Saturday, April 5, 2014

Conservation in Greenwich

We are in full spring finally in Greenwich, and since Earth Day is in April, we at the Oral History Project find our thoughts turning to the environment and to conservation. We have many interviews in our collection on these subjects by narrators who have worked tirelessly to preserve and protect the natural heritage of our town.

The first of our histories tracing efforts to safeguard the land and water of Greenwich is to be found in one of our published anthologies with interviews spanning the 1980s, entitled appropriately enough, Conservation in Greenwich. It is comprised of oral history interviews with citizen-conservationists, Eugene Curry, Anne Hubbell French, Barbara Kitchel Girdler, Howard Hennington, and Phoebe Milliken.

In the first interview, narrator Barbara Girdler describes the origins of conservation efforts in Greenwich. Going back to the 1940s, she cites the establishment of the Audubon Center, crediting it with the start of conservation education in town. “They started with birds,” she says, but soon discovered, “it’s all of a piece and they’d have to just look at the whole picture.”

In the 1950s the center became a liaison group with the garden clubs, soon beginning conservation work on Greenwich Point. At the time of the interview, 1982, members of the Greenwich Point committee were working on a master plan for which they had secured the blessings of the Parks Department.
Eagle Statue, Greenwich Point
Today the eagle has a nest on its top. The bronze eagle was originally placed in 1979

Other instrumental conservation efforts she cites include the opening in 1968 of the Greenwich Point Advisory Committee’s exhibition center, the state Coastal Wetlands Act of 1970, the Greenwich Environmental Action Group whose work began in 1970. (More on that to come.) These efforts and more formed the basis for laws and ordinances that guide the care and handling of our natural resources in Greenwich today.

The second interview in this collection is with Phoebe M. Milliken, conducted in 1986, about the Byram River Gorge Preserve.  Ms. Milliken begins with expressions of deep appreciation for the land, noting the native American Indians and the Quakers who long ago had stewardship of the land. Of the Quakers, who settled the lands of the Byram River in the 1700s, she says, “They knew very well where to place their houses, not down close to the river. They took the best advantage of where the sun rose and set and where the prevailing winds were coming from. They were not going to be caught in floods.”
Scene from the Gimbel Sanctuary

The intentions of those involved in the Byram River Gorge Preserve were to keep the land as preserved and protected as it had been under the care of its previous settlers. The key was to secure private lands into the hands of the Land Trust overseen at the time by the Greenwich Audubon Society. These early planners also included the Nature Conservancy in their efforts. One of the first land donations came from Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel. The Gimbel Foundation gave thirty-seven acres to the Audubon Society Greenwich Chapter in 1972.  John Fereri gave another forty-three acres in 1995. Today eighty acres of this land is called the Gimbel Sanctuary, connected to the Nature Conservancy’s Byram River Gorge Preserve to the north.

Another of the interviews is by a narrator with a similar love of the land, Anne Hubbell French, whose family had lived near the Mianus River Gorge for many years. Her interview on the Mianus River Gorge Preserve is co-narrated with R. Eugene Curry, who came to the project after its inception. As Ms. French tells it, the purpose of the preserve was “to set aside this land surrounded by the steep hills to be protected in perpetuity, forever wild.” She goes on to call the preserve a “wilderness island in a suburban sea.” While the land was to remain forever wild, it was not to be unavailable to the public. Instead, it was designed to provide hiking trails open to the public, the only restrictions at the time, “no picnics or dogs.” The narrators credit Gloria Anable, among other interested citizens, for having created the preserve, with work on the project going back to the early 1950s. The Mianus River Gorge was the first of the land projects of the Nature Conservancy.

In another interview, Howard H. Hennington (interview conducted in 1987) describes how the Greenwich Audubon Society of Greenwich went from being about birds only to contributing to the preservation of lands, such as the Byram River Gorge Preserve. Similarly, in an interview in 1982, Barbara Girdler describes how the Land Trust went from being under the auspicious of the Greenwich Audubon in the early 70s to later being set up as a separate entity, its purpose, too, to acquire private lands, mostly by gift. Today the Greenwich Land Trust has more than 737 acres of diverse woodlands under its care.
Greene Preserve, Greenwich Land Trust

In the final interview of the collection, Barbara Girdler focuses on what were in the 1980s ongoing efforts to ensure regulations protective of air, land, and water quality. She comments on the Audubon chapter and its educational programs, the garden clubs, the members of the Greenwich Point committee, all active and committed to the preservation of our natural resources. At one point she makes a distinction between those she calls “aesthetic conservationists,” who save things because they are beautiful and those who have come to appreciate “the oneness of nature.” She explains the concept thus: “It’s just all of a piece, and you mustn’t rend the fabric anywhere. You pull one thread, and the whole thing comes apart.”

Lucky for us, these early committed citizen-conservationists were of the second kind.

photo credits:
Greenwich Roundup
Greenwich Audubon
Greenwich Land Trust

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