Preserving the Land Behind the Man

One of the best things about being the CEO of a place like Montpelier is living and walking on the same ground that James Madison enjoyed. It forces you to picture the Founders as human beings. Madison, for instance, riding his horse, Tamerlane, along the edge of the wheat field that swept up from the entrance to the House, not too different from the way it looks today. Or imagine Madison studying ancient and modern confederacies in the upstairs library looking to the Blue Ridge and over-seeing the fields stretching to the tree line…a landscape still largely intact. If you walk in the footprints of history, these types of pictures can fill your mind and change the way you relate to the past.

I began my career as an environmental planner working on everything from rural historic districts, scenic byways, and river designation, agricultural and forestal districts, conservation easements, growth management…and I put in my last shift before coming to Montpelier as a conservation advocate in Montana working for The Nature Conservancy on large-scale landscape conservation.

I’ve had many occasions to think about landscapes, what they mean and what they are trying to tell us. But until recently, I had not spent a lot of time thinking about James Madison and Montpelier in a conversation with one another about the nature of land, of the Earth, or what we sometimes, coldly, call “the environment.” As if it were an idea and not the ground beneath our feet, the air we breathe, the places that move us.

Don’t get me wrong, as a preservationist and conservationist, there was a part of me that was giddy when I was handed stewardship of 2,650 of the Virginia Piedmont’s most beautiful acres, coming as it did complete with a 200-year-old forest.

I used to think of the nature of Montpelier and of Madison’s contribution to the nation’s intellectual history as separate subjects for our cultural institution. I was interested, as a former COO at Monticello, in taking care of the place and making it more accessible, but I hadn’t really come to grips with the larger historical narrative the land at Montpelier affords until I read Andrea Wulf’s book, Founding Gardeners.

Since then, my view on James Madison and the environment have been constantly evolving. Andrea articulates Madison’s accomplishments, calling him “the forgotten father of American Environmentalism,” for articulating what amounts to a conservation ethic nearly 40 year before Thoreau’s, Walden. I don’t think she’s being hyperbolic. She’s speaking as someone who brings an international perspective to her subjects, and she was interested in Madison because of what he said to the Albemarle Society, first, and then for his work on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. She saw a systems thinker who was merging his philosophies on natural rights and natural science at the tail end of the Enlightenment.

To date, we have a 2,650-acre property with 700 acres under easement, a totally protected viewshed that includes the Blue Ridge, and over 8 miles of trails open to the public 7 days a week. We’re not where we want to be yet, but that’s not a bad place to start building a story that engages the public and the Commonwealth on the importance of developing an integrated framework that supports preservation, conservation, and agritourism efforts in the Piedmont.

We are still discovering and exploring all of the possibilities of using Montpelier to create a new model for cultural institutions to integrate their approaches to conservation, preservation, and recreation and we are also interested in thinking about the national and international dialogue we could have at the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution about the environment.

Understanding the pressures on publicly-accessible open space and trails in Central Virginia, it’s a high priority for me to continue to open up new trails, to put more of our land under permanent easement, and to find ways of engaging younger generations with our property. As the weather begins to cool and leaves change, I hope you’ll stop by for a visit at Montpelier. Take a stroll the forest, or hike the trails -- we are working hard to make the Father of the Constitution AND American Environmentalism proud.

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