Sitting in their screened porch, overlooking 100 acres of preserved field and forest, Wayne Meeks and Judith Colton speak of a much broader view. “When you preserve the land you also preserve the community,” Meeks says. They summer in Charlemont and visit at other times during the year, actively engaging with neighbors, people who have lived there for generations.
For Meeks the trip from New Haven to Charlemont and from professor to land preserver spanned decades, and it has always been about community. Friends who had friends who had friends led Meeks and his late wife Martha to Legate Hilll Rd.
In the late 1960s, Meeks explains, some Yale classmates happened upon Savoy State Park and this area. Eventually one, Paul Sampley, bought a ”little piece about a mile down the road…and put up a tar paper shack.” Friends gathered in the area, renting other houses. “We all had work parties,” Meeks recalls, to help the Sampleys build. “This just became summer for us.”
In 1982, the house Meeks now owns came on the market. “Having hiked by here through the years and loved the view, we immediately started inquiring,” Meeks says. “It had been sold. But the deal had fallen through. We made a low offer which was accepted, and in late 1984 we found ourselves the owners of this place.”
In 1994 Meeks received a letter from Franklin Land Trust director Mark Zenick, and he and his wife began the process to conserve about 100 acres, 83 1/2 acres in forest and the rest in field. “When we bought the land it was already in Title 61, forest management. We wanted to continue that.” To that end, they hired foresters Mary Wigmore, and later Scott Sylvester to create a healthy forest. Their forest plan takes much into account: soils, wildlife, the kinds of vegetation that will do best in each specific section, how much to take for cordwood and how much for serious lumber, where the forest should be thinned, taking out weed trees, creating trails for hiking, skiing and snowshoeing. “At the same time, we are selecting species that will be most successful for that soil condition,” he says. And, he says, “The search was on to find a few beech trees that were resitent” to the the pervasive fungus. They have found one!
For Meeks and Colton, connection through the land to the people who live here is primary. “That’s what this whole community is about,” Meeks says. The Hicks family, long-time Heath and Charlemont residents, have mown the field for years, taking hay as payment. “Norman Hicks was always a stalwart pillar of this community,” Meeks says. “He had a sawmill beyond that first hollow…he knew every tree personally. He could tell you, ‘That tree over there really is productive.’”
Because they cherish the community in Charlemont, they’ve worked to create something similar in New Haven, devoting time and energy to the New Haven Center for Yale Retirees, and to an “extended village.” “We have gotten together with other seniors who want to stay in their own homes, and created a Charlemont-like support system,” Colton says. “We ended up rolling up our sleeves. We’ve met the most amazing friends.” It’s a learning they have carried back, from the country to the city.
In Charlemont, they also appreciate the quiet times. Meeks makes cabinets and furniture in his workshop. Colton has created a large perennial flower garden. And then they relax. It’s a place where they can “just stare at the landscape,” Colton says. Whenever they make the drive from city to country, Meeks says, “I suddenly feel as if somebody has opened a window.”