Saving Maggie's Farm
Copyright 2013 Michael Melford Photography, Mystic, CT
If ever there was a sitting duck, there it sat. I could see the innocent mallard paddling in West Cove behind my childhood home in Noank. Unfortunately, so could a kid we called Tonto. “Roast duck tonight,” he sneered. Then he grabbed his pellet gun and charged down to the beach. Another boy, Matt, chased after him. I watched the whole performance from my bedroom window as they riddled that poor, beautiful bird with lead pellets. Tonto was a good shot. The duck never had a chance.
“We need a bird dog,” Matt hollered from the shore. “Get Chipper.” But neither my elderly Airedale nor I wanted any part in the crime; we hid in my room.
Afterward, they went to Matt’s house, boiled the bird, ripped out its feathers, decided cooking it would be too difficult, and ended up tossing the carcass in the trash. I was 12, and the next year my mother sent me to The Rectory School in Pomfret. There I could roam the woods, play in streams, catch frogs, turtles . . . and try to forget what I had witnessed. I was never a scholarly naturalist, but the order and apparent simplicity of natural life always appealed to me. In fact, when I was 9, I won awards at camp in Maine for Best Frog Catcher and Most Interest in Nature.
Over four decades later, my interest in nature is piqued talking with my old friend Margarett “Maggie” Jones, executive director of The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic. They’ve just rescued a red-tailed hawk struggling with a broken wing and buckshot wounds. “Hunters at Barn Island,” she sighs with the resignation of a seasoned precinct cop.
Now in her 20th year at the helm of the nature center, Maggie faces a far more complicated challenge than rehabilitating raptors. For a little over a year, Denison, The Trust For Public Land and over 60 influential volunteers have been working tirelessly to save the 372-year-old Coogan Farm. Already, they’ve raised over $2.5 million of the $3.5 million needed to purchase and restore 34 acres of heritage farmland—a spread that serves as a buffer between Mystic’s heavily commercial “Golden Triangle,” Mystic Seaport Museum and Downtown Mystic, and a perfect insulator from the comings and goings of one of the busiest exits along I-95’s nearly 2,000 miles.
“We’ve got to do this!” Maggie tells me during an autumn hike at the farm. “This is the only undeveloped piece of land along Route 27 on the Stonington side of the Mystic River. The family that owns it has already lopped off one parcel and sold it to a developer who’s approved for elderly housing. Developers are licking their chops, hoping we miss our goal.”
Alicia Betty, Connecticut director of The Trust for Public Land, concurs. “Coogan Farm is a rare conservation opportunity,” she says. “It is one of only a handful of larger pieces of land along the Connecticut coast that are undeveloped and available for preservation.”
The Coogan land became a farm in 1641, granted to settler/soldier Capt. John Gallup for his role in the Pequot War. High above the Mystic River, Gallup’s Farm served the area’s first settlers and eventually, under the Greenman Family, a large shipyard that grew up along the riverbank. Under Maggie’s plan, the land’s terraced meadows and shady paths will complete a network of walking trails from the nature center to Route 27.
During our walk, Maggie notes that Denison has already received 11.5 acres of Coogan Farm property as a gift from the Coogan family. “We’ve also applied for an Open Space Grant,” she says. “State funding will be critical since we’re under presure to meet our goal by March.” (The state delivered, with $500,0000 in late December, bringing them within $350,000 of the sales price.)
“Maggie,” I ask, laughing, “Twenty years! Is this how you keep it fresh?”
She chuckles. “One of the most rewarding things about a job that involves nature and the outdoors,” she says, “is that there’s always something new and unpredictable. You never know what’s going to come in through the front door, never know what you might see outside. Nature is always changing.”
Two old quarries have been found on the land. This partially explains the abundance of beautifully cut granite walls and gateposts. The stonework all around is among the most precise and beautiful one can find. With the help of slaves and indentured Indian servants, the Gallup family built magnificent walls out of giant granite block, some over seven feet high. They planted apple and pear orchards nearly 150 years before independence was won from Great Britain.
“Why should this matter to somebody outside the Mystic area?” I ask.
“This really matters to all of Connecticut. Mystic is a proven economic engine to the state, and a premier tourist destination,” Maggie replies. “Our history is authentic. We are a resource for filmmakers and artists of all kinds. Lots of other people come here for the aquarium and the Seaport. They also come for the quaint charm of a little town.”
And because Mystic’s blessed with a shoreline, people also come here from other pre-Revolutionary towns like Windsor and Farmington to play on their boats. Many come back and retire here. I’m starting to see the big picture.
“Coogan Farm is an intact, historic landscape,” Maggie adds, and as if on cue, we’re standing high above Mystic, with a sweeping view of backlit meadows. I can see the distant river and village below. Maggie offers that the farm’s treeline alone protects the integrity of some of the most painted and photographed views of Mystic Seaport and the area along the river.
It’s easy to believe in the importance of Coogan Farm because it is easy to believe in Maggie. Attractive, naturally bright and quietly competitive, she lives her role as a conservationist in simple, telling ways. For example, every day she is able, she rides her bike to and from work, and to and from the post office as well.
Maggie’s knowledge of woodland flora and fauna is encyclopedic. When I point to the thousands of orange oriental bittersweet berries on vines growing on the walls she wants to clear, I wonder, “Will birds be deprived of needed food?”
Not a problem, Maggie says. “There’s no harm to birds removing invasive growth. We have species of birds nesting in invasive autumn olive thickets who are just as happy in arrow wood, which is a native, noninvasive plant species.” Like a naturalist innkeeper, she’s ever aware of her woodland guests’ unique peferences.
Maggie points to the bright goldenrod in the meadow. “Goldenrod is not the cause of hay fever as many believe,” she says, adding that monarch butterflies follow its bloom sequence as they make their way home to central Mexico.
I then ask, “Do you think you have what it takes to pull off the task before you?” She bristles, and I smile meekly. “Well, I like to think that at least some of my excitement about this project is rubbing off,” she says. “By all indications it is, because there’s this incredible committee that shares my vision and has helped shape it to create a natural heritage park for our community, our region and our state.” I know a few of the people giving enormous amounts of their time and money, so I agree.
When I ask Maggie how her childhood prepared her for a conservationist’s role, her voice brightens. “My entire childhood prepared me for this role,” she says. “Behind our Old Mystic house, the woods went on forever.”
“Backachers!” I blurt, remembering her dad, an orthopedic surgeon who dubbed the family property with a pun. Doc Jones, as he was known, taught Maggie and her three sisters to identify indigenous plants and animals, instilling a simple appreciation for the complex natural world around them.
“Backachers” Maggie concurs. “That was my playground. We would go off and build fairy houses . . . just go out in the woods and play, sometimes all day. Sometimes we wouldn’t come back until dinnertime. We’d bring our Barbies into the woods and play in the streams and we’d have so much fun.”
Maggie describes how she and her sisters built tree swings, teepees and shelters. She tells me how much influence her father had on her pursuit of the life and career of an environmental steward. Meanwhile, I’m basking in the beauty of this farm, which I have no doubt she will eventually secure. We are quietly greeted by Bertha and Gertrude, two elderly cows, faces full of meadow grass, their broad brown markings like weatherworn blankets across their sturdy backs. They have their work cut out for them as the only landscapers on the property, tending to the meadows and paths.
“You see those plants, Ben?” Maggie asks, pointing. “The cows refuse to eat multiflora rose and black swallowwort because they’re poisonous. They can tell.”
Next, Maggie shows me the massive sunken stone foundation of the Thomas Stillman homestead, which was abandoned at the time of his wife Charlotte’s death in the late 1800s. Before heading back, we stand in a meadow at the crest of a hill. Traces of river and village windows flicker below. All around I can see brilliant goldenrod, and pollen-drunk butterflies staggering in the soft breeze.
By the end of our walk, I’m a believer. I realize that we’re on land that has, up to now, maintained its independence from British King to Burger King. This is a place beautifully apart from the humming highway, the hotels and other places that care for Mystic’s many guests. But Mystic must protect its treelines and the interior forest species below. They are not guests, they’re a part of this community!
I finish my walk fervently wishing that a few good philanthropists will come forward to help Maggie and her volunteers finish this noble, necessary task.
At the nature center parking lot, Maggie calls out and waves goodbye. In that instant, I remember the childhood moments good and bad that forged my simple affection for woodland critters and deep appreciation of nature. I wince, thinking about the unfortunate duck, and the lucky red-tail hawk that Maggie, the Denison Pequotsepos staff and volunteers will care for when it returns from the veterinarian.
Above all, I see a kindred spirit in Maggie, who parlayed a playful child’s passion into a dream career. This is good stuff to teach kids, I conclude as I watch Maggie hop onto her bike. She’s riding off, I imagine in a straight line, like so many of the birds she identifies by ear from their distant calls.
Want to help save The Coogan Farm?
Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center
860/536-1216 • firstname.lastname@example.org