Al Alborn

Al Alborn

It’s Friday.  I grabbed my old Army field jacket, pulled on my rubber boots and headed for Prince William County woods to count spotted salamanders


I am part of a team consisting of Virginia Cooperative Extension Prince William Master Gardeners and Merrimac Farms Chapter members of Virginia Master Naturalists who trek into the woods every day to check on the spotted salamander’s spring breeding ritual.  Friday is my day.  This is one of many projects that Tom Dombrowski, an environmental engineer for Prince William’s government, manages to monitor, protect and restore our community’s fragile environment.

Salamanders are an indicator species.  They are very sensitive to changes in our environment.  Monitoring indicator species gives us some idea of what we are doing right and when we are doing something wrong.  

Dough Tallamy wrote a book called “Bringing Nature Home.”  Its focus is the importance of native plants in our environment.  The ecosystem in which we live depends on connections that are the result of thousands of years of evolution.  Tallamy explores the connections between plants, insects and animals. 

When we displace or disrupt the food source for any living thing, it disrupts the entire food chain.  The best way to summarize the tight coupling in an ecosystem is, “Everything is something else’s lunch.”  When we introduce a non-native invasive species, whether plant or animal, into an ecosystem, it often has no natural predators and displaces other species that were “lunch” for something else.  

The impact ripples up and down the food chain.  It disrupts the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the environment in which we live.  We are at the top of the food chain and ultimately will be affected by what appear to be small changes to the world around us. 

The naturalist John Muir once said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” He meant that in nature, nothing exists alone; everything is connected.  We really don’t understand the connections – and probably never will.

Development disrupts these connections.  Every time we clearcut a lot to build a home, pave a parking lot, build a shopping center, lay asphalt for a road or do other things that encroach on the natural world in which we live, we reduce the environment that plants and critters of every kind need to survive – and perhaps contribute to polluting that environment along the way. 

Ultimately, Mother Nature will present us with the bill.  There is a lot of talk about “green space,” but the context often focuses on the people who might use it.  We really need to worry about the ecosystem in which we live and make sure it remains healthy in the interests of our own health and survival.

We are trying to manage and monitor an environment we don’t really understand.  Often, the greatest lessons come from mistakes we may not be able to reverse.  The only answer is to slow down a bit, take a breath, and draw conclusions about what actions we should take to save our community and our planet.  

To quote Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I am grateful that the Prince William County Department of Public Works has a number of initiatives to figure out what is going on and to mitigate negative impacts wherever they are found. 

And a public service announcement for fellow veterans: old Army field jackets shrink considerably when left in the closet.  Mine appears to get a little tighter every year.

Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week.  You can learn more about Al at

(1) comment


Great article with great points. Everything in nature is interconnected. I hope the salamander-count is in the positive range.

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