"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
What if we could anticipate where subdivision development was most likely to occur before the bulldozers arrived? What if the patterns of rural sprawl could be modeled and the information used preemptively by town planners and conservation organizations? What if we knew not only the location of the most significant resources to preserve in our landscapes and communities, but also which of these places were most vulnerable to inappropriate development? What if there were tools to help quantify how much land and water conservation was required for these vital resources to remain viable, as well as how to develop properties where they occurred to minimize impacts on what made them significant for conservation? What would that be worth?
The Litchfield Hills Greenprint has all of these capabilities. Among the cutting edge innovations of this program are predictive models that identify properties with increased risk of residential subdivision and natural areas that are most vulnerable to fragmentation by residential infrastructure. We assessed every unprotected parcel of land greater than 50 acres in 25 towns in northwest Connecticut - 1,700 properties in all. This is the same sized land unit used by luxury developer Toll Brothers to identify "good ground" for its subdivisions.
We evaluated each property based on certain attributes that made it more attractive for this kind of development, as well as it proximity to supporting infrastructure, building constraints, actual zoning, the desirability of the town in which it occurs and other market factors. We did a similar analysis for every intact natural area greater than 200 acres and examined factors that might lead to a poorly sited house on a long driveway breaking up contiguous habitats into smaller fragments. A panel of technical advisers, including friendly Realtors and real estate developers, informed the development of the model and the weights given to each of its criteria.
Applying the results of this analysis to maps of priority resources for conservation, town plans of conservation and development, farmland cover or critical habitat maps, we are able to filter out those areas that could be developed but are of lesser priority for conservation and those that because of low marketability or limited development potential are at reduced risk of near-term conversion to developed land. What remains is ground-truthed with local conservation groups, open space committees, and land use planners to give a fine-scale understanding of the threats and opportunities that apply to the parcels and areas identified by our model that were both significant for conservation and at increased risk of development or fragmentation.
With this information in hand, we and our conservation partners can be proactive in our land protection activity, building positive relationships with key land owners before they start talking to their realtors, and quantifying goals not only for the amount of land we hope to protect but the overall quality of what we conserve. Larger, sprawling towns can adopt transfer of development rights or TDR policies that reward developers who place permanent protection on lands where communities which to discourage development and allow denser development in places where they wish to encourage it. Best of all, using this approach helps to prioritize the most vulnerable places for conservation rather than picking away opportunistically at the more than 200,000 significant acres identified across the Litchfield Hills.
To date, the Litchfield Hills Greenprint has been providing its baseline data at no charge to land trusts and communities across the region. Those who support the Greenprint's work through their donations enable us to keep providing their local conservation organizations and towns with powerful conservation tools and the means to increase the pace and quality of conservation activity across the Litchfield Hills.
"The poor shall always be with you" say the Gospels. The urban homeless of today had their counterparts in our rural past, surviving at the very margins of society. English Common Law, the basis for most early American legal codes,addressed the issue of "masterless men" with vagrancy laws, making it a crime to "go without visible means of support." Puritan theology and Yankee industry condemned the idle and unproductive, and vagrants were often "warned-out" of communities and driven to the frontier of the settled lands. At the same time, towns in colonial New England had the legal responsibility to provide for the indigent, and there are even examples of Massachusetts laws assuming a degree of responsibility for the mentally ill. One law dating from 1660 stipulated:
"Children, Idiots, Distracted persons, and all that are strangers, or new commers [sic] to our plantation, shall have such allowances and dispensations in any Cause whether Criminall [sic] or other as religion and reason require [sic]."
In the 19th century, there were some well-known vagrants and rural eccentrics whose presence was not only tolerated by society but even celebrated by it. Last week I wrote about one of these, the reclusive hermit Sarah Bishop who lived for thirty years in a cave in the mountains at the boundary of Ridgefield, Connecticut and North Salem, New York. The generation after the Civil War produced another remarkable homeless person who also made use of caves and whose regular wanderings inspired great interest and a trove of regional folklore. His legend persists even today, and as recently as 1998 was even the inspiration for a song by Pearl Jam.
He was known as "The Leatherman" for the heavy suit of hand-stitched leather that was his only clothing. His one known photograph was taken by 19-year-old James Frances Rodgers of Branford, Connecticut and while clearly "posed" it is a remarkably candid and disturbing portrait. He looks furtive and uncomfortable before the camera, his hand before his mouth and his body bulky and misshapen within his 60 pounds of patchwork leather. He looks like the subject of a sideshow display, and indeed there was at least one attempt to entice him to join a freak show.
But the Leatherman was a benign and restless spirit, and though a creature of habit he did not remain more than one night in any of the communities he visited. He did return, however, for the other exceptional think about this irregular person was the exceptional regularity of his peregrinations from town to town. Every 34 days, he completed a clockwise circuit of 365 miles between the Hudson and Connecticut rivers. Ghostvillage.com provides a rich trove of Leatherman legends, as well as this wonderful map of the Leatherman's route, which passed through the southern towns of the Litchfield Hills:
There were many vagabonds on the rural roads of America following the Civil War, but the Leatherman was not an ordinary tramp. He supposedly first appeared in 1862 in Harwinton, Connecticut, and was a fixture in the communities he visited until in 1889 he finally succumbed in a cave in Ossining, New York in 1889. Very little is known for certain of his background, for he spoke little but was thought to understand French. The historic marker on his grave at the Sparta Cemetery identifies him as Joules Bourglay although subsequent efforts to confirm his origins have failed. His past was greatly embellished in his own day and in New England folklore and remains largely an enigma today.
Such an unusual person attracted great interest, especially from children who often escorted him in and out of the towns where he appeared. People got so that they could pinpoint the day of his arrival and marked it in their day books and ledgers. As a wonderful piece on the Leatherman at curbstone.org recounts:
"In each community he passed through, the Leatherman had identified a home or two where he knew friendly people would provide food whenever he appeared. A "host" family became accustomed to preparing a simple meal and setting it on the back doorstep for the eccentric tramp, every thirty-four days. For no matter what the season of year or the weather conditions, the Leatherman inevitably showed up -- virtually at the same hour -- according to that precise schedule, for a period of nearly thirty years! Only in his last few years did the schedule vary and the interval between visits increase, sometimes -- as during the famous "Blizzard of '88" -- to as many as forty days. But as late as 1884-1885 he made nineteen consecutive trips of exactly thirty-four days each. It was probably inevitable that such predictable behavior would make a lasting impression on folk living in the 'Land of Steady Habits.'"
He slept in caves, and cut and stored firewood before leaving so it would be dry and ready for his next visit. Some of these "Leatherman caves" are known by that name today, and more than a few were the den sites of rattlesnakes that did not appear to phase him. He was non-verbal - never known to speak a word of English - but made his wants known with gestures. He had a strong appetite - known to consume at one sitting "two cans of sardines, a loaf of bread, a pound of milk crackers, a quarter-pie, two quarts and two cups of coffee, a gill of brandy and a bottle of beer", and sometimes he purchased supplies along his route. This gave rise to the legend that he had a small fortune secreted away in his caves, but fruitless treasure hunting failed to produce any evidence of this following his death. In fact, there were numerous stories in the press after he died of ghostly sightings of the Leatherman, and even some copycat imitators wandering the roads of rural new England clad in leather suits.
With a few recorded exceptions, the Leatherman was not harassed and was generally treated with respect and fondness by the curious townsfolk whose lives he touched. he became part of the fabric of the communities through which he passed, as regular as the seasons and as accepted as the other patterns of village life. When he was found with frozen hands and feet near Hartford during the brutal Blizzard of 1888, the Leatherman was taken to hospital where it was learned that he was also suffering from cancer of the lip. He developed from the institution as soon as he was able but time and age were catching up with him and he died a year later.
As we approach Hallowe'en, there are likely to be stories in our local papers retelling the legend of the Leatherman. His eccentricities may have been madness, but of a comfortable sort to those who marveled at his endurance despite his afflictions and who looked forward to his next visits. No wonder his restless spirit shuffles through our modern imaginations.
The Tangled Bank almost failed to appear in its biweekly slot, and a quick save by Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas got edition #65 to press on short notice. In keeping with the theme of exposing sloppy scholarship and groundless assumptions, Respectful Insolence examines a case of academic misconduct in science , and I give vent to a bit of indignant spleen over the uncritical repetition of the claim that invasive species are the second leading cause of biodiversity decline after habitat loss. Now before you go braiding your green nooses for my neck - of kudzu, no doubt - know that I firmly believe they are significant factors - particularly invasive animals, pests and pathogens - but get sick of exaggerated versions of this statement that have gotten really out of hand as too many folks repeat it dogmatically and without attribution. So a bit of a plant rant, but offered for your consideration.
Conventional wisdom in Connecticut holds that our towns are fiercely jealous of their rights to self rule and want nothing to do with regional planning. Given that we eliminated county government altogether about 40 years ago and bled our former regional planning entity out of existence through underfunding, those sentiments were not without some foundation. But times have changed in the Litchfield Hills, and communities which only a few years ago were grumbling about the "green noose" of land protection around their fiscal throats are now calling for better coordination among towns and land trusts on issues of mutual concern and at the regional level.
Last night, over 120 people gathered on an icy October meeting in the senior center meeting hall in Falls Village to hear a small panel of conservation professionals - myself among them - talk about what our landscape will look like in the next twenty years of conservation and development and whether we saw opportunities for more formalized, effective collaboration on growth and land preservation from town to town and across the Litchfield Hills. The meeting had been convened by the new 1st Selectwoman Pat Mechare of Canaan/Falls Village and was co-sponsored by the town planning and zoning and inland wetlands commissions. Mechare said:
“The goal of this forum is to begin exploring ways that our towns can work with each other and with local conservation groups to retain the landscape we treasure."
Four 1st selectmen and members of town boards from Salisbury, North Canaan, Norfolk, Sharon, Falls Village, Cornwall, Kent and Washington Connecticut attended, as well as many local citizens, planners, and realtors.
The overwhelming sentiment of those in attendance was that we needed better information to inform land use decision making, more contact with each other and collaboration on regional threats and priorities, and in the vacuum left by the absence of regional planning at the state or county level, we were prepared to work together toward those ends. We talked about affordability and our diminished agricultural land base. We spoke about the need for viable rural economies. But no one, even those who have in the past been champions of private property rights and highly resistant to and skeptical of the motives of conservation entities, argued against such an effort. On the contrary, it was so welcome that the 1st selectwoman of Kent stood up and offered to host the next forum in her town and move the process forward.
I've been in the conservation business long enough to realize that this momentum and energy will flag unless we stoke the furnace, but the energy is there and it bubbled up from the communities themselves. The Litchfield Hills Greenprint has extraordinary local and regional data and tools that can help inform this process, but through self-determination, the seeds of a regional approach have been planted.
Ah, the colors of Fall. The brilliant scarlets and bright oranges of sugar maples. The ambers and honey golds of hickory and ash. The warm matte colors of oaks in their ox-blood and russet array. The quivering tamaracks with their needles of golden straw.
So much for the aesthetic of the native over story. What lurks beneath I find repellent in equal measure. The lurid, brazen pink of burning bush. The bilious yellow of shrub honeysuckle and the bloodshot, crusty eyes of bittersweet berries. The rusty blood of barberry that sprawls through our woodlands. The bleached mats of reed canary grass clogging our fens. The glossy green leaves and inky black berries of buckthorn. The dead wings of Norway Maple seeds and their tar-spotted leaves.
Yes, it is all about values. Learn to distinguish the invasive from the native and they become all your eyes can see. On my morning drive to work at 45 miles per hour on a twisting rural road I easily spotted and identified all of the invasive plants named above, as well as Phragmites reed, the dry husks of purple loosestrife in the wetlands, and rosa multiflora overwhelming abandoned pastureland. This late in the season, many invasive shrubs are the only splashes of color in the forest understory. There are dramatic drifts of Euonymus alata var. compacta, the burning bush from which the voice of God has yet to speak, throughout the natural areas of the Housatonic Valley. Yet in Connecticut, this invasive plant is not on the list of species prohibited for sale despite being listed by the CT Invasive Plants Council as one of the invasive plant species in the state.
Our neighbors in Massachusetts evaluated each species for invasiveness based on its documented behavior and biological attributes in the Commonwealth and made no exception for varieties, forms and cultivars of those plants deemed to be invasive unless they themselves had been through scientific evaluation that conclusively showed otherwise. Politics and the economic clout of the Nursery and Landscaping lobby intervened on the way to legislation in CT, however, with Public Act 04-203 exempting those invasive species of importance to the horticultural industry from any ban on sale, importation or distribution. There are barberry, glossy buckthorn and winged euonymus, readily available for your purchase and as uninterrupted vectors for the spread of seeds from your backyard to minimally managed habitats. There is Norway maple, that malformed, allelopathic alien monstrosity, and reed canary grass. Somehow Morrow's and tartarian honeysuckle made the ban, but these are hardly mainstays of landscaping anymore. Meanwhile, the invasions we are already contending with dwarf the resources that have been brought to bear for prevention and control. I have gathered gallon bucketfulls of burning bush seeds sprouting from the soil around the stumps of the parent plants in my backyard for 4 straight seasons.
In Massachusetts, the Nursery and Landscaping Industry leadership took a very different approach and was heavily committed to the collaborative and transparent assessment process developed for invasive plants in the Commonwealth. They acknowledged the need for a meaningful response to those plants in their inventories that were determined to be invasive and worked for a three year phase out of banned plants that were economically significant while they and Massachusetts growers transitioned to a more diversified, non-invasive palette. In stepping up on this issue, they have maintained both their integrity and their much-deserved status as green industry leaders. Would that their counterparts in the Nutmeg State, the land of oh-so-steady-habits, had followed suit.
When the history of North America's urban growth, rural sprawl and loss of open space is written, there may well be an entire chapter devoted to the influence of air conditioning. One could argue that during the years since WWII no modern invention or engineering marvel - not interstate highways, neither fiber optic cable nor ride-on mowers - had such an accelerating influence on the expansion of our urban centers and the development of previously undesirable residential property in the nation's hot and humid regions.
Yes, an expanding middle class and the globalization of our economy were contributing factors. But who in their right mind would choose to retire to Florida or Arizona without air conditioning? Who would work in a 60 story office building with only window awnings and ceiling fans to keep the summer swelter at bay? There are historic, climactic reasons why the French take the entire month of August off and head for the Med, and why summer communities for Bostonians and Manhattanites sprang up in the Catskills, White Mountains and the Litchfield Hills in the latter 1800s once the railways made these reasonably accessible to urban populations.
Thanks to air conditioning, our cities are habitable, our industries more efficient, and our most developing and most populous states are in the no longer sleepy south and desert Southwest. According to a September 2006 essay by James Fergusson in Prospect Magazine, America devotes about a 1/3 of its electricity consumption to air conditioning - 8% of global production.
We have Willis Haviland Carrier to thank for all this. Newton was beaned by an apple, but Carrier got the inspiration for his "Apparatus for Treating Air" while waiting for a train on a foggy night. Working out the relationship between temperature, humidity and dew point, in 1902 he developed the first commercial air conditioner to create a stable environment for the printing plant where he was a $10/week employee.
The industrial and commercial applications of this invention, and those advances that followed in refrigeration and cooling, were sweeping in scale and scope. The skyscrapers of American cities that soared above the steeple tops in the first decades of the 20th century would have been uninhabitable without air conditioning and accelerated the growth of urban cores and the depopulation of many rural areas. Home air conditioning was available to average Americans after WWII and made all the difference in the growth of suburbia and the development of the Southeast, Gulf Coast, the Sunbelt and California. Without air conditioning, the US House of Representatives would be heavily Democratic because the majority of the US population would still be in the more temperate "Blue States." Think about it.
At the close of the century, there was a remarkable exhibition in Washington DC called Stay Cool! Air Conditioning America that compellingly demonstrated how it opened the South for development but killed the front porch:
"Domestic air conditioning meant that traditional architectural features--wide eaves, deep porches, thick walls, high ceilings, attics, and cross ventilation--were no longer needed to promote natural cooling. Also irrelevant was siting or landscaping a house that maximized summer shade and breezes, since mechanical equipment was able to maintain perfect indoor conditions independent of design.
Builders found they could pay for the costs of central cooling systems by deleting elements made unnecessary by the new technology. As air conditioning replaced traditional features, the design of the modern house became fully integrated with--and dependent on--air conditioning. It allowed postwar architects and builders to achieve a new "ranch house" aesthetic of glass picture windows, sliding doors, and rectangular forms. "
The most important exterior space in our homes became the backyard, not the front porch. Neighbors put up fences, and stayed inside glued to the tube on sultry nights instead of visiting on the porch swing.
So here we have a society transforming invention, lauded as one of the Top 10 Greatest Achievements of the 20th Century, and we can't wean ourselves from its comforts to save our lives. Or our atmosphere, for that matter, which receives terrific damage from pollutants when refrigerants are released. We have more habitat destruction in the biologically rich southeastern United States than ever would have happened otherwise -and far more economic there activity as well. We have larger cities, greater movement of perishable foodstuffs as well as greater food preservation and therefore greater food security.
But here's the rub. Americans consume 25% of the world's energy resources and devote a large percentage of our electrical consumption to air conditioning. We have 5% of the global population. China is fast overtaking us as the world's greatest consumer and has close to 5 times our numbers. India is not far behind. And as Fergusson's essay records, all these consumers are no different from us in their desire for comfort and convenience. It's just that a fully ramped up Chinese and Indian economy will demand far more in resource consumption to meet these comforts than we and our 300,000,000 ever will.
"'The best attribute of air-conditioning is its addiction,' Salil Kapoor, the head of marketing in India for the South Korean company LG Electronics, the world's largest manufacturer of air-conditioners, once told Reuters. 'It's a romance.'"
I was recently honored to be selected by the Invasive Species Weblog as the winner of its monthly "Your Punny Title Here" contest. True, there was an unusually limited candidate pool this month, the challenge put before us being fiendishly resistant to all attempts at linguistic levity. My entry, "Seedy Soldiers", was the best I could muster to headline a post about an internal Canadian Armed Forces memo highly critical of what it deemed inadequate measures currently in place to prevent unintentional introduction of invasive plant material on tank treads and ammo pallets returning from overseas deployment, and I challenge you to do better.
Along with the obvious accolades and bragging rights that accrue to me as this month's champion, my winnings included my choice of a range of weed-geek items and so I was pleased to find an envelope with my VT invasive aquatic plant prevention and Darwin's Posse bumper stickers in yesterday's mail. However, Jennifer Foreman Orth, the proprietor of the ISW and a friend of Walking the Berkshires, thoughtfully included a bonus. Having noted my recent post entitled "How I Came to Love Birds" and illustrated with ornithological stamps from my collection, she kindly sent on a wonderful selection of bird stamps from Africa, Latin America, The Caribbean, and Europe. I am deeply touched, and it affords the opportunity for an encore of sorts of feathered friends and philately.
I was particularly glad to have several of my old Namibian acquaintances on that country's stamps. The lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudata) with its gorgeous hues and looping flight, so often darted down from the trees by our little house on the edge of the Grootberg to catch insects near the ground. An older stamp, bearing the colonial name of Namibia in Afrikaans, displayed that splended strider of the savannah with thesix foot wingspan, the incomparable kori bustard (Arteotis kori).
And here was the red-buffalo weaver (Bubalornis niger), whose untidy nest of heavy sticks looks more like a squirrel's dray than the work of a weever high in the branches of the camelthorn trees, and also carmine bee-eaters (Merops nubicoides) as I so vividly remember them with their nesting holes in the clay.
It seemed fitting that Jenn included a stamp depicting cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis), as these are one of the very few birds with rapidly expanding populations to have naturalized in North America all on their own without human assistance. They were actually blown by Atlantic storms across the sea from Africa to the Caribean in sufficient numbers to prosper and multiply, although I am not aware that they have displaced native species to the degree that they would be considered truly invasive.
Then there is this marvelous tom turkey, shown of a stamp from Romania, of all places. I have a freind who raises heritage breeds of poultry, and he actually imports domesticated "wild" American turkeys from Europe, where they have been raised from stock originally procured during colonial times. The artist has depicted this specimen with a noble brow and imposing manner, so that one almost can see what Ben Franklin must have seen in this bird to motivate him to nominate it as our national symbol instead of the carrion-gorging bald eagle we ultimately adopted.
If Franklin had been born a Namibian patriot instead of an American one, he might well have championed the helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris) as its national bird. The bird has seldom looked better than in this Christmas stamp issued late in 1997 when we were last in Namibia and it would have been far more appropriate for this arid land that the African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) that was incongruously chosened as an emblem of Namibia. Fish eagles are restricted to the few perrenial rivers in the extreme eastern tip of the country, whereas guineafowl are as thick as thieves along the roadways of the country, and if you should happen to whack a couple of them inadvertantly while driving through the bush, I can attest from personal experience that they can be field dressed and spit roasted to a turn on the handle of your car jack, a practical consideration nonetheless lost on the architects of Namibian nationalism.
There are many myths and legends in these dark hills and hollows, especially here in western Connecticut where the ridges that divide us from New York are the Devil's own playground of twisted trees and jumbled stone. Our local folklore, though receding now from modern memory, still has the power to captivate and mystify that it possessed hundreds of years ago in first telling. Washington Irving's Hudson Highlands ghost stories have their counterparts here, but one story above all stands out from the rest, as much for what it omits to say about its reclusive protagonist as for what it embellishes.
The legend of Sarah Bishop, the hermit of West Mountain, has a long association with these cold, gray hills. She belongs as much to the folklore of Ridgefield, Connecticut as to North Salem, New York, for the mountain where she lived lies on the frontier of both communities. She was the source of much speculation and curiosity during her lifetime and long afterward. Why would anyone, forsaking society and the comforts of home, choose to live in a cave with a ceiling barely three feet high? How could a person survive for decades in such a state? And why would a young woman, considered by many accounts to be both fit and attractive when she first took to the wilderness, choose to do so during the American Revolution on the exposed slopes of West Mountain?
The facts of her life are difficult to tease apart from the enigma she represented to New Englanders and New Yorkers of her day, and she has been the subject of romantic imagination for generations after her death. The image of her cave, above, comes from the Bi-Centennial Celebration of Ridgefield published in 1908, and the accompanying text rather fancifully imagines her as pining for the unrequited love of a British officer. More recently, Scott O'Dell based his fictional eponymous novel, standard fare for young readers today, on the historical Sarah Bishop, but the facts of the tale had changed in the telling long before he created his own version. Some said she was a religious hermit in her cloister of natural stone: others that her mind had become unhinged from jilted love, or worse.
The generally accepted elements of her story are these: She first appeared in Ridgefield in 1780 as a young woman and was thought to have come originally from Long Island. She avoided the settled areas in the valley and the companionship of society and took to the ridge, where she survived almost as an animal in a small cave with hardly any amenities for almost 30 years. Daniel Teller's The History of Ridgefield (1878) describes Sarah in her later years as townsfolk remembered her:
Her whole appearance was to the last degree peculiar. Poorly clad, her form slightly bent, her face pale and careworn, her brow wrinkled and nearly hidden by long locks of gray hair, which were allowed to fall carelessly over it, her step quick and agile, she would seem to glide rather than walk through the town in quest of such articles of food as were absolutely indispensable to the sustenance of the body; or a few crumbs of that spiritual bread which is no less indispensable to the soul. She is said to have reminded one more of a visitant from the spirit-world than of a being of actual flesh and blood."
Teller goes on to reprint a piece of poetry about Sarah Bishop by Ridgefield's native son Samuel G. Goodrich, who wrote under the pseudonym Peter Parley:
For many a year the mountain hag / Was a theme of village wonder, / For she made her home in the dizzy crag, / Where the eagle bore his plunder. /Up the beetling cliff she was seen at night / Like a ghost to glide away; / but she came again in the morning light, / From the forest wild and gray...
Goodrich lets his fancy fly away with him, until a rattlesnake coils in her lap and she sleeps with a tattered Bible for her pillow, muttering a foreign name "and a tale of horror - of madness and shame." Here he hints at what others suspected: that she had been "cruelly used", as one 19th century account delicately puts it, and the only way to retain her tattered virtue in society's eyes was to lose her mind in response to her violation and so and remove herself from the world of men.
I have found one account of her ordeal that puts flesh on the bones of her story to surpass the pious imaginings of the people in the valley. Dr. Linda Grant De Pauw, in Seafaring Women, provides the following account of her rape and abduction by the crew of an English privateer:
"Sarah Bishop of Long Island, New York, was the victim of a British raiding party in I778. Rapehad become an everyday event in the war zones; when Bishop was taken aboard a British privateer, she became a member of the crew with certain additional duties. Although she handled the wheel and stood watches, she was also expected to be a communal sex object. Eventually she and the captain of the privateer came to an understanding, after which she was strictly the captain's woman. The captain was killed, however, in an engagement with an American privateer, and it was another six months before Bishop found an opportunity to escape. Two years after her capture, Sarah Bishop slipped over the side of the ship and swam ashore at Stamford, Connecticut. Her experience had been so traumatic that she could not bear to return to normal human society. She made her way to Ridgefield, Connecticut, and climbed to a rocky cave, where she lived the rest of her life as a hermit."
Despite the horrors she endured, it is far from clear that the experience drove Sarah Bishop insane. So many externalities have been projected on her by contemporary and latter day chroniclers that it may be impossible to know for sure her state of mind. There are views of Long Island Sound for forty miles on clear days on the heights of West Mountain, nearly 15 miles inland. Sarah Bishop could have gazed out over the water toward the land of her childhood had she wished, but if the tales are true they may also have held memories of what befell her there.
Teller reprints a newspaper account recorded earlier inBarber's Historical Collections of Connecticut (1836) of a visit to her cave in 1804 that found she had cleared a 1/2 acre for the cultivation of a few peach trees, cucumbers, beens, potatoes and wild grape vines. Although she seemed timid as a wild beast on the approach of the curious gentlemen who trespassed on her mountainside and they shook their heads in wonder at her lack of nearly any amenity or comfort of civilization, they "found her to be of a sound mind, a religious tune of thought, and entirely happy in her situation; of this she has given repeated proofs by refusing to quit her dreary abode."
There are other accounts that Sarah Bishop did not always remain a recluse, and would attend religious services over on the New York side of the mountain. One history reports that:
"Sarah kept several dresses of rich silk and satin at the home of Jared Hoyt, which she would change into from her cave clothes in order to attend the Lower Salem Presbyterian Church. She was skilled at knitting, sewing and spinning, and would visit members of the congregation often spending the night but saying little. When her brother finally found her she refused to return home with him."
The years passed and still she remained in her cave on the mountain. A generation grew up in the valleys on either side re-crafting her story as part of the fabric of their lives. Finally, Teller reports:
In the year 1810 this strange life ended, and ended in a manner sadly in keeping with all which had preceded it. One stormy night she left the house of a Mr. Williamson, living where Mr. Timothy Jones now lives, some two miles away, to return by a nearer route across the fields to her own wretched den. A few days after, much anxiety having been felt as to her condition, search was made for her. not finding her in the cave, those in search started down across the fields towards the house at which she had been last seen. They had proceeded but a little way before they discovered her lifeless body literally wedged in between masses of rocks. She ad never reached her home. the things which the kind neighbor had given her were with her. In attempting to climb the steep and rocky hill-side she had missed her footing and perished."
She was buried by her neighbors in the Episcopal Church cemetery in North Salem, New York, although no stone marks her resting place. Her legend has grown since then, until the historical Sarah Bishop seems as anonymous as her grave. Her story still haunts the imagination, and remains a tantalizing mystery. A road in Ridgefield and the cave on the mountain still bear her name.
Here is an archetypal but imperiled view in the Litchfield Hills. Drivers heading into East Canaan along Rte 44 enjoy watching the Congregational church spire rising up against the backdrop of Canaan Mountain, and it is one of the very special places in our town to which residents and visitors alike readily respond. The mountainside is largely protected as part of the Housatonic State Forest, but the foreground is a highly developable field with substantial road frontage. It would not take much - a three bedroom home, a parking lot and storefront - to forever alter this quintessential slice of rural New England.
Just up the road to the west of where this picture was taken, eight acres of land were rezoned last year from residential to commercial and Perotti and Sons Plumbing and Heating is now constructing a 170- by 22-foot steel building. According to an article in the Lakeville Journal:
"Longtime residents of the road, and even some who grew up there and moved away, came to the public hearing or submitted letters, urging the preservation of the neighborhood and the scenic beauty of the hillside, with its view of Canaan Mountain. They described Furnace Hill Road as one of the last "real" neighborhoods in Canaan, where generations continue to grow up together. It was also noted as an historic area. While not an official designation, it developed with the great iron age and is closely associated with nearby Beckley Furnace."
Preserving rural character - let alone a viable rural economy - is a challenge in towns like North Canaan and across the Litchfield Hills, where land values have risen dramatically and the children of long-time residents are leaving the area because of a lack of affordability and few job opportunities outside the service sector. At the same time, many second home owners from Metropolitan New York are buying and building here and finding their quality of life dramatically enhanced even with weekly 3 hour drives to Manhattan. Some of these second homes are converting to primary residences, while along the Rte 8 corridor and the southern tier of Litchfield County there are very large residential subdivisions for urban professionals where just a few years ago were only farm fields. Farm land is vanishing faster than any other land cover type in Connecticut. The rate in Litchfield County is over 1,500 acres a year.
The Litchfield Hills Greenprint that I direct has many resources that can help inform land use decisions and assist area land trusts and open space commissions to focus their limited conservation resources to best effect. There is a great on-line interactive map at litchfieldgreenprint.org that we created that allows you to hone in on the distribution of resources of conservation interest that were identified locally and represent local priorities. It depicts explorable layers for water quality, wildlife, working lands, forests and forestry, scenic and recreational attributes, and even the mining locations and landfills that may be appropriate for adaptive reuse in some situations.
Taken all together, the model identifies 35% of the landscape of the Litchfield Hills with conservation significance and without land protection. There is no way that we will see even a large percentage of these 202,000 acres go into protected status, but these are the places that are in play and where choices have to be made concerning how they are conserved and developed.
Growth is not the enemy. Uninformed and unsustainable development is the threat we all face.