The Preserve

For a group of Down East neighbors, the goal was simple: to buy wild shoreland to protect it from developers. They could not guess what bigger changes their good intentions would bring.

By Susan Hand Shetterly

Apr 13 2018

Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

We thought we had lost something after we saved this 23-acre plot of land, with its half-mile rocky ledge at the head of Morgan Bay, a sheen of mud before it at dead low, and its deep upland of softwoods and hardwoods that had not been cut in more than 60 years. It faces directly south down the entire three-mile length of the bay and into the incoming tide.

It had been a secret place for us, neighbors who knew it in detail and in season. That it didn’t belong to us was a fact we hardly considered, because whoever owned it had forgotten it entirely and forever. Or so we thought. Long enough to raise our children close to it. Long enough for one of us to die, ashes tossed from this shore and carried out by the tide.

In summer, we could step away from our work to walk here, lie down on the dark schist ledge that held the day’s accumulated heat, and listen to the slosh of the waves. Most often, no one else was here. It was just the warm and comforting rocks, the water moving in a rhythm like our own blood—and the trees, because even on a still day the trees would be a murmuring presence, whispering.

On hot afternoons, we might walk the length of shore, strip naked, and dive into the water at Spruce Cove, a deep cup ringed by trees. In winter, some of us took our children to the bay to sit bundled up in the dark, in the snow, flashlights off, the stars close, and taught ourselves Orion, Canis Major, Castor and Pollux, and Perseus.

We were a small community of families raising our kids along a dirt road, a handful of neighbors in small owner-built houses, living close to abandoned farm fields and mixed woods and bay water. A community that began in the ’70s, hard-working, gray-haired now, we thought we owned this land because we had treasured it for so long, and because no one else visited it except for a few clam diggers who left with the incoming tide.

The land had once been part of a holding belonging to the Carter family, among the first settlers who built homes and farmed and fished and cut wood and raised kids in this town. Over generations their land was divided, and most of the Carters are today scattered all over the country. We who live here now imagine something of what this land, the bay, and the streams must have meant to the original families and their children. The abundance must have seemed to them like another chance at Eden. They chose land rich in woods and wildlife by a gentle shore, and they grew into it, as people do who depend on a home place to give them their lives in exchange for hard work. We have become a country with a culture that thinks it doesn’t need this sort of anchoring, this dynamic mutuality between a place and a people. But I think we do. At least here, at the head of this bay, we do.

Two maiden aunts had willed the 23 acres that were left of the original spread to a handful of their relatives. Willing land to many gives it to no one in particular, of course, unless one of the inheritors can afford to buy it from the others. The family knew, and then we did, too, that the land’s rectangular length could be broken into neat two-acre lots with saltwater frontage, each one worth a windfall. But it had no road access. Discreetly, a Carter family spokesman began to make phone calls to the abutting neighbors proposing a nice amount of cash if one or the other of them would provide a right-of-way for a development road to the landlocked parcel. In the first go-round, everyone said no. A few weeks later, he called again. The price was rising.

My neighbor, Hugh, was an abutter. He asked the other abutters to hold off on any agreement with the family, because he wanted to see if he could raise enough money to buy the land to save it as a preserve. He went door to door to the people with substantial homes next to the water: “Do you want to lose that view of the head of the bay, there, the one that has nothing on it but trees?”

They did not. It is quite a view.

Out in the bay, beyond the rocky ledge, rises the ghostly shape of Jed’s Island—yet another bit of land that’s been preserved in part by the Blue Hill Heritage Trust.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

In the evenings, after work, we—Hugh’s neighbors, the people along the dirt road—gathered at one another’s kitchen tables and wrote letters to town officials and to more neighbors. We asked for money. We listed the reasons why we thought a preserve on salt water, open to all, would contribute to the life of the town. We knew the place. We knew that for years the pines and spruces grew uninterrupted there. The yellow birches and the white birches and the red maples filled in. We had seen arctic and common terns, bald eagles, ospreys, common loons, red-necked grebes, and Bonaparte’s, ring-billed, herring, and laughing gulls from its shore. Diving ducks flew in every fall and stayed until ice kept them out. Porpoises chased runs of herring in summer. Harbor seals stuck their heads up and floated on their backs in the high tide. Once we spotted a young moose on the marsh grazing the newly sprouted salt grass. Some of us were lucky enough to see mink. Some of us saw river otters swimming in the salt water close to shore. Two of us walked right past an adult harp seal basking on the ledges, until it moved, and we turned around to meet it face to face. Migrant songbirds sang from the thickets and trees every spring, and shorebirds flew in to feed on the flats on their way south.

How could we lose this?

“At every tide, and every time of year, there is something going on out in the bay and within the preserve,” says the author (shown above, surveying the seascape at Carter Nature Preserve). “The trick is to have the patience and the focus to discover what it is.”
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

I remind myself that the potential of any land anywhere never goes away. It’s always there, under the roads and parking lots, the foundations and clear-cuts and industrial farms. But I don’t know how we retrieve it when we figure out we need it back as wild and complicated as it once was. Land means money. We look at it and instinctively—like any good real estate agent—calculate its worth. But in writing our neighbors about our experiences at the bay on the Carter land, we were using a different standard. Good nesting habitat for ovenbirds and Parula warblers and barred owls; good mud flats for great blue herons, yellowlegs, and black ducks; a shoreline of saltworts and blooming beach heather and spartinas; good dead trees for woodpeckers and fishers and raccoons; good browse for deer. We were reading the land as an osprey might, or a doe, or an ermine. How much is this land worth to species other than our own? And how much are those species worth to you?

We folded copies of our letter and licked stamps and addressed envelopes. And asked for more money. It came in. A few dollars. A few hundred dollars. A few thousand dollars. The board of the land trust in the next town agreed to take the property if we ever found ourselves in a position to buy it. One of the abutters promised an easement across his field for a narrow footpath for public access. No abutters offered an easement for a development road.

Neighbors wrote us notes telling us they appreciated the work we were doing. But we had no idea when to stop, because we didn’t know what amount of money would be enough. So we kept on going, writing and writing, until one night, the same Carter spokesman called Hugh to tell him the family was willing to sell for $50,000.

“Are you sure?” I asked Hugh when he told me the news.

“I’m sure,” he said. “It seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?” He was laughing with relief. “But they said $50,000—and we’re close to that already.”

The land now belonged to everyone. And we, the neighbors, had become the brand-new preserve’s caretakers. Would the people who came here treasure this place as we did? Was it worth the Carter family’s development loss? We used to come here because the land was big enough to lose ourselves in it for a time—it was a corrective, full of life that was not human life. It had taken good care of us then, and we were about to learn what was needed to take good care of it now.

People visited. They had never been here before, it was something new, and they brought picnics, dogs, cooking gear—one year, a tent, a clothesline, a plan to spend high summer at the shore. Some liked to pile stones into attenuated cairns and arrange sculptures out of high-tide driftwood. They left with stones they liked and flowers they picked. With sudden access to the woods, dogs would take off, their owners chasing behind them, or letting them go.

Lost dogs began showing up in our yards, confused, a little panicky. But the dogs weren’t as confused as we were—picking up garbage, breaking up fire rings of stones and charred wood, disinviting summer campers.

What was going on?

After the deed passed to the land trust, we met to write a land use policy. What, we asked ourselves, does preserve mean? Preserved for what? And for whom? We decided on a narrow path that winds from one end of the land to the other, not too deeply cut, just enough to offer the walker a sense of the woods. We decided to clear the path, and keep it clear, but to leave trees to fall as they might at either side, opening windows of light that would wake the dormant seeds of new trees. We decided, too, that the land must belong first to the native wild plants and the animals that live here, and that the people who entered must come as guests.

Norman, a neighbor and a fine carpenter, built a glass and wood kiosk that listed our rules: Leave the Preserve the Way You Found It; No Dogs in the Woods or on the Woods Path; No Fires; No Camping; No Overnights. We did honor, however, the summer tradition of owners bringing their dogs to the high-tide ledges for a walk and a swim. We planted the sign right by the entrance. And that is when we learned that people don’t read signs. Or not this sign.

We reworked it. We offered a hand-painted map of the preserve and the trail. We offered pamphlets with the preserve history and a list of birds. We wrote “Please.” We wrote “Thank you.” We ended it with a quote from Aldo Leopold: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

One day in early fall, I was walking the right-of-way path across the field as a tall girl with a swinging blond ponytail strode toward me carrying two big plastic garbage bags. I’d never seen her before. We smiled as we passed each other, and I glanced down. Her bags were crammed with sea lavender, the entire plants: flowers, stems, leaves, and roots—and mud still clinging to the roots. She’d just finished a bountiful harvest, and would probably be using the plants to make wreaths and dried flower arrangements. Which is a fine endeavor, except that this species of sea lavender, a perennial, is a plant of ecological concern in Maine because it’s been overpicked. Which is beside the point, really: This land is a preserve. That word means something.

Perhaps if I’d noticed the lavender neatly clipped, implying that she cared enough to leave at least the roots in their place, or if her harvest had been enough for one wreath instead of 20 or 30—I don’t know—but something snapped inside me. I was done with people trashing this place.

“This is a preserve,” I said. “You’re not allowed to pick anything here.”

“Yes, I can,” she said.

“Did you read the sign at the entrance?”

“It’s fine,” she said. “Don’t you worry yourself about it.”

“I’m not worrying myself about it. I’m telling you it’s not fine. This is a preserve, and that means it’s for everyone—not just you.”

She cocked her head and swung the bags impatiently. “Oh, shut up,” she said and pivoted and walked away. But she turned back once to look me in the eye. “You just shut up!”

When I knocked on the door of his house, Norman opened it, took one look at my face, and handed me a piece of paper towel to wipe my tears. He made me a sturdy cup of tea, and we sat down at his table. He couldn’t help it, he was laughing—and I began to laugh, too.

“‘Shut up,’” he said. “That’s pretty good.”

“‘OH, shut up,’” I corrected him. “And ‘You just shut up.’” We laughed. And then were both quiet.

“I’ll bet there’s not one sea lavender plant left standing,” I said.

Norman sighed. “People haven’t been taught to take good care of land,” he said. “They’ve been taught to take as much as they can as fast as they can and trash the rest. We’ve got to figure out how to get them to behave better.”

“They never will,” I said.

“I think they will,” he said.

He was right. It didn’t happen overnight. It took seasons, which turned into years. It took walks and talks: botany walks, bird walks, geology walks, tide pool walks—you name it. It took working with school groups and with the land trust. It took articles in the local papers about the value of saved land.

It took a change of heart.

Around us, a bigger picture was emerging of the extent of damage to natural places all over the world. We read about river tribes, woodland tribes, fishing villages, and rural towns trying to protect their best wild places, and failing.

Aldo Leopold’s words printed on our sign are from 1949. Years have passed since they were written. People have grown up and grown old and died, and still we need to learn this simple lesson: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Today there are no more sea lavender rampages. No more dogs running in the woods. People I’ve never met before pass by me now and say, “Isn’t this a wonderful place?”

The preserve is now 23 years old. It receives visitors every season. They know how to treat the land—most of them—and they leave it as they find it.

We have learned that saving 23 acres is a beginning, that wildlife, to thrive, needs much more than that, and that keeping the character and the heritage of a beloved place also needs much more than that. Working with our land trust, we have helped save more than 200 acres in the Morgan Bay watershed, including our Carter Nature Preserve. Children growing up around here will have what my children had, not remnants, but the real thing: wild places deep enough to teach them about the world.

On a late August afternoon, I was walking the ledges back to the road with my dog, who likes to sit in the water at Spruce Cove at midtide, when I met a boy and his parents coming down the stone stairway we’ve built. They were from the next town. The mother carried a baby. The boy paused to pat my deaf springer, and then headed for the pool that was just emerging from the falling tide. His father stopped to look across the bay at the diving terns.

He said, “Are those arctic or common terns?”

“I can’t tell from here,” I answered. We both watched the half-dozen birds diving. Neither the man nor I had brought binoculars, but he had good eyes. “Common,” he said after a bit. “I see the black tips on the bills.” The birds were plunging, rising, shaking off, and flying away with thin silver fish.

The mother shifted her sleeping child and told me that her son had been part of the school nature classes here, and he loved this place and had been trying all summer to get them to come.

“So this morning we thought we’d check it out,” the father said, his gaze slowly following the shoreline.

I smiled at them. I touched my springer lightly on the head between his ears, which means it’s time to go. I nodded to the man.

“It’s all yours,” I said. 

For information on visiting Carter Nature Preserve, part of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, go to