I only recently started using the “L-word” when referring to land. When I worked in the land-conservation field, my co-workers were scientists—biologists and ecologists—who rarely mentioned love. Instead, they worked to substantiate the conservation values on the land they were evaluating for easements.
But as Boston attorney Stephen Small, a national leader in today’s land-trust movement, likes to say, “The people I work with have three things in common—they love land, they love land, they love land!” Small is an authority on the financial benefits landowners gain in exchange for giving up the development rights to their property, so they can protect it in its natural state.
So why do some people love land? What makes us the way we are? The nature vs. nurture discussion has run through the halls of developmental psychology for many years, but I believe our genes and our environmental surroundings, as well as the way we’re raised, all influence the direction our lives take. You could say that I came into the world predisposed to love the outdoors. I also give my parents a lot of credit for nurturing my “greenness.”
My parents moved to the country in 1951. They bought a 5-acre wooded parcel from an old dairy outside Charlotte and proceeded to build a house right in the middle of it.
I grew up in an oasis of green. My mother designed her house with lots of floor-to-ceiling windows, because she loved her woods and wanted to see them from every angle. Technically speaking, our land was a remnant of a piedmont bottomland hardwood forest. Some of the trees had been there for 300 to 400 years before we came along.
My mother was also my Girl Scout leader. She believed in the motto “Always be prepared,” and she taught our troop how to survive in the woods. After my three sisters came along, however, she slowed down a bit with the scouts, having birthed her own troop!
My father built a tree house for his girls near his garden. It provided hours of entertainment while he worked close by, tilling, planting, weeding and harvesting. I was given a few jobs in the garden—modest ones that matched my attention span. That exposure to how food is grown made a lasting impression: Now, in my middle-aged life, I can hardly wait until the spring soil is warm enough to plant.
My parents liked to hike with friends along the Appalachian Trail. I used to love their stories about the shelters, the weather, the heavy packs and the blistered feet. Once in a while our whole family would go camping. Being in wild places, eating campfire food and hearing night noises are all rolled into my sleeping-bag memories.
There were also slow, summer days full of swimming, fishing and blackberry picking on a lakefront lot my father bought as an investment. He never built a house on it; we just camped there. Some summers, my sisters and I were packed off to a camp in the mountains, but I was unbearably homesick for my mother and my place in the woods.
It’s gone now. My parents are too, my father passing first in 1982. Shortly after his death, my mother moved to Yancey County. I’d begun talking to her about the idea of land-protection measures, but we hadn’t started the process before she unexpectedly passed away in 2004.
Through my land-trust work, however, I knew there was something I could still do: It’s called a post-mortem conservation easement. My sisters and I worked with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to preserve the 48 acres of green that my mother so dearly loved during the last 30 years of her life.
We care most for the things we love, and land conservation starts with people talking to people about what those things are for them. In my years as a conservationist, I’ve learned that we cannot love nature more than people, or people more than nature. We are all interconnected—plants, animals and people—all meant to live here together.
My mother, Clara “Kitty” Couch, was a regionally recognized ceramic artist whose final body of work was called The Earth Series. During the month of April, I will honor her memory by raising money for land conservation in Western North Carolina.
Blue Spiral 1 gallery in downtown Asheville will host an art show and sale titled Honoring the Earth Series. Fifty of my mother’s artist friends have been invited to contribute works for the show, which will benefit the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
An opening reception will be held Friday, April 4, at 4:30 p.m. at the Fine Arts Theatre in downtown Asheville. It will feature a life-of-the-artist media presentation by Ian Breckheimer, readings by Paulus Berensohn, and a short film by Jeff Goodman; refreshments will be served. Also, during the first three weeks of April, one of the Earth Series vessels I inherited from my mother will be offered for sale in a special online auction. The winning bid will be announced on Earth Day (Tuesday, April 22).
I invite you to join me in paying tribute to the memory of my mother and to our beautiful Western North Carolina mountains.
For more information, visit the project’s Web site at www.honoringtheearthseries.com. The recommended donation for the reception is $20 per person; to make a reservation, call the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy at (828) 697-5777.
[Environmental consultant Katie Breckheimer lives in Saluda.]