by THOMAS GELSTHORPE
Last weekend, at the invitation of botanist Nancy Wigley of Woods Hole, I revisited a seven-acre parcel I donated to the Sandwich Conservation Trust 26 years ago. The parcel off Roos Road was mixed woods and clearings that abutted my then-cranberry farm. When Sandwich was being rapidly suburbanized, I was apprehensive about getting hemmed in, and the gentleman who owned the property gave me right of first refusal on his land. It felt like an offer I couldn't refuse.
I had a hunch farming would be a smaller part of Cape Cod's future than it was in the past, but that quiet walks in the woods would always be cherished. For many years, John Cullity, founder and president of the Sandwich Conservation Trust, had been a friend and mentor so I asked him if that parcel would be a worthy acquisition for the trust. He said yes, and after a bit of paperwork, "Joe's Woods" became the trust's.
We agreed to name the parcel after the previous owner, Joe Bois, denoting his legacy to Sandwich, where he loved vacationing. Bois is a French name that translates to wood in English, so "Joe's Woods" made a good fit. While I remained an abutter, I continued to enjoy walks and cross-country skiing until I sold the farm eight years ago. I've only been back a few times since, even though I moved only 10 miles away.
Strolling through Joe's Woods with botanists, we were joined by the new owners, arborists who have reconfigured the cranberry bogs into a series of ponds and tree plantings. They asked me then, as others have, if I miss raising cranberries. The answer is no. I loved my 33 years of farming, but life is too short to do everything — it's barely long enough to do more than one thing. It doesn't bother me that my old farm has been replanted. Growth and change are part of land stewardship, as they are for many activities.
A symphony sounds better if you know something about melody, harmony and the development of musical instruments. In the same way, a nature walk is more fulfilling when you know the names and relationships of the species. A fascinating aspect of our walk was being accompanied by botanists who can identify so much flora — from the tiny, daisy-like Whitlow grass already blooming in rough dirt, to the abundance of moisture-loving heaths, such as cranberries, blueberries, swamp azaleas and sheep laurel. When you know more, you appreciate more.
The most heartening aspect of the walk was that Joe's Woods has been joined by other parcels subsequently acquired with land bank funds, and managed by the Sandwich Conservation Commission. The combined block now totals about 35 acres and includes two ponds and cranberry bogs abandoned in the 1950s. Many times I've wondered if I did the right thing donating Joe's Woods. Should I have gone for the gold instead? Might the donated parcel have been unappreciated? As it turned out, thanks to Mr. Cullity's and other conservationists' unflagging efforts, Joe's Woods has become the nucleus of a large area that nature lovers can enjoy for decades to come.
My current neighborhood is laced with Bourne Conservation Trust lands, the legacy of forward-looking people there, who have managed to keep the town homey, nautical and dotted with quiet spaces all at the same time. Well-coordinated conservation efforts have popped up in other Cape towns and they thrive through the low-profile dedication of philanthropists and volunteers.
Conservation is a tough juggling act in a hectic world. Considering how long the Cape's been inhabited, how many demands have pressed upon this fragile peninsula and how popular it remains, it's a wonder that the Cape remains precious and well-loved. Don't ever take Cape Cod conservation for granted. Nature provides the raw material, but it still requires dedicated leadership for the long run.
Tom Gelsthorpe, a sailor and former farmer, lives in Cataumet. Call him at 508-564-4919 or email firstname.lastname@example.org