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A Dispatch: Continued
One place to explore an interface is within the context of the easement, one of the most effective tools land trusts use to protect land in perpetuity. The Land Trust Alliance defines an easement as a “legal agreement a property owner makes to restrict the type and amount of development that may take place on his or her property.” There are various types of easements: for instance, conservation easements, historic preservation easements, farmland development rights easements, such as the one that protects Rex Dobson’s Ruby Ellen Farm. Easements include baseline documentation reports that outline a property’s value and create a document of record that is used to monitor and, if need be, enforce the easement. This report, the data for which varies from easement type to easement type, most often describes a property in legal terms; in topographical, soils, and land cover maps; in photographs of the landscape; in inventories of flora, fauna, and significant ecological, scenic, or agricultural features. Reflecting the priorities of land trusts, a baseline documentation report for a conservation easement communicates an itemized, partial picture, one focused on the natural sciences, and largely neglects the historical and contemporary cultural processes that shape a given property and that may be significant to its owners/stewards.
Therein lies an opportunity and a challenge for folklorists, for the baseline documentation report is a potential site to incorporate information gleaned from historical and/or ethnographic research. Land use narratives, place names, local uses of flora and fauna such as mushrooms and deer (in northern Michigan), and the traditional knowledge required to responsibly steward a place determine the value of a property as importantly as its ecological and scenic features and help define a property as a place with cultural, as well as ecological, significance.
Again, the challenge of incorporating ethnographic documentation into the baseline report can be largely programmatic. Furthermore, the criteria for the easement would need to be changed, which would require legal expertise. Session participants and I concluded that one potentially productive partnership could be between a land conservancy and a historical society, and perhaps a local or regional college or university, to develop a folklife documentation project related to selected landowners placing properties in conservation easements.
I took the long way home that weekend in March, and followed the muddy Maumee River to the northeast from its headwaters in rural northeastern Indiana to where it flows into Lake Erie at Toledo. Old and new through the windshield: downstream from the bridge at the town of Maumee, the riverbank lined with fishermen casting spoons to spawning walleye; near Perrysburg, freshly built subdivisions slicing into some of the richest farmland in the country. And a version of the question resurfaced: how can cultural workers/entrepreneurs, land conservancy professionals, property owners, community members, and funders, cognizant of the changing nature of landscapes and cultures, collaborate most effectively to imagine futures — for the Great Black Swamp, for northwest lower Michigan, for the Upper Midwest — that conserve both places and their local cultures and promote responsible stewardship of natural and cultural resources?
Mark Livengood earned his Ph.D. in Folklore from UCLA in 2001. This article is part of ongoing work on issues of natural and cultural resource conservation in the Grand Traverse Region of northwest lower Michigan.