A Folklorist's Dispatch from the Midwest Land Trust Conference

By Mark Livengood

One chilly weekend this past March I drove south from the snow-encrusted Leelanau Peninsula in northwest lower Michigan to Indiana’s Pokagon State Park to make a presentation called “An Introduction to Cultural Conservation” at the Midwest Land Trust Conference. South of Cadillac the roads cleared, and the radio crackled with Black Crowes and Bad Company (“Music to hammer out fenders by,” Edward Abbey wrote once) from a classic rock station out of Grand Rapids.

After a long lunch on the outskirts of Jackson, I arrived at the western edge of the remains of the Great Black Swamp with an assumption and a question: if folklorists are to continue applying the study of vernacular culture, we must think of ourselves not only as cultural workers, but also as cultural entrepreneurs, continuing to imagine opportunities within and identify resonance with other disciplines and practices. And the question: how might folklorists collaborate with land conservancies?

Organized and hosted by the Midwest office of the Land Trust Alliance, located in Portage, Michigan, the third annual Midwest Land Trust Conference brought together nearly 80 land trust practitioners, public agency professionals, and allied conservationists for two days of seminars, field trips, presentations, and discussions. A majority of attendees work as paid staff or as volunteers for nonprofit land trusts. Many of these organizations, such as Michigan’s Leelanau Conservancy, have fewer than ten employees and have missions limited to a political or geographical area, such as a county or a watershed.

Others organizations, such as the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, maintain a local or regional focus, but are making the steady transition from the grassroots to well oiled, higher profile nonprofit corporations drawing on for-profit business models.

Conference presentations addressed various organizational functions such as drafting conservation easements, working with local communities, fundraising, and media relations. One Sunday morning session was titled “Conserving Working Lands in the Midwest.” In many sessions, participants discussed “working landscapes,” “way of life,” “community character,” and “heritage.” If these words and terms were not enough to pique the interests of folklorists, the detailed personal experience narrative told by Land Trust Alliance executive director Rand Wentworth was. He introduced his lunchtime keynote with a story of “working alongside” the “last living mule farmer,” Mr. J.C. Hyde, in what is now suburban Atlanta. In an effort to help Mr. Hyde determine the future of his family’s homestead as the city spread, Wentworth had become a participant observer, a quasi-ethnographer, a witness tuned into the type of knowledge that John Cronin, the Hudson River riverkeeper, once described so eloquently to journalist Alec Wilkinson: “All along the river are people who from patience and through observation know the quarter mile where they live with great accuracy and detail — the comings and goings of fish and wildlife, and the seasons, and the changes along the riverbank.”

The terms used and experiences described by the land trust professionals at the Midwest Land Trust Conference are not to be thought of in isolation, for in the past five years I’ve heard the staffs of conservancies and land use organizations in northwest lower Michigan use a similar vocabulary to express like concerns. For instance, Brian Price, executive director of the Leelanau Conservancy, in a newspaper article titled “Leelanau Stories,” wrote of people who had emailed him narratives about the Leelanau Peninsula: “the retelling of stories is an exploration of the meaning of a uniquely beautiful place in their lives.” The article suggested an appreciation of land not only as a physical entity, but also as the site of experience and memory, without which there can be no place. Furthermore, a session titled “Preserving Cultural Aspects of a Community” was scheduled for the Land Trust Alliance’s national rally in October 2002, only to be scratched at the last minute.

Confident of affinities between the work of land conservancy professionals and folklorists, resonance about which other folklorists, particularly Elaine Thatcher, have also remarked, I proposed an hour and a half session to orient conservancy staffs and volunteers to the basic concepts and methods of folklore and folklife study; to listen to how an understanding and the perspective of the study of folklore and folklife may enhance their work; in turn, to kick around the idea of what land conservation efforts might bring to the study of vernacular culture; and, finally, to consider how the communities with which folklorists and land trust professionals work may benefit from such efforts. The session “An Introduction to Cultural Conservation” had a simple structure: introduce concepts and methods, describe an example where land conservation and cultural conservation are working in concert, and query participants for their ideas. Copies of the American Folklife Center’s booklet, Folklife and Fieldwork: A Layman’s Introduction to Field Techniques (2002), were distributed to session participants along with handouts that defined concepts and listed relevant readings, websites, and organizations.

In the ensuing discussion during the session, and subsequent conversations back home, land trust professionals described fully their mission and methods. Land trusts work to protect land in perpetuity; this singular focus accounts, in part, for their success. While acknowledging the presence and importance of cultural resources to fully understanding and appreciating a given property, several participants raised concerns that incorporating a cultural component into their efforts would result in “mission drift.” One participant suggested that historic structures presented liability issues; in this man’s words, “buildings are more trouble than they’re worth.” Furthermore, while aware of the influences of demographic changes and global economic forces on the future of farming, we also concluded that the preservation of farmland can directly impact the continuity of what is for many a traditional occupation; natural conservation can influence cultural conservation. In sum, while the ways land trust professionals conceptualize and communicate notions of “working landscapes,” “community character,” “heritage,” and analogous concepts warrant close analysis, the challenge of incorporating a folklife component into the efforts of land conservancies presents practical concerns as well, for as several people suggested during our session, an organization must identify and employ a cultural worker and/or allocate the staff time required to conduct research.

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.

Published 2003 by the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Do not reprint without permission.