Ron and Nina Coler are about as local as you can get. “I grew up in Buckland and Ron grew up in Ashfield. We met in high school,” Nina Coler says. “We lived in the same dorm at Umass, Amherst.”
But then they went away, to Norwell, Massachusetts, where Ron started an engineering and consulting firm. It was being away that brought them back, and caused them to place a Conservation Restriction on 78 acres of their land. “We chose Norwell because it had an old orchard, an old farm,” Nina says. “We lived there seven years. Before we left it was gone—developed, congested and unpleasant. We saw first hand what can happen if land isn’t protected.”
“Growing up here,” she continues, “we had such a connection to the land.” She recalls summer Sundays at Catamount Pond, skiing and cookouts in the snow “on other people’s land,” she says, “when you could go on trails in the woods.”
“We are very preservation-oriented,” Ron says. “We believe in envelopes for nature.” Their motivation to preserve came from their desire to protect the natural environment and the ecosystem, he says. They didn’t choose a “public use” option for their conservation restriction. Instead, they invite people to use it. They also reserved timber management rights, enabling them to cut firewood for non-commercial purposes, trail maintenance, and some additional specifics. Though they didn’t include their heirs in the decision-making process, Ron says, “We knew they were like-minded.”
Walking on a wide swath that cuts through a mix of hardwoods and evergreens, Ron says, “What we are on is a skimobile trail.” And the noise? “We don’t mind it,” Nina says. “We can see the lights at night.” There is some comfort in that, she explains, knowing someone is out there, enjoying the land.
They built their off-the-grid house and created a sustainable lifestyle at the end of a dirt road in Ashfield. They could have become self-contained, solitary. But that’s not their way.
Their driveway leads through an orchard, several garden plots, and past eight bee hives on a wagon surrounded by an electrified fence. “Bears had been destroying my hives,” Ron says, so he hung bacon slices on the fence. They quickly learned to stay away. Recently he watched bears grazing in the field, he says, “but they never went near it.”
An array of solar panels connects with 24 batteries, supplying enough electricity to power computers, television, radios, lights, all they need. Their cellar houses the batteries and an inverter which converts the DC power to AC. It also contains a large room with wine bottles lying on their sides, cork side out, row upon row. “People are always coming here to learn about bee-keeping and wine-making,” Nina says. And they have offered numerous tours to help others learn about “the off-grid way of life.”
But their community involvement doesn’t stop there. Nina is now a member of the Franklin Land Trust Board of Directors, and both Colers have begun training to become volunteer stewards for FLT, which will entail monitoring other conserved properties on a yearly basis.
Nina is also an Ashfield volunteer park commissioner, hiring and keeping track of lifeguards and managing park property surrounding Ashfield Lake. She is on the board of the Ashfield Community Hall, and is in charge of hall rentals. She organizes the book sale for the fall festival. She is a skilled water color painter, and sells many of her paintings and prints at Shelburne Arts Coop where she is a member. She knits, hooks rugs, and then there is her newest pursuit—“I’m taking dance classes again after a 28 year hiatus,” she says. Nina has always been active in her community. “I was a full-time volunteer when the kids were in school,” she says. “I helped to start curbside recycling in Norwell.”
Much of Ron’s time is spent as a newly elected Select Board member in Ashfield. And, Nina adds, “He helps me in the park.”
For Ron, every old stone wall and foundation has meaning. “They’re a testament to the time when people built things to last generations. Each farmer could only accomplish so much in a lifetime so multiple generations were required to clear the land and scratch out a living. These old walls and remnant foundations are truly monuments to a time gone by and are certainly something to be respected and preserved.” Recently he researched and wrote an article about the genealogy of their land for the Ashfield Historical Society.
“Ron would never take apart a foundation or stone wall,” Nina says. “It’s sacrilegious. When we look at those cellar holes and foundations we know intimately what those people were like, because we’ve done a lot of research on them.”
“There’s a lot of history on this property,” Ron says. “One of my projects is to clean out those foundations. I’m wondering what kind of a treasure trove it might be. It goes back to Revolutionary times. I feel a certain amount of awe.”
Both Colers are now adding to the work of generations. They have recently reclaimed a failed pond. “We went to the Conservation Commision,” Nina says, “and asked if we could repair it.” There is now a dry hydrant at the pond’s edge. Previously “there was no fire protection here for any of the houses,” she says. They plan to surround the pond with natural plants the birds will like. Nina has planted hundreds of daffodils—and not just at the pond.
Walking through a meadow near the house, she says, “We aren’t people who dislike winter. It’s the change that makes it so wonderful. When spring comes it’s so exciting.
She points through now-bare trees to hills in the distance. “In summer it’s a green tunnel,” she says. “When it snows, we can see the fields in Hawley.”
Near their orchard, Ron has three large separate organic gardens in which he rotates the vegetables that sustain them year-round. That plan has helped him to avoid some of the blights that have recently occurred. “He’s the expert on canning,” Nina says. “I’m his prep chef.” Nina is in charge of the flowers. “All told we have an acre and a half of gardens,” she says. She points proudly to a new garden she created herself, digging through tree roots in what had been forest, and building a long stone wall.
The Colers heat their house with wood. As they harvest wood they simultaneously expand their trails. “I laid out the trails according to the lay of the land,” Ron says. “The trees we cut were our firewood. Every year we widen the trails, taking more trees.” For additional firewood, he says, “There’s so much dead stuff around…we take a lot of that.” Formerly people took the good trees and left the genetically inferior ones, Ron explains. He’s trying to promote a healthier stand, taking out twisted trees with multiple trunks which “don’t usually survive as long…. Bad stuff begets more bad stuff,” he says.
The trails they created hook up with an old cart path, once a road between Ashfield and Buckland. Here, stone walls built in the 1820s butt up against large oaks, trees originally left at the edges of fields, shade for animals. “They will push over the stone wall if I allow them to grow,” Ron says. Eventually, he will remove them.
The Coler land has a history, has been used, and should be used, they believe. So they haven’t put up “No trespassing” signs. “We bought some of this land from our neighbors,” Nina says. “Our neighbor remembers when he used to graze cattle up here.” Now, they have helped him to conserve part of his land too.
Their land is “one of the first places in New England permitted for natural burial,” Ron says. Energy-conscious, they were troubled by the thousands of calories needed for cremation. Natural burial requires that “you don’t pump the body full of formaldehyde,” Ron says. “The body is wrapped in a simple shroud, covered with four feet of earth and must be located a minimum distance from a public well. In our case, we have decided to mark the burial sites in a non-obtrusive way by laying the gravestone on its side, flat.” He and Nina have picked out their resting places.
Fascinated by the histories of people who have lived here before, Ron has thought of leaving his own written record. Like Aldo Leopold, who has greatly influenced him, he connects with the land “as a starting point,” he says. He recalls cutting firewood, sitting on a stump to enjoy the quiet and hearing the honking of birds, then looking up to see hundreds of snow geese high above him. “Their white forms seemed almost translucent,” he says, “unbelievably beautiful and very inspiring.”
“I love the combination of working hard and sitting down and enjoying what’s around me,” Ron says. “I love being busy. I love contstructing. I’m very involved with all of that work. That’s how I relate to the former owners.”
As they work and transform their land, they are creating their own stories. High up on a trail, the Colers have built a fire pit and plan to build a lean-to, a place to invite friends and to spend some quiet time. “One late afternoon,” Nina says, “I took my sandwich.” As she sat, she says, “I watched a procession of coyotes. They never even looked at me.”
For twenty years Ron worked three days of each week in Norwell and the remainder of the week in a local office. He recalls his drives home from the metro-Boston area. “As soon as I got to 116, I felt immediate relief.” Now he is living in Ashfield full-time, and “the town has become a big thing. Boston is wonderful but I love leaving it. To me,” he says, “this is pure peace.”