Martha Teichner’s Inspiring Speech From the 2008 Land Trust Alliance Rally, also included in our 2008 Fall Newsletter
Photo at top left by Jeff Ripple (www.jeffripple.com)
Martha Teichner made the following speech at the Land Trust Alliance Rally in September, 2008.
I’m going to tell you a story, mine as it happens, about some woods on a lake in Northern Michigan and a land trust. It’s a story about memory and love and loss, of rediscovery, suspense, and finally a joy that seems to me like sunlight.
Really, aren’t they all like that??? The success stories behind the 1.2 million acres land trusts in this country?
It was the wildness of the land my parents learned to love when they found themselves in Northern Michigan after World War II…Newly married, they bought the only home they would ever own together, an old white house my mother spotted on a narrow gravel road, boarded up and neglected, with no indoor plumbing, unwanted by the elderly Chicagoans who had inherited it many years before.
It had been built just after the Civil War by a man named, Fisher, a so-called “lumber barons,” one of those hardy entrepreneurs who turned the immense hardwoods of the region into the millions and millions of board feet that were floated down rivers to Lake Michigan or carried away by rail to supply the Grand Rapids furniture industry or to build the homes of the upper Midwest.
Little boom towns grew up around the lumber camps and sawmills. Our house on a hill was the center of one of those small, wooden universes…long gone by the time my cousins and I spent our summers discovering relics left behind. We loved the empty house down the road, because the little adjoining building had been the post office. In the lettered cubbyholes, we actually found mail that never reached the lumbermen once they left. We opened some. I don’t remember what the letters said. Because I was so deliciously terrified skulking around, I only recall how I felt.
Our property came with forty acres of forest and wetlands we called “the swamp,” on Lime Lake in Leelanau County at the base of Michigan’s little finger. My parents named the house Deer Trail Cottage. They spent all their spare time and money modernizing it, transforming it, so that soon, as people drove by, they would slow down to a creep to look.
Maple trees so big it would take three men to reach around them embraced the house and what became my mother’s lush, colorful flower garden, but the acre or so my parents tamed seemed barely an encroachment on Nature, which surrounded us with its power and mystery…its sounds, its fragrance, its bigness.
And of course, across the road, a quarter of a mile through the trees, there was Lime Lake, a miraculous blue on clear summer days, frozen-over in winter and covered with deep snow, sculpted by the wind.
Mr. Fisher’s sawmill had been, as far as we could tell, about where the path we used to get to the lake ended. When the mill closed, the people who worked there shoved tons and tons of lumber into the water. To this day, the lake floor is covered with old wood. Every spring, my father hired somebody to come and dredge.
The shallow water would be transformed into a craggy board mountain, crawling with snapping turtles, scrambling to safety. When the driftwood dried, the men who gathered to enjoy such things, would build a colossal bonfire. Watching it burn itself down to the water was an event that attracted what for Lime Lake was a crowd.
Eventually, my grandmother bought the twenty acres next to us along the lake, including the house with the post office, hoping to remodel it and live there, but she died unexpectedly. Her five children were left to pay the taxes and fight over the place, while it inched through probate court, a process that amazingly took twenty-five years.
In 1957, my father died. I was nine. My mother had to sell Deer Trail Cottage and the land on Lime Lake. It was like tearing her heart out, having to leave this beautiful place. We moved away so that she could make a living. She never went back. It was too painful. Our lives were defined by longing for what was gone.
But my mother’s family still owned the twenty acres my grandmother had bought. Over the years, her brothers and sisters, one by one, stopped paying their share of the taxes, and the land fell to my mother and then, when she died, in 1992, to me.
It so happened that the very week of her death, a letter arrived from the county, ordering the old house on the property demolished and the well filled in. Why, I wondered?
When I took my mother’s ashes home to Leelanau County, so she and my father would be buried side-by-side I had been away for 34 years. I drove to Lime Lake…funny, I still knew how to get there. Slowly, I passed Deer Trail Cottage. I wondered who lived there and whether they loved it the way I had growing up.
When I reached my grandmother’s twenty acres, down the road…my twenty acres now…suddenly I saw why I had gotten the demolition notice from the county. The house, or what was left of it was leaning forty five degrees to one side…a precarious hodge-podge of broken grey boards on the verge of collapse. The old post office was gone.
In my sadness and pain, I was overwhelmed by the desire to demolish the house myself…smash it to pieces, drive the bulldozer. The man who owned the bulldozer was someone I had known as a small boy. He would have let me do it, but he had other projects to finish first, so in the end some pictures came in the mail of an empty space surrounded by trees and of a mound where the well had been filled in, which meant, legally, the land was considered undeveloped…
n 1996, I found myself in Leelanau County again, to attend an event honoring my father, who was still fairly well-known in the area almost forty years after his death. He had brought skiing to that part of Michigan. With his thick Bavarian accent and wicked sense of humor, he was a local personality.
The sponsors of the event took me on a sentimental drive around Lime Lake, past Deer Trail Cottage. As we reached the corner where the old house and post office had been, I saw earthmovers through MY trees, clearing land to build a golf course. I have nothing against golf courses, but those growling, tooting, beeping machines seemed to be harbingers of things to come, and I was scared.
I had no idea what to think, what to do, what would become of this stretch of woods and lakefront that had formed my entire identity. Someone in the car suggested I call the Leelanau Conservancy.
I had no idea how a land trust could help, in fact, I wasn’t all that clear about what a land trust was, but I called. The subject of a development easement came up, but I explained that nobody would want to inherit or buy the land for the sole purpose of paying taxes. It was undeveloped, so an easement wouldn’t work. I suggested GIVING the twenty acres to the conservancy.
The way it was explained to me, that meant it would be taken off the tax rolls. For ever and ever it would be protected from development. Forever, I asked? Yes, forever, I was told. It will be called the Teichner Nature Preserve, named in honor of your parents.
The conservancy asked me to write something about my gift. This is what I wrote…
Once, not long before she died, I asked my mother if she remembered anything hopelessly romantic, the most romantic thing she and my father used to do together. In all of my memories of them together, they were young and strong and wonderful to watch.
She sat for a very long time without responding, and then she said, very quietly, very simply, “In the summer, when the moon was full, sometimes at night when you were in bed asleep, we would go down to Lime Lake. We would push out the raft and swim in the moonlight.”
It had been her secret all those years after he died, a small special treasure, so precious she only allowed me a glimpse of it as she, herself was dying.
In my mind I could see…the depth of the woods closing in on them as they descended the path from the house to the lake…the sound of their breathing, their footsteps on the soft earth…a full chorus, an orchestra of insects and birds and small animals in the velvet darkness…whipporwills calling out.
And then the water, cool and smooth and silvery in the night stillness…rippling softly, lapping their bodies as they moved through it, bathed in moonlight…the sky alive with stars…and the magic of being there alone filling their hearts.
I wrote at the time, “My mother’s gift to me of a silver, moonlit memory, I pass on now….It occurs to me that memories can end up like so many plowed-under tree stumps when a beautiful piece of woods has been violated. I hope that mine will be the first, not the only donation of land around the lake, because I cannot imagine Lime Lake any way but wild.”
Every few months I phoned the Leelanau Conservancy to see if anyone else had donated land or an easement along the lake. The answer was always no.
So I thought, that’s the end of the story…the creation of the Teichner Nature Preserve. That’s enough, surely. I should be satisfied. As it turns out that was not the end of the story for me or the Leelanau Conservancy.
Fast forward to 2005. If, if, if…if it hadn’t been for a bunch of bizarre what if’s, a collection of seemingly unconnected events and coincidences, none of the next chapter would have happened.
What if I hadn’t been introduced, by someone who lives on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, to friends of his, also South Carolinians, who happened to own an old summer camp on a lake maybe fifty miles from the Teichner Nature Preserve and Deer Trail Cottage? And what if we all hadn’t been at the camp for a birthday party?
What if we hadn’t driven off on a Sunday morning to the village of Cedar, nine miles from Lime Lake, and hadn’t killed time waiting for Pleva’s to open, Pleva’s, the butcher shop Oprah Winfrey made sort of famous by featuring its homemade sausage with dried cherries….Pleva’s where my mother began buying her meat, more than sixty years ago.
My friends wanted to see where I’d grown up, and we’d planned to go on Monday, but changed our minds. If we’d gone on Monday, Janna and Eric Blakely, who now own my childhood home, those people I wondered about…would have been at work.
Even if we’d gone an hour earlier or later, everything might have turned out differently.
When we got up our courage to turn into the driveway, Janna Blakely was sitting outside in a lawn chair, talking on the telephone. I could see her mouth the words, “I’ll call you back,” as we got out of the car.
She stood up and shouted out, “Are you Martha Teichner?” “Yes,” I replied. She flung open her arms and beamed. “I’ve been waiting all these years for you to come.” My friends later told me it was like watching a scene from an opera.
The last time I’d been in the house was 1958. I learned that day that a succession of owners had sold off all except one acre of the forty my parents had owned, leaving just the house and the clearing around it. It was no longer called Deer Trail Cottage. Our bright gardens were gone.
So to go down to Lime Lake, the Blakelys led us through someone else’s land.
A road had replaced the path my family cut through the cedars. I remember it being narrow and dark and always moist, spooky to a child, romantic to my parents as they went to swim on moonlit summer nights. Now it was wide and light and dry. There were culverts under gravel and a metal gate that seemed, at least to me, an ugly intrusion on the fragrant swampiness I recalled.
But the trees still whispered, and wildflowers still grew alongside the streams that had rerouted themselves…
We took off our shoes and rolled up our trousers and stood in the warm water, wedging our feet between the slippery, worn boards that were still there at the water’s edge. We all picked out a few to take home as driftwood souvenirs.
Sometime that afternoon, I said sadly, that it had always been my dream to buy back the land, and give it to the Leelanau Conservancy, but clearly it wasn’t going to happen.
One of the Blakelys, in response, said a significant piece of it was for sale, at least it had been the year before. The asking price they remembered was a stretch for me but doable…
From that moment on, I could think of nothing else. Thirteen acres along the lake and another four behind the house belonged to a real estate speculator. I asked the Blakelys to make quiet inquiries. I went back to New York on fire, consumed by the thought that maybe, maybe at least part of my dream could come true.
The Blakelys came back to me with one of those good news-bad news dilemmas. The good news was that the land was still for sale. The bad news was that a. the speculator wanted a lot more money, more than four hundred thousand dollars, and b. that he had gotten a permit and was about to clear a road, fill in wetlands, and build a house by the water. He had already hired work crews…They were scheduled to begin in two weeks.
Yikes..Four hundred thousand dollars I couldn’t manage. I called the Leelanau Conservancy. I fully expected to be told nothing could be done, but instead, the Conservancy offered to help. It was agreed my share would be $200,000, money that would come ultimately from refinancing my New York apartment.
I would give it to The Conservancy, which would do the actual buying. It would provide the rest of the money from bequests and from fund-raising…that is if we could pull this off.
Borrowing $200,000 just to give it away was frightening, but I did it with great joy and no hesitation. If I had turned my back on the opportunity to preserve land that is so much a part of who I am, I don’t know how I would have been able to live with myself.
During the negotiations, it was not clear to me or to the Conservancy’s lawyers that we would succeed, but finally, I got the call that there was a signed agreement. I was ecstatic…but it gets better…
All those years I hoped someone else would step up do something on Lime Lake…Finally someone did. The woman who owned the seven acres between the property I was helping to buy and the Teichner Nature Preserve said if we could put the deal together, she would give her land to the Conservancy too.
It was all done by early 2006, and in May, when the woods were filled with trillium and morel mushrooms, there was a celebration. Everybody connected with the project gathered for a walk (led by a man who is here today) in the newly-expanded Teichner Nature Preserve. The metal gate had been removed. The plan was to take out the culverts and let the road grow over.
The speculator had tied pink plastic ribbons around the trees he intended to cut down. I couldn’t resist tearing one off and then another. Pretty soon other people began doing the same thing. We all held the broken bands over our heads and laughed.
Earlier, I mentioned all the what if’s…the circumstances that fatalists would say were not really coincidences…that conspired to make something wonderful happen…well, here’s another what if…what if the Leelanau Conservancy hadn’t existed…????
What if the Conservancy hadn’t had the lawyers to help me, twice, a staff of savvy professionals who knew what was possible and how to go about insuring a positive outcome? What if the money hadn’t been there to make the deal work? All I know is MY piece of the puzzle, big for me, but really a very small part of the huge jigsaw map of conservation in the United States.
To all of you in this room who make happy endings like mine possible, THANK YOU…
You’re not just making deals…you’re not just identifying tax deductions….you’re not just sitting through endless, contentious meetings…Land conservation is about so much more than land…it’s about the deepest of emotions…the most powerful of family stories.
All the dedication you bring to your work… all the idealism and enthusiasm are not worth much if the resources aren’t there…if there isn’t SUPPORT for people, like you, working to give the Leelanau Conservancy in Michigan, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust in South Carolina or any of the other 1600-plus organizations like them in this country, the clout to win the battles they take on and to protect the gains made.
And that’s where the Land Trust Alliance comes in…lobbying Congress to make tax incentives for land and easement donations permanent.. literally writing the book on land trust standards and practices….promoting accreditation…. trying to create insurance…a kind of legal defense fund, so members can fight off challenges …
I was willing to give a land trust my precious twenty acres and $200,000 dollars, because I believed that it had the know-how and the integrity to do right by my gifts…to respect their value. It was that word “trust.”
Think of all its meanings and know why… what you do and how you do it…matters.