Charles grew up in the panhandle of West Virginia and Victoria in Baltimore, Maryland and later northern Ohio. Charles is an economist by training and after several years of environmental energy consulting, joined the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics where he worked on the Consumer Price Index and other issues for over 20 years. Victoria is a retired lawyer who specialized in labor law, representing corporations and unions in employee benefits and compensation issues and securities law. When they lived in the DC area, they had a house on a small 50- by 100-foot lot with a large oak tree. They added birdfeeders and some plants – but it was still “city life.” As a couple they looked forward each year to their two- or four-week vacation where they would visit natural areas such as Grand Teton National Park. “It was cultural shock to return to city life and the ‘teeming masses’ after each vacation,” reflected Victoria. Charles added, “There is no real life in big buildings. The real life is out in nature.” In the 1990s they began to search where they would like to live when they retired. They visited many beautiful areas around the country, including Big Sur in central California, Idaho and many other places around the United States. Then they were delighted to find an undisturbed 50-acre wooded lot on Red Oak Mountain in Rappahannock County where they now make their home.
When and how did you become interested in nature and the natural world?
Victoria remembers not being an “inside kid” or a “TV kid”– rather, she was always out in nature while she was growing up. When living outside of Cleveland there was tobogganing and skating. In the summers of the suburbs of Baltimore there were woods, streams and ponds where she looked for toads and salamanders and other wildlife. Every summer her family would vacation at the Maryland beaches, which were not nearly as developed as they are now. She and her sister delighted in searching for sand crabs, shells, horseshoe crabs and feeding the shore birds. Even when living in the city, she and Charles would bike along the trails where they lived.
Charles remembers spending a lot of time in the woods of West Virginia as a child. He remembers feeling a connection with nature and the natural world. Their annual vacation to be in nature was a continuation of the joy he felt as a child when he was outside.
When they moved to Rappahannock, they met Robin Williams, an ORMN member, at a yoga class. Her love of nature was so infectious and effervescent they both became interested in becoming Master Naturalists. Charles was in the class of 2008. Victoria took the class several years later. They both began volunteering even before finishing the Master Naturalist program.
Describe what you do on your property to support a healthy ecosystem.
Before moving to Rappahannock, Charles completed a 3-year landscape design program with a focus on woody plants. “But once we moved here” he said, “our world view changed and we became more oriented toward native plants.” They attribute much of that change to another Master Naturalist, Bruce Jones. In the 1970s Bruce had purchased a 250-acre cattle farm in Rappahannock County. He spent many years turning this farm into a nature preserve, including meadows, fields, forest and a pond restored and managed for native plants, pollinators and animals. Under Bruce’s friendly mentoring, the Fortunas deepened their understanding of the immense value of this natural ecosystem. They also appreciate Bruce for sharing his preserve and expertise with many groups – both Master Naturalists and other community organizations – and that he is dedicated to educating the public on the importance of conserving the natural ecosystem.
The Fortunas’ land is almost completely wooded and filled with native trees such as oaks, hickory, and beech as well as pines and poplars. They also have a rich understory of hackberry, spicebush, redbud and dogwood. “We designed and built our home to blend in with nature” Charles explained. They are continually working to eradicate nonnative plants on their property as well as along the roadways near their home. “We spend a lot of time each spring pulling garlic mustard,” Victoria noted. “We even pull it up along the roadways near our home. When our neighbors see piles of garlic mustard along the roadside, they know the Fortunas have been at it again!”
“We walk our property every day and you never see the same thing,” Charles stated. Nothing is too small to observe and appreciate. Charles described observing a moss colony on their property, which overnight was covered with frost from the recent cold weather. “We are so fortunate to live in this incredible part of nature,” he said. Victoria noted that central Virginia has biodiversity rivaling any place in the country. She shared that on a warm night this January she had seen a spotted salamander. “It was ginormous – almost 5 inches long,” she exclaimed.
What is the most amazing thing you have experienced in nature?
“We were doing a 20-mile circuit hike over the top of the Teton Mountains. The elevation went from 7,000 feet and 60 degrees at the hotel to 11,000 feet and 40 degrees at the ridge line. A thunder storm with pouring down rain rolled in suddenly. Lightning was striking all around us. We were totally soaked, cold and miserable – but we had to complete the circuit, as we had not planned to spend the night in the backcountry. Charles kept complaining that we hadn’t even seen any big animals. So tired and focused on getting back, he failed to notice a huge male moose sitting on his haunches in a willow grove not four feet away from the trail. Even sitting down, the moose was taller than Charles who is six feet tall. I called to Charles softly so he could turn around and see the big guy, then we quietly but quickly proceeded down the trail and eventually made it back to the hotel.”
“We were in the Polynesian Islands north of the Tahiti Chain. We were staying at a little hotel with about 30 huts on the beach. The hotel offered boat tours to an island atoll that had a break in the rim. You could get suited up in your scuba gear and when the tide was running into the center of the atoll lagoon, the rushing current would take you into the lagoon. Victoria decided to stay in the boat but I jumped in, ready for the ride! The water was about 50 feet deep and there were dozens of sharks – nurse sharks and reef sharks about 4 to 8 feet long - on the bottom and all around feeding on the fish as they flowed with the current rushing into the lagoon. The guides were from nearby islands and had a French macho attitude – but for me, it was a real adrenaline rush to see this amazing event.”
Tell us about your activities with the Master Naturalist program
Charles and Victoria have been active in a number of ORMN projects, including the Socrates Project (they were on the project committee for both the 1st and 2nd editions). They are energized by Citizen Scientist activities that connect them directly with the natural world. They have worked more than ten years on the Buck Hollow Project, which is focused on removing invasive plants the from the alluvial forest area along the Thornton River. The project started at the Buck Hollow Trail Head in coordination with Shenandoah National Park. Targeted invasives included Oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, garlic mustard (a personal target for the Fortunas), Oriental lady’s thumb, Ailanthus altissima (tree of heaven), and Japanese stilt grass. Victoria initiated and organizes the Rappahannock Audubon Christmas Bird Count, and has helped organize the NABA Rappahannock Butterfly Count, as well as participating in other NABA Butterfly Counts in the region.
Charles always remembers something he learned in the Master Naturalist class: that the geometric progression of the human population’s growth rate has overwhelmed the Planet. Both Charles and Victoria are committed to helping people learn about the natural world in the hope that they will join them and others as champions for nature – be it through participation in an organized project, contributing to environmental organizations, or creating a natural habitat in their own backyard.
Interviewed by Charlene Uhl, February 2021
Photo courtesy of Patricia Temples