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About Mount Grace: Utopia by Design

Dan Leahy, Land Protection Specialist at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and former President of Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, gave the keynote address at the twenty-third annual meeting at New Salem Preserves and Orchards.

Celebrating the uniqueness of this place—People, Land and Wildlife

A couple of nights ago I was out with a group of friends and they asked me what I was going to talk about today. I thought about it for a moment and told the group that I would be talking about the Joie de Vivre, the Joy of Life.

When Nate Rudolph (Mount Grace’s Director of Donor Relations) came by to talk with Julia and me earlier this summer, I told him: All the good things in my life have come to me through my relationship with the land. And as Nate wrote in the most recent Mount Grace newsletter:

Julia and I live in a round cordwood house in Wendell.

Mostly surrounded by land protected by Mount Grace.

And YES, it’s true that Keith Ross, one of the founders of Mount Grace, set Julia and I up on a blind date and we fell madly in love. What else would you expect from Keith? Deal Maker Extraordinaire.

Julia and I have a beautiful life living in a place that is quiet, has abundant wildlife, and a dark night sky. We are embedded in a landscape of small towns, productive farms and forests, and warm loving friends.

At home I have this note to myself:

The Roundhouse: Creating a woodland Eden, an earthly paradise.

That’s my vision for our 7 1/2 acres of gardens, woodland and sugar shack. That vision was inspired in part by William Morris, founder and leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

And it’s in this place that I experience the natural world like a Mary Oliver poem.

Quietly and intimately I sit and watch and listen to:

The cicadas
Tree frogs
And bees

Or, I am looking right into the eye of a Chickadee, Catbird, Black-throated Blue Warbler or Barred Owl, or a Spotted Salamander. During migration I want to know where they came from and where they are going.

I also experience the world as the writer Robert Finch describes as “the unlooked-for, the unanticipated intersections between person and place. Those experiences which are unscheduled and are unschedulable.”

For example this spring after a long day of chores, Julia and I pulled out a couple of chairs from the sugar shack, pulled up a wooden crate and poured ourselves a couple glasses of wine.
(Describe being visited by a flock of 31 Ravens just before dark)

Or most recently I was given an early birthday gift—an outdoor shower. So on Monday morning the alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. and I come out the door for my first morning shower. It is still completely dark, completely still and silent and the first thing I see before me in the eastern sky is Venus, Orion and a thin crescent moon.

It is these moments that fill my heart with incredible joy.

But what about the rest of the region? Leyden to Ashburnham, Greenfield to Petersham to Hardwick and over to Barre.

When Leigh asked me to speak at today’s meeting, she immediately needed a title for my talk. So I gave her one: “Utopia by Design: Celebrating the Uniqueness of this Place—People, Land and Wildlife.”

This idea of utopia by design partially grew out of an article in the New York Times about the 1960s rock band, The Fugs. Today they are aging rockers still making music of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

In the article one of the band members said he had learned to avoid what he called the “big utopias.” In other words, the dogmatic.

But instead he was committed “to pursue the small utopias”:

Intimate Love

And that’s what I see and feel all around us and throughout this region, the power of these things—small utopias everywhere.

And this idea of small utopias embodies the work of Mount Grace. It’s Mount Grace’s crucial role in what it means to live here and experience this place. This deep rich tapestry of people and places. These little utopias are where:

The dawn chorus sings in June.
The Wood Thrush, the Veery and the Spring Peepers sing.
The Scarlet Tanager and Ovenbird call.
The Trout Lilies and Lady’s Slipper bloom.
The Bears and Bobcats live their lives.

It is the farms and forest and people Allen Young writes about in Making Hay While the Sun Shines.

It’s the over 400 little utopias Allen writes about in North of Quabbin.

It’s the Montague Plains. It’s Mount Watatic.

It’s the People’s Pint, it’s the Gill Tavern, it’s the Copper Angel, it’s the Deja Brew, it’s the Rendezvous.

It’s the Full Moon Coffee House. It’s Charles Neville.

It’s Charlotte Ryan, John Bitzer, Peggy Biggs, Eleanor Wetmore, John Woolsey, John O’Keefe. It’s Maggie Rouleau.

It’s an endless group of Mount Grace supporters.

It’s Barbara Corey’s garden.

It’s Bruce Spencer’s woodlot.

It’s Chase Hill Farm, it’s Tully Meadow Farm.

It’s Butterworth Farm. It’s Captain’s Farm. It’s Seeds of Solidarity Farm. It’s the Blake Farm. It’s the Carter & Stevens Farm. It’s Red Fire Farm. It’s this farm. It’s all the farms we have yet to protect.

It’s the wild and the cultivated. It is the place we call Home.

It’s all the public land. The idea and belief that no matter what your station in life, you have access to the grace and beauty of these places.

But this is a place of fragile beauty. And I cannot gloss over what we are facing.

Massachusetts Audubon’s Losing Ground does a fine job of documenting what we are up against regarding development pressure. Losing ground…..sprawl zone…..hard to truly wrap your head around.

I lived through Losing Ground in the mid 1980s while working in Barnstable, Massachusetts and had my baptism by fire in land conservation.
(Refer to
Cape Cod Times article dated March 1, 1985. Building boom in Barnstable, construction value highest in the state)

Barnstable was averaging around 700 new single family dwellings per year. Just imagine your town with 700 new houses a year. Go to bed; wake up, two new houses. Go to bed; wake up, two new houses. For years this went on.

Basically the Cape at that time was one big construction site. I witnessed a wholesale slaughter of the natural world.

If you did not drive through a part of town for six months, the next time you came through you could find the pitch pine and oak woods gone. Instead, roads, houses, sod lawn, lawn furniture, jungle gym, shed. Instant subdivision. A total transformation.

We did some outstanding land conservation work. We saved some very special places. But what we saved was just that—places.

Here we have an opportunity to do something very different. Save the landscape, the whole thing.

But it’s probably not a building boom like the Cape’s that will take this place apart (although it could happen).

I fear the more insidious “death by a thousand cuts.” The way John Hanson Mitchell describes in a 1986 essay in Sanctuary Magazine entitled “The Fate of All Fields?” “This is the way the wild world dies. Not by cataclysm, by glacier, or flood, or storm or fire, but by bits and pieces, with the simple shuffling of papers, an acre here, a hayfield here, until no one remembers what it once was like.”

In fact that threat is here.
(Read from the excavator’s ad May 2009

We build roads in difficult locations, creating beautiful homesites out of marginal land…
Contact us if you would like to have your property evaluated as to the feasibility and costs to create forest estates.

But right now, I believe we are in the sweet spot of conservation opportunity.

We have a large core of protected land.
We have the talent.
We have committed landowners.
Committed communities and public officials
We have extraordinary partners.
We have enough threat to keep us focused.
And right now, we have the all important funding.

One of my summer’s reads was a history: Twentieth-Century New England Land Conservation: A Heritage of Civic Engagement. I was once again reminded that “Land conservation is not the job for a sprinter. It’s the job for a long-distance runner.” That ongoing sustained effort that Mount Grace provides.

This afternoon I would like to conclude my remarks by reading a brief passage from the other book I read while on vacation. This is from Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. Julie Powell cooked every recipe from Julia Child’s book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This book is about that experience.

Julia taught me what it takes to find your way in the world. It’s not what I thought it was. I thought it was about—I don’t know, confidence or will or luck. Those are all some good things to have, no question. But there’s something else, something that these things grow out of.

It’s joy.

I know, I know—it’s truly an obnoxious word, isn’t it? Even typing it makes me cringe. I think of either Christmas cards or sixty-something New Agey women in floppy purple hats. And yet it’s the best word I can think of for the heady, nearly violent satisfaction to be found in the text of Julia’s first book. I read her instructions for making bechamel sauce, and what comes throbbing through is that here is a woman who has found her way.

Our work is filled with joy.
We know our way.
Our work touches our souls and inspires a vision of a better world.

So the next time Leigh or Pam or Nate or anyone else from Mount Grace asks us for our help, let’s remember this earthly paradise in which we reside.

Thank you very much.