Hang with this story long enough and you’ll be rewarded – with a tale about cow poop. And who among us doesn’t love tales about cow poop?
But for now, let’s begin with a tale about an attorney and how, in one way, life has come full circle.
When Cristina Brayton-Lewis was a student at Abingdon Elementary School and the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, some of her favorite experiences revolved around the Phoebe Hall Knipling Outdoor Lab, that 225-acre slice of bucolic splendor in Fauquier County where Arlington students were brought to enjoy and learn about nature.
Brayton-Lewis also took part in camp programs there, and later served as a camp counselor. And now, having married, earned a law degree (now specializing in international trade) and having two children attending Abingdon Elementary School themselves, she’s become the newest member of the board of directors of the non-profit organization that helps to oversee the facility.
“It’s starting the cycle all over,” Brayton-Lewis said at the May 15 annual meeting and open house at the facility.
Though there were capacity restrictions in place due to the ongoing public-health situation (not to mention the gas shortages of mid-May making some leery of travel), a hardy band showed up to see what had been happening at the lab over the more than a year it has been closed to students and the public.
“Like everyone, we’re hopeful – we’re looking forward to getting to something that is more normal. It certainly seems we’re headed in that direction,” said Todd Parker, president of the Arlington Outdoor Education Association, which for 50 years has owned the land and partnered with Arlington Public Schools to support programming there.
Despite the unusual times, it was a “pretty good turnout,” Parker reported via Zoom to those who could not attend by watched the proceedings online.
(The cicadas were “not bad,” he also noted.)
Arlington Public Schools provides the staff for the facility, and director Michele Karnbach said that before they leave for summer, personnel will have plans in place for three options for the next school year:
• A return to normal, including (possibly) the overnight camps that have been a highlight of thousands of fifth-graders’ experiences through the years.
• A semblance of normal, with day trips but no overnight programs.
• An ongoing shuttering of facilities, with programming being conducted online or in Arlington classrooms.
Karnbach began as an instructional assistant at the facility in 2005, left in 2010 but returned as director in 2019. She leads a staff that, like everyone, had to pivot when the pandemic hit.
At times, there was a question whether the Arlington Outdoor Education Association would even be able to do its part to support improvements and operations at the site. Much of its funding comes from the Arlington school system and – not for the first time – the facility found itself being targeted by some in the bureaucracy for cutbacks. A budget proposal from new(ish) Superintendent Francisco Durán suggested slicing the budget up to 50 percent.
In the end, as probably was in the cards all along, School Board members came to the rescue, restoring full funding.
“We’re very happy about that,” Parker said. “We have strong support on the [School] Board.”
The arrival to the association board of Brayton-Lewis is part of a concerted effort to expand the leadership ranks.
“There is a full-on campaign to attract more board members,” said Sarah Jensen, the organization’s secretary.
(Unfortunately for her, Jensen was tasked with running the Zoom meeting from Arlington, so she missed out on the open house, although she and Parker compared cicada levels and behavior at both places. “I think they’re pretty cool, actually,” she said.
The association wouldn’t be averse to trying to acquire additional land, or to have property owners put their adjoining land into conservation easements.
“Development is creeping ever closer,” said Mike Maleski, the organization’s vice president, who noted plans for the future include dredging the pond and planning for a new cottage.
And for those who have been waiting patiently – oh so patiently – for the promised anecdote about bovine effluence, here you go – and it’s good news.
A family that had grazed its cows on land upstream from the Outdoor Lab, has departed and taken them along, Maleski said. No cows means no cow poop, and “that will help our stream quality – immensely,” Maleski noted.
The Outdoor Lab is named in honor of science educator Phoebe Hall Knipling, who in the 1960s conceived the idea of buying up a piece of rural paradise so students in increasingly urbanizing Arlington would have an outlet for their environmental creativity. The facility recently marked its half-century in operation.