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Constructing 290 Oak Hill Road by Allan Shope: Journal Entry 1: Land Ownership vs. Stewardship

June 21, 2013

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect…  That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”  – Aldo Leopold

I believe that even the most committed naturalists and land conservationists generally don’t begin life attuned to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic.  Environmentalists evolve from a perspective of land ownership to land stewardship.  This evolution is usually not an epiphany; rather, many unconnected moments transform the human mind over time.

As a child, growing up in rural Connecticut, where the natural world was my playground, land ownership represented a personal challenge to me.  Land was owned by other people;  every boundary line was an imaginary fence to conquer.

In my twenties, I purchased my first piece of land.  It was very exciting.  I remember driving to the property after the closing, walking to the highest point, and feeling triumphant.  I owned this land!  The laws of our community gave me rights to build things and tell others that my boundary line was now their fence.  My mind raced to envision the property as a house site.  It was wonderful!  I built a house and raised a family there.

In my forties, I purchased more land, hundreds of acres.  I loved the land and wanted to put together a big, beautiful undeveloped property for me and my family.  But what began as an enterprise of acquisition changed.  I grew more concerned about future generations.  As I researched how to manage my land intelligently, I learned about the environmental impacts of my decisions.

One of the moments that reshaped my thinking happened on the day in 2006 when David Strayer, a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY, invited me to wade with him into the Ten Mile River, which runs through our farm.  He had me pick up one of the mussels that lie in the riverbed, and informed me that, while they appeared healthy and abundant, these freshwater pearly mussels were actually the most imperiled group of plants or animals on the continent, with dozens of species already extinct.  He told me that every mussel I could find in the river was at least fifty years old because for the past half century some pernicious combination of environmental factors had thwarted their propagation.  If no one could figure out what was causing their breeding to fail and fix the problem, the clock would run out on mussels in the Ten Mile River.  There was an entire world that existed on our property that I had never seen.

In my fifties, my view of land grew even less anthropocentric when I became a falconer and learned to become a partner with my hawk to assist her hunting. The hawk does not regard land as property lines or zoning regulations; she experiences movement, opportunity, calculation, limitations, danger, initiative, and ultimately survival for her or her prey.  The raptor’s-eye-view that I have shared with her has enabled me to partake in the relationship with the land that Aldo Leopold advocated, becoming part of the natural community rather than its owner. I no longer felt the desire to own hundreds of acres; just one simple piece.  I began to divest myself of land.  I was ready to focus on one special property on the Hudson River….

The Oak Hill Road Property

My goal is to build a house and develop the property on Oak Hill Road in a way that not only provides for our needs, but also respects and responds to the land and its surroundings.  Every decision about the house and property takes into consideration the long-term needs of the environment and society at large.

  • Carbon Neutral Architecture – We will attempt to achieve a net zero carbon footprint for the energy usage of the house by incorporating photovoltaic panels, a solar water heater, earth berming, geothermal ducts, high-tech insulation, and other technological innovations to create a house that produces as much energy as it uses (more details in a later journal entry).
  • Environmentally Friendly Architecture – We aim to create a building that has no negative impact on the plants and wildlife around it. My daughter, Elizabeth, recently told me about a bird protection glass that has been developed.  Coated with a reflective ultraviolet pattern visible only to birds, the glass prevents them from thinking they can fly through it.  We are excited about using it for every window in the house.  Organic vegetable gardens will be incorporated into the house in stepped beds that make up the earth-berming retaining walls.
  • Sustainable Forestry – A primary goal in our forestry program is to increase biodiversity by returning the woods to their indigenous makeup.  Our first step has been to work on eradicating the invasive plant species, allowing sunshine and nutrients to reach the native plants that the invasives were choking out.  Then, through deliberate thinning of the forest, we allow individual trees to reach their full glory.  On the animal front, we have for years enjoyed encouraging vulnerable species – setting up birdhouses for kestrels and hives for honey bees (including two feral swarms we captured and moved into hives in early June).  We will continue to do that, as well as build an osprey nest on the peninsula that juts out into the river.
  • Sustainable Land Use – The property lies within the viewshed of the state historic site, Olana, the former home of the Hudson River School painter Frederic Church.  A conservation easement that we have executed with Scenic Hudson ensures that the view from Olana, as well as from the river, remains unspoiled.

Whenever I need to make a design decision, I visit the land and let it speak to me.  The Hudson River Valley has seduced generations of humanity, and I am no exception.  I no longer own the land; the land owns me.

Next week’s journal entry will be Selecting and Replacing a Black Walnut Tree.

Until next week,


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