In 1998, deep into Phil Bredesen’s second term as mayor of Nashville, he and his wife, Andrea Conte, invited a group of environmentally minded friends and colleagues to their home for a social evening with an agenda: to discuss ways of preserving green spaces in Davidson County and beyond. Specifically, Bredesen and Conte wanted to float the idea of bringing land trusts — a concept that had long worked in other parts of the country — to Tennessee. Through the use of conservation easements — tailor-made legal documents that specify how a tract of land can be used in the future — landowners can secure the preservation of their property while also maintaining ownership and the right to designate heirs. The land remains in the family, in other words, but its future use is limited by the terms set out in the conservation easement.
The Land Trust for Tennessee was officially chartered in 1999 to “preserve the unique character of Tennessee’s natural and historic landscapes and sites for future generations.” So far, more than 200 landowners have partnered with the Land Trust to create conservation easements that now protect 75,000 acres in Tennessee — family farms, historic buildings, rural lands, even an arboretum. “Collectively, these ‘saves’ guarantee that an expanding portion of our state’s geographic and historic treasures, some of which are older than the state itself, will still look the same centuries from now,” writes Jeanie Nelson, president of the Land Trust for Tennessee, in the introduction to Home to Us: Six Stories of Saving the Land.
A lavish new coffee-table book, Home to Us features the stories of six very different families who have preserved their lands through conservation easements. The book was written by Varina Willse and includes photographs by Nancy Rhoda. Willse recently answered questions about the project via email.
You grew up on a sixth-generation Robertson Country farm yourself, so I can see that this book was the perfect project for you, but how did the Land Trust come to recognize what you would bring to the book?
It was really a case of being in the right place at the right time, as so many things are. I happened to be at a Land Trust event, back in the fall of 2009, because a friend of mine, Vadie Turner, was hosting it and invited me. At that gathering, I got into a conversation with Jeanie Nelson, the president of The Land Trust for Tennessee, and she was pointing out the landowners in the crowd, growing more and more excited by telling their various stories — explaining how so-and-so had a father who had been struck by lightning on his farm, and so-and-so who had ancestors who fought in the Civil War on his property, and on and on. The more she talked, the more I stood there thinking: She needs to do a book. When I said so, Jeanie turned it around immediately and said, “You need to do the book!” The next thing I know, she is on the microphone, telling the crowd about it.
Even still, it might have been one of those cocktail conversations that don’t carry past the party. But I was expecting twins at the time and had already decided to quit full-time teaching in order to raise them. I was at this crossroads in my life, and I knew I wanted to write more, and then this conversation occurs, and something on the landscape shifts. I remember leaving that night — underneath this radiant sunset — and feeling like I had been at that party for a reason.
I’m struck by the mix of stories in Home to Us — from tiny hardscrabble farms that have been in the family for generations to a lakeside architectural showplace nestled among country music stars’ homes. Are there any common qualities generally shared by people who partner with the Land Trust?
These are people who are grounded, literally. They know who they are, they know where they come from, and they know what virtues they stand on — one of which is the conviction that there is nothing more valuable than land. I like the way Nancy Rhoda, the book’s photographer and now my dear friend, explains it: “Each family has a connection to the land as though it were a family member. They have an understanding of the importance of nurturing the land through its use, tending its care, and enjoying its beauty. They know the nature of their land is alive; it changes, it grows, it needs protecting.”
In most cases, the children and grandchildren of your profile subjects fully supported the decision to preserve family land, but you hint that the decision to partner with the Land Trust was a source of controversy in a couple of the families you profiled. Without betraying any confidences, can you describe what people generally objected to when objections were raised?
Any decision that is lasting, that in this case is everlasting, is a big decision. And I think some people are, understandably, scared of signing away possibilities: the possibility of getting the most money for it, or the possibility of building on it in a different, unforeseen way, for example. But signing away the possibility of that land’s ever being developed — that’s the bottom line for the many families who make this choice. Nothing is more important to them, because it allows them to protect their land — to protect the land in our state — and save it for future generations. That is how home to me becomes home to us.
For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.