Land Preservation in Massachusetts
SLIDE SHOW: Trustees of Reservations
Will Garrison watches his “decorative” cows munch the green grass at the bottom of the hill. They don’t actually belong to him, or for that matter, to Naumkeag, the historic mansion (now a museum) in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, that he helps manage.
More than 30 years ago, the Trustees of Reservations convinced a local farmer to bring his herd here and graze them on the grounds.
Garrison doesn’t particularly care about livestock or farming, but when the Joseph Choate family lived at Naumkeag in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they kept cows in that field. So now it’s part of his job–part of the museum’s mission–to make sure that when visitors look out the southwest windows, they see cows. It’s simple, he explains: “They’re part of the view.”
The view is amazing, with a manicured lawn, an idyllic farm, and, in the distance, a low mountain ridge. The Choates tapped their Gilded Age fortune to build gardens and resculpt the hill to make it perfect. Wasteful? Perhaps, but it’s unquestionably beautiful, and so it’s worth preserving.
That’s the promise The Trustees of Reservations made to Mabel Choate in 1958 when she bequeathed them Naumkeag. It’s a promise Trustees members have made 102 times since the group was founded in 1891 with the mission of holding special places for the public the way “a Public Library holds books and an Art Museum holds pictures.” With 100,000 members, the Trustees organization maintains both natural and manmade places–from wetlands and islands to mansions and barns–across the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Near the summit of Monument Mountain–the gift of Helen C. Butler in 1899 (in memory of her sister Rosalie) and one of the peaks visible from the Choates’ manicured lawn–the Trustees’ promise is etched into a small boulder. It vows to keep the mountain “as a place for free enjoyment for all time.”
“For all time”? How do you preserve something forever? It’s a riddle at the core of the Trustees’ mission. Time keeps moving, whether you want it to or not, and that causes constant problems. Garrison knows that Naumkeag is 30 years into a 30-year roof. He knows that the copse of white birches flanking the property’s iconic “Blue Steps” have already survived five years longer than expected; they’re thinning and they’ll soon start to die off. “It’s the challenge of making Ms. Choate proud, so to speak,” Garrison says. “What do we do? We’ll have to restore it someday.”
Preservation societies like the Trustees are on uncharted ground. The idea of intentionally preserving a place for the public is relatively new in the U.S.–it’s only about 160 years old–so there’s no road map. Although Garrison was born four years after Mabel Choate’s death, he has inherited the promise made to her, and one day he’ll pass it on to someone else. It’s the Trustees’ goal to honor their promises long after the inscription on Monument Mountain has eroded away.
There’s financial planning involved, of course, along with public relations and strategic partnerships. But for the people in the trenches–for the Trustees who walk the paths of their properties every day–it’s a series of tiny battles. If a trail washes out, they restore it. If a barn burns down, they rebuild it. They stick to the things they know.
Garrison knows that his field needs cows. He knows that he’ll have to forestall the inevitable roof leaks. He knows that he’ll eventually have to replant the birches and that even if they never reach maturity in his lifetime, even if he never sees them, eventually someone will. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll take a moment to appreciate it and be thankful that Mabel Choate placed her trust in the right hands.