Breaking Ground; The Chain Saws of Salvation

ON a bright, chilly morning last month, I joined a small group of my neighbors who had gathered just south of Kent, Conn., chain saws and loppers in hand, to face down a threat to one of the prettiest landscapes in New England. Known locally as the “southern gateway” to the Berkshires, this particular stretch of Route 7 winds lazily along the Housatonic River between Bulls Bridge and Kent, threading a well-ironed quilt of cornfields and hedgerows that meets the wooded Litchfield hills in a gratifyingly sharp crease. This flat, rich bottomland has been under cultivation since pre-Colonial times, having been first cleared and planted by the Schaghticoke Indians.

At various times over the last several years, developers have threatened to slice up the valley’s picturesque views and sell them to weekenders from New York. Thanks largely to the efforts of the nine-year-old Kent Land Trust, a considerable chunk of the landscape has been saved from the overdevelopment that has already spoiled much of Route 7. These days, however, the threat to an agricultural landscape in New England comes from a new quarter: the second-growth forest, which is steadily marching down from the wooded hilltops to reclaim the fields for itself.

Kent’s little valley is an epitome of America’s middle landscape, poised between nature and civilization, and it is precisely this “middleness” that the Kent Land Trust is fighting to preserve. As Harmon Smith, the president of the trust, explained it: “To protect the rural character of a town like this, we realized it wasn’t enough to stop development. You also have to keep the farmland open.” The problem is, how do you keep farmland open when there are no longer enough farmers left to mow the fields and thin the hedgerows?

Like many conservation organizations around the country, the Kent Land Trust has discovered that it is no longer adequate to lock up a precious piece of land and throw away the key. To preserve America’s dwindling landscape of family farms it is often necessary to help out struggling farmers and, when that fails, to take up arms against the advancing forest. “You can’t go away and simply forget about these places,” Mr. Smith said, “because they won’t stay the same.”

Even wilderness preservation often requires human intervention—to reintroduce predators or weed out exotic species. Increasingly, people interested in saving the land find themselves not only defending it but actively “gardening” it—an approach that can get them into hot water with environmentalists who would just as soon let nature take its course. Who would think that touching up a hedgerow would be cause for controversy?

The Kent Land Trust’s latest venture into what might be called interventionist preservation is its Adopt-a-View program, whose kickoff brought a dozen or so of us out to the hedgerows lining Route 7 last month. Our purpose was to thin a forbidding tangle of grapevine, multiflora rose, sumac and maple saplings that had grown up between the roadside trees, blinding a picturesque vista of cornfields backed by the broad hump of Cobble Mountain. This particular view had been adopted by the Kent Greenhouse, a local garden center, which had contributed the services of a landscaping crew and equipment for the day. Thanks to the help, we had the hedgerow nicely edited, and the view of the fields restored, by the time we broke for lunch.

Claire Murphy, a retired public relations executive who dreamed up the Adopt-a-View program and stopped by to supervise, was delighted. She had instructed our team to “open up the hedgerows, but please, let’s not make it look like Scarsdale.” Ms. Murphy used to live in Scarsdale, and she has some of the bearing of a Westchester matron; I was reminded of an Irish Barbara Bush. “It should be tidy, I told them, but not too tidy,” she said.

In times past no one would have needed to “adopt” such a view or to make choices regarding its esthetics. It would simply have persisted, as it has for half a millennium, by dint of farmers going about their chores. The challenge today is to preserve the character of such countryside at a time when the farmers who maintained that character are mostly a memory. Suddenly, people find that they have no choice but to make choices and that they need chain saws and pruning shears to save the land from . . . well, from nature itself.

This particular irony has not escaped the critics of the Kent Land Trust. A recent editorial in The Litchfield County Times, a local weekly, took the Adopt-a-View program to task for, of all things, “endeavoring to subvert the natural order.” The editorial suggested there was something presumptuous, if not anthropocentric, about adopting and restoring views that nature had seen fit to reconquer. “Should blackberry briars be cut, for example, but not Queen Anne’s lace?” the editorial asked. “Who gets to decide which plants have merit and which don’t?”

Considering that The Litchfield County Times is as stout a champion of the environment as the Land Trust, its criticism came as something of a surprise. But like many environmentalists, the newspaper seems to regard what happens to any piece of land as a kind of zero-sum contest between Us and Nature, in which the gain of one party can come only at the expense of the other. Following this line of reasoning to its logical—and, to me, lunatic—conclusion, the editorial likened the Land Trust’s position “to that of a developer claiming a shopping plaza is more widely appreciated than a swamp.” In other words, if you’re going to introduce human preference you might as well go whole hog and put up a shopping mall.

When the issue is as clear-cut as a development that threatens a wilderness, the zero-sum model might fit the facts. But what happens when the alternatives are a little less stark, when the choice is between a 500-year-old working landscape and a second-growth forest?

I suppose that when you don’t trust yourself to make wise decisions about the land, letting nature decide the matter is an appealingly straightforward approach. And yet, while I was struggling to yank grapevines out of the trees, I wondered if it would really have been more “natural” for us to do nothing here, to instead let the forest have its way.

You see, I’d noticed that the hedgerow I was working on was teeming with nonnative species—Japanese honeysuckle, Russian olive, multiflora rose, even a vagrant euonymus vine—all brought by Europeans. These were the species that would triumph if we did nothing here. Yet, a landscape dominated by these exotics would be no less a cultural artifact—a product of human intervention—than a hedgerow or meadow.

In time, a century or longer, this field of exotic brush would be succeeded by second-growth forest—a kind of landscape that would be far more novel here than a patchwork of fields and hedgerows. For this particular landscape has been under continual cultivation for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. According to the English settlers who first laid eyes on it in 1730 it was “charming and picturesque” farmland even then. Human beings have been actively shaping this land for so long that to start excluding them now would be unnatural.

I’ve heard people in town say that preserving farmland just because it’s pretty is an exercise in nostalgia for a world that is not coming back. Certainly it’s easy to make light of city folk fighting to preserve farmland that their very presence has put in jeopardy—since it is partly the run-up in property values that has made farming unviable. The farmers who stick it out often find themselves working to keep other people’s land open expressly to gratify an urban taste for looking at farmland.

Dave Arno, who told me he is the last full-time farmer in Kent, farms several of the Land Trust’s fields; he also mows fields for Anne Bass, who owns several hundred acres of Kent farmland. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Mr. Arno is now as much in the business of producing picturesque views as he is in producing milk.

The paradox is not lost on Mr. Arno; he understands full well that he has himself stepped into the picturesque view. “Cars will slow down on Route 7 when I’m cutting hay,” he told me, smiling. “People like to see a farmer.”

Part of what people like to see, I think, is a middle landscape where humans and nature long ago reached some sort of accommodation. There are sociobiologists who contend that the attraction of such land, which more closely resembles the open, tree-studded savannas on which humans evolved than the shadowy forests they have usually feared, is hard-wired into their nature. But even if the preference is purely cultural, it seems to me worth honoring. The very existence of a working landscape that has persisted quite this long is something to marvel at, and preserve, if only as a lesson or reminder. All this time, people have managed to keep this land in good health, taking care not to tip it too far in the direction of either wildness or civilization.

That balancing act is beautiful to behold. The farmers who performed it are disappearing from this picture, it’s true. But perhaps the gardeners, with their chain saws and loppers and bush hogs, can take over, keeping the memory, and the model, of the middle landscape alive.