Accokeek Foundation ‘exhibits’ the importance of soil
Taking environmental science and encouraging visitors to make connections to modern-day environmental issues through the lens of history, the Accokeek Foundation opened its Underspace! The Science of Soil exhibit as part of its new green history programming Saturday at Piscataway Park in Accokeek.
Green history programming is an initiative that came about two years ago under the leadership of Andrea Jones, director of programs and visitor engagement for the foundation, who was tasked with taking a colonial history sight, a modern agricultural sight and a national park and putting it under one theme of sustainability. From now to Dec. 10, visitors will explore four different topics about the foundation’s connection to the environment through interactive and role-playing activities. The topics include soil health, water conservation, energy conservation and food waste, according to Anjela Barnes, the foundation’s director of marketing.
“We’ll explore soil for 12 weeks and then water and then food waste and energy conservation throughout the year,” Barnes said. “They learn a little bit, they have a little bit of fun and then they go to the National Colonial
Farm and will interact with the characters to further explore the science of soil.”
Barnes said the purpose of the soil exhibit is about “engaging thought” and “affecting change” by getting people to think about their daily actions and behaviors.
“What we’ve learned is that through the kids, the parents learn. And so what they’re learning through our school programs and the weekend programs here, the kids are getting excited about doing good for the environment,” said Barnes. “We hope that they leave here with a little bit of knowledge to carry that out at home and in their communities.”
Kate McGowan of Dunkirk, a museum interpreter at the foundation, played the role of soil captain for the exhibit and interacted with children and their families. She said agrarian history of Southern Maryland is so important because most people don’t necessarily appreciate where their food comes from, the work that has to go into it and how nature affects everything they do. But “the more people know about it, the more they can appreciate it,” she said.
“What I like about this program is that we’re teaching them what the difference between healthy and unhealthy soil is and they’re able to apply that and sort of teach that to the Bolton family,” McGowan said. “A lot of our green history interpretation is sort of focused on learning from the Boltons about how they didn’t cause such a negative impact on the environment as we do today. Tobacco farming is very hard on the soil and they don’t know a lot of the modern techniques that we use to sort of mitigate that. And so it’s kind of like we both have something to learn from each other.”
According to the foundation, Congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton of Ohio, a member of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, purchased a 500-acre farm across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon and donated it to the creation of the Accokeek Foundation. Along with a coalition of organizations that included the Alice Ferguson Foundation, Moyaone Association and Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, an ambitious program was launched to protect 6 miles of shoreline. The conservation effort led the way for the creation of Piscataway Park, the first national park established to preserve historic vistas.
The foundation established the National Colonial Farm in 1958, a historic farm museum which demonstrates 18th century agriculture by preserving rare breeds of animals and crops. Structures located within the farm site are open to the public and include a circa 1770 farm dwelling, an 18th century tobacco barn and an outside kitchen.
Visitors who got a tour of the soil exhibit were handed a cloth bag which contained oats, mustard seeds and hairy vetch seeds. They were then directed to the National Colonial Farm to participate and interact in a fictionalized, role-playing activity with two of AF’s museum interpreters, Shemika Berry and Joy White.
Berry, who joined the AF in 2013, said working at the foundation has opened her eyes to the environmental impact, as well as the green history and sustainability of it. The historical aspect is very “near and dear” to her heart, she said.
“Our objective is to get visitors excited about sustainability and to get them involved with understanding the importance of the soil,” Berry said. “Often, if you do not have any agriculture in your background or in your family, you don’t have much consideration or thought for where your food comes from. You go to the store, you purchase it. You go to a restaurant, you order your meal and you don’t think about the process. We have learned with the soil scientists that the Earth may have a good 50 years left of topsoil and that is not very encouraging. So we must do what we can to preserve the soil because without good healthy soil, we will not have any food.”
Berry played the role of Cate Sharper, an enslaved woman owned by the Bolton family — named in honor of AF’s founder — who are middling tobacco planters in the 1770 era. The storyline is about how her master’s land has been depleted and stripped of its nutrients due to the tobacco. Because the Boltons didn’t have the money to buy new seeds, they sold Sharper’s 10-yearold son, Jack, to another family. Now that the Boltons are considering selling their land and uprooting west to Pennsylvania, Sharper is concerned whether they will sell her to another family as well or take her with them to Pennsylvania where she would be further away from her son, Berry said.
“I’ve had Caucasian [African-American and even American Indian] adults and children that have come to visit and have all, in some way, shape or form, either offered me my freedom or tried to tell me how a better day is coming or [convincing me] ‘go ahead and just go,’” she said. “It’s been an experience and it’s really made me appreciate the historical nature of it a lot more. … Knowing that I can go home at the end of the day, it still makes me think about my ancestors couldn’t and they didn’t. That’s why I will never take portraying any slave lightly.”
Berry said the idea of the role-playing exercise is for visitors to encourage the Boltons or Cate Sharper and her freed sister to plant the bag of seeds which will help replenish the nutrients back into the Boltons’ land, allowing the soil to become healthy again. This would allow the Boltons to keep their land and for Sharper to remain as close as possible to her son, according to Berry.
“I find it an honor to tell her story. The stories need to be told because we’re not going to learn them in other places,” Berry said. “I want to give her the honor and respect she deserves as a human being. … Nobody in history will ever know who Cate Sharper is but if you come to this foundation and to this land, you’ll find out her story.”
White played the role of Cate Sharpton’s older and freed sister, Mary Ann Sole. White said she is pleased that visitors are able to understand and sympathize with her character, especially during a time in history that “wasn’t right.”
“For me to be able to portray this role and to bring people into light of what happened, it’s definitely a privilege. At first, I was a bit apprehensive to taking the job and realizing I would have to be a slave or portray someone in this timeframe, but I’ve been shocked by some of the responses I’ve gotten,” White said. “Sometimes people shy away from what we know is the reality of African-Americans being brought here and losing their history. It’s definitely had an impact on people. I’m grateful to see that and see how people take it.”
Kate McGowan of Dunkirk shares a smile as she interacts with children during the opening of the Accokeek Foundation’s Underspace! The Science of Soil exhibit on April 10 at Piscataway Park in Accokeek. McGowan, a museum interpreter at the foundation, played the role of soil captain for the exhibit.