safe and connected. Waking to a deeper appreciation of what lives in our own backyards. We can travel to other worlds in Nature. Places of wonder and mystery where we find something new every day. Many who work at home have learned to delight in that afternoon walk or hike, noticing what we may never have seen or heard before. Taking our families to share the joy of so many outdoor delights. Birdsong, dappled light, tree bark, mosses, salamanders. The natural world soothes and steadies us. We are fortunate. Nature abounds in Potomac.

Ginny Barnes is an artist, nature lover and environmental activist who has made new friendships with wild things during the pandemic.