In the woods, there’s a stillness to all that moves.
Creeks gurgle and ripple and cascade, but it’s their placidness we seek.
Leaves flutter, but it’s the spaces between them we admire as the sun’s golden light makes its cameo at the whims of the wind.
Deer prance and jump and jaunt, but we gape at their pauses when nature stares us directly in the face, antlers emerging from the brush.
Placidity. Space. A momentary pause. These are the things we crave that our plugged-in lives cannot always afford us. So we flock to faraway forests to get them, but with the existence of many land trusts in our state, these natural havens are sometimes a lot closer than we think.
Say, for instance, you’re driving northbound along NC Highway 86 in Chapel Hill away from the bustle of the town’s center. Once you reach Allen & Son Barbeque and Lockhart Trading Post, take a right onto Mount Sinai Road and follow it for about a mile where you’ll find Johnston Mill Nature Preserve.
It’s owned and managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy, or TLC, a nonprofit organization that has a four-fold mission. Like other land trusts, it works to protect natural spaces, support family farms, connect people with the outdoors, and ensure clean water.
Home to several rare animal and plant species, the four-toed salamander, Thorey’s grayback dragonfly, and the green violet can be found here. Water that winds its way through the preserve’s portion of New Hope Creek feeds into the nearby Jordan Lake, an important source of drinking water to residents in the area.
But some, even those who live in Chapel Hill, aren’t aware that Johnston Mill exists.
Perhaps because it holds so much serenity, some of those who frequent it prefer to keep it to themselves.
Joan Curry, a charter member of TLC’s volunteer Conservation Corps, doesn’t mind sharing this place she loves so long as others treat it with as much care as she does.
“Do you know Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘How I Go to the Woods’?” she asks.
Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can
sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of
weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear
the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you
To love this land is to be painfully aware of what would happen if it were to disappear.
“Shopping centers,” Curry says bluntly. “Malls.”
The woods do not demand complete sentences. Here, a conversation’s beauty is measured by its succinctness.
The Triangle is one of the fastest growing areas in the nation. Developments gobble up land with relative ease, and once these ecologically unique spaces are gone, they’re gone forever.
As compared to government-owned park systems that are funded by state and national budgets, land trusts conserve land in two different ways, says Diana Hackenburg, communications manager for TLC.
TLC can independently purchase land and create a fund to steward it. But private landowners can also enter into legal agreements that permit land trusts to limit the use and development of their land as a means of protecting the natural area.
By taking part in these conservation easements, landowners still lay claim to their land and are also eligible to receive tax benefits.
“A lot of times it’s someone who has a really special connection with the land, so it might be a farmer who wants his children to be able to farm that land,” Hackenburg says.
But land trusts aren’t just unique to the Triangle. North Carolina has 24 active land trusts, which reflects well on the commitment our state’s residents have made to protect our land, from the mountains to the sea, says Joe Miller, creator of the website, getgoingnc.com.
In fact, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, there are four trusts that conserve areas viewable from the highway.
Would the parkway succumb to billboards and development if the land trusts were not there?
“Oh, you know it with all the traffic that goes through there,” Miller says.
But land trusts don’t have to protect large plots of land as big as those around the Blue Ridge Parkway to instill a deep love of the land among those who visit these areas, Miller says.
“You don’t need 5,600 acres like you do at Umstead State Park,” he says. “You could go to Swift Creek Bluffs, which has 23 acres, and get a sense of what it’s like to get lost in nature.”
As the number of land trusts has grown since the 1980s, more people have learned about their significance as more of these parcels of land have been opened up to the public for enjoyment.
“It’s important to save these places, but it’s also important to let people know about them, so they’ll want to save more places,” Miller says.
Those interested in land trusts are encouraged to join as members or become a part of the Conservation Corps that is involved with various initiatives, such as building bridges and trails. There are plenty of ways to give back to land that has given us so much in turn.
“I just feel like as the most powerful species, we owe it to other species to keep them around: plants and animals,” Curry says. “It just feels right to me.”
Founded here in North Carolina over 40 years ago Great Outdoor Provision Co. is a locally owned, independent retailer offering clothing and equipment for outdoor enthusiasts. The company often partners with local organizations to support youth, trails and local conservation initiatives. Learn more at www.greatoutdoorprovision.com.