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Ashing in on a community Web site

August 03, 2008|By LYN WIDMYER

The purple, three-sided box was barely visible in the tree branches. Measuring about 24 inches long, the box was hollow, suspended from a tree limb by wire. I could not figure out its purpose. I decided it was just a left over ornament from some weird scavenger hunt.

When I spotted a second box on the other side of Jefferson County, and then a third, I began to really get curious.

I decided to post a general inquiry on "Shannondale and Beyond," a cyberspace chat room frequented by residents on the Blue Ridge Mountain in Jefferson County, W.Va.

Within eight minutes, I had my answer. Laced with Manuka oil, the traps attract Emerald Ash Borers, nasty looking beetles that destroy ash trees. The boxes are coated in a sticky substance to ensnare the beetles.

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This fall researchers will count the remains of beetles entombed in the purple boxes. The data will help determine whether ash trees in West Virginia are at risk of attack.

I was amazed at how quickly I solved the mystery of the purple boxes. Willis Nowell, one of the founders of "Shannondale and Beyond," was not surprised at all.

He describes the Web site as a "cyber town square" where people share greetings, information and family updates. The 1,200 people who are part of the Web network interact with each other online and post comments without any editing by a Web master. A core group of about 350 people are frequent visitors to the site.

Having a cyber town square is very important in a sprawling mountain community with few places to meet face to face. Nowell, who has been part of Shannondale since 1957, has seen the area evolve from a collection of weekend vacation homes into a full-time residential community. As might be expected of an area that began as a weekend mountain retreat, there are no sidewalks or restaurants or neighborhood coffee shops.

The Shannondale Clubhouse, once the center of civic life, burned down years ago. The only place easily accessible to everyone now is cyberspace.

"Shannondale and Beyond" is a town square built of pixels and software instead of wood and brick.

As "Shannondale and Beyond" gains participants, Nowell hopes those of us living in the flatlands of Jefferson County will learn more about our neighbors on the mountain. Nowell says for years the Jefferson County government Web site described the county as bordered on the east by the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.

This faulty geography excluded the 6,000 people who live on the other side of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers but still reside in Jefferson County. "We are the forgotten people," says Nowell,

The success of "Shannondale and Beyond" has caught the attention of residents in other communities. Nowell launched "Uniquely Shepherdstown" several months ago after meeting with some folks there. The response so far has been disappointing.

I am not surprised. Shepherdstown has a vibrant downtown and plenty of civic spaces. There are lots of opportunities to "run into" neighbors and friends. Cyber connections are not as important when chances abound for face-to-face contacts.

The residents of Shannondale may have few community spaces but as long as they have a keyboard, they have a place to meet.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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