A Folklorist's Dispatch from the Midwest Land Trust Conference
Fourth-generation farmer Rex Dobson cutting hay (second cutting) on protected farmland at Ruby Ellen Farm, Bingham Township, Leelanau County, Michigan, September 2002. Photo by Mark Livengood, © The Rex Dobson Ruby Ellen Farm Foundation.
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.