Mr. Conservation -June 2018
For nearly 50 years Jim Lentowski has been the face of conservation on the island ... That’s about to change.
by: John Stanton
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
There is a place, at the top of a little rise in the Shawkemo Hills, where you can clearly see the lighthouses of both Great Point and Sankaty in the distance. In the sightlines are the harbor and the sparkling inlets that flow off it, the sands of Coatue, and off to the west is the town of Nantucket defined by the white spire of a church steeple, and all around acres of land that were once sheep commons. To gaze across all this is to share a view through the eyes of people long gone, who once lived and died on a very different island.
Jim Lentowski knows how standing on this land, experiencing this moment, makes you feel. It is why he brought you here. It is why he has spent the better part of the last five decades making sure these places will be here for the next people to stand on and look back across the centuries.
“It’s places like this. You come to them and you can only be in Nantucket,” Lentowski said. “The sense of this place is here.”
Sense of place. It was the phrase people used before we all began speaking of sustainability. Even then it was only beginning to come into popular usage. This was back in the dawning of the age of ecology, when people began thinking in a different way about the places where they lived, when the idea of protecting open space was new.
“My generation of college students was sort of the first wave,” Lentowski said. “I look around the commonwealth now and several of my colleagues are retiring, all guys and women who went through the first days of environmental awareness. The environment became a common term. Prior to that I don’t even know what it was called.”
Lentowski is retiring this summer from a job he has done for 47 years. He is stepping down as executive director of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.
It was 1971, on the Fourth of July, when he stepped off the boat, with a newly-minted master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Massachusetts and a job at a newly-formed land fund called the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. He was its first hire, the first paid employee of an organization whose work had formerly been done on a volunteer basis.
“That first group of nine people had the presence of mind and the vision to say times are changing,” he said. “These guys lived in or near urban areas and came to Nantucket as seasonal residents. They understood that on the mainland change was happening to places they held sacred and they didn’t want to see developed, but they were.”
There were nine of them in the beginning, the founders: Walter Beinecke Jr., Tell Berna, Alcon Chadwick, Frederick “Fritz” Haffenreffer, Roy Larsen, John Lyman, Robert Mooney, W. Ripley Nelson and Charles Snow. They are all gone now.
By 1971 the Foundation owned about 1,000 acres, most of it at the Milestone Cranberry Bog. Larsen, vice president of Time, Inc., was not the first president of the group, but he was the driving force.
“He was a seasonal resident who lived out in Sconset for many years. He knew them all. So Roy reached out to these people and said we gotta try it,” Lentowski said.
“I can recall that even in the Amherst area there were farms being developed at that time. It was beautiful open land that developers could come in and start throwing up strip malls and housing developments and people just didn’t want to see that happen here.”
Lentowski was set up in a small bedroom, in a house owned by Sam Sylvia’s aunt Nellie. No kitchen privileges. You ate by walking down to Cy’s Green Coffee Pot at supper time, or over to the Sandpiper.
His salary was $9,000, and he said he has always been convinced he was only offered the job when the first choice – a man who had been his roommate for a while in graduate school and who Lentowski calls “eminently more qualified” – turned it down because he was married with a young child, and decided he could not make ends meet on $9,000.
He laughs at the memory. Asked what exactly his qualifications were for the job, or rather, which ones served him the best over the years, he said that he inherited his father’s love of storytelling. Then he begins a story about his first day on the job.
“I got dressed in a coat and tie to meet Roy Larsen on the corner of Main and Centre streets, 9 a.m. on Monday. Edith Anderson had a business-services office on Centre Street. Edith was Harold Anderson’s wife, he was the Hood Milk
distributor on Nantucket, and lived on Copper Lane. Harold was one of the owners of Ram Pasture with Bob Congdon, Al Silva and Dr. Mingus.
“I was shown to the back of their office and there was a space there that was probably a closet, with a little desk, and that was my first office space. No paper. No pencil. No typewriter. Just the desk,” he said.
It turned out that the week before Lentowski arrived on-island, the Foundation board had voted to buy 625 acres of Ram Pasture and agreed to pay $625,000 for it.
“I don’t recall much discussion between Roy and myself, when we met in Boston, that this was going to be a position that mostly involved fundraising. I’m a landscape architect, not a professional fundraiser,” Lentowski said.
“Fortunately, there was a woman named Margaret Yates who was a writer. She came from one of those families in the old days that in the winter lived in town and in the summer lived out of town. She would write these wonderful, almost poetic descriptions of properties. She used to refer to them as vignettes. That started the fundraising process to pay off the debt on Ram Pasture.”
Yates began her vignette by mentioning the land developers who were pressing hard to control its future destiny. Drive past the property, or past, say, Tupancy Links, and you can imagine what they would look like if those land developers had their way.
“All about, one comes upon traces of its history,” Yates wrote. “At its edge, over rolling moraine, spread the westernmost farmlands of old Sherburne; beyond, in a heavily wooded section a cleared space indicates where the Coleman farm stand stood earlier in this century, apple trees and a line of saggy lilac bushes, once cultivated, now flourishing in their wild state. Nothing else except a few broken timbers and an old well site remain.”
“I was at the daffodil show the other day,” Lentowski said. “A guy came up to me and said he had just been out to the dump and as he drove by Sanford Farm he had the thought of how awful that place would be covered in houses.”
A Story for Every Property
There are 141 parcels of open space now owned by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. Every one of them has a story. Lentowski knows all those stories and the people involved in them.
He knows what grows in the middle moors that does not grow many other places. He knows the way island history and geology are layered over each other like sediment in one of the kettle ponds. He knows where the glacier stopped and what it left in its wake.
He is not a scientist, although the Conservation Foundation employs four scientists to study the flora and fauna on its properties. He knows much of this the way a small-town mailman might know the people and places on his route: He walks them. He understands what they mean to people who live here, who visit.
“David Poor, when he was president (of the Conservation Foundation) liked to tell the story of going out to Coskata inlet with his father in a boat and sitting and marveling at nature, at the water flowing out of Coskata Pond and the fish in the water, and I suspect other creatures at the shoreline. It was a bonding experience he recalled having with his father and now his father is gone and he goes to that same spot with his daughters. He would say it was like being there again with his father, because it hasn’t changed,” Lentowski said.
Until the late 1980s, almost 75 percent of the property owned by the Foundation had been given to the organization.
“I never actively went out and solicited gifts of land,” Lentowski said. “People would come to me and say I have this piece of property, would the Foundation be interested in owning it? And so, then we’d start the conversation.”
Those gifts of land were given because the people who owned them wanted to make sure they didn’t change.
“These are people with a long relationship with the island,” Lentowski said. “When they take the slow boat, late in the afternoon, and they come across and way off in the distance they can start seeing steeples and treetops, it’s like they are home again.”
A transaction in which the currency is something different than simply money begins by developing trust.
“It’s that thing about having a sense of confidence with the person you’re talking to,” Lentowski said. “Literally, every piece of land has a story. Many of these properties are the result of several acquisitions. I knew all these people individually. And it was getting to know them, getting to know their families. We just hope it is contagious and future generations have the same interest in preserving that sense of place.”
He points to the University of Massachusetts field station on Polpis Road as an acquisition he is particularly proud of helping to make happen.
“It’s been 13 years since we first owned that place,” he said. “It was going to be developed. The university had several approaches by developer types willing to pay phenomenal amounts of money for the property. Two-thousand feet of beachfront on the harbor. All the upland they needed to build maybe eight lots in a dramatic location. At least I know that won’t happen and that place will not change.”
Learning the island’s geography, its geology, its history – and they all become part of the same thing to some people – will be the most difficult task for whoever is found to replace him when he retires, Lentowski said. It is a learning curve that sometimes takes decades.
“Whoever comes next will need to really understand the philosophy and continue along the path that’s been followed since 1963,” he said. “That hasn’t changed much. Fortunately, the people we have working with us have adopted that as their own philosophy or had that philosophy when they came to us. Somebody like Tommy Larrabee, who grew up watching what his dad was doing for 60plus years of running the cranberry bogs. That’s not something you just pick up overnight.”
A few weeks ago, Lentowski was at St. Mary’s attending mass, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Somebody wanted to talk about the Conservation Foundation. In the middle of mass. Lentowski shook his head at the thought. He stopped going to the beach a couple of years ago because people would stop him for the same reason, he said. He understands that this is a small island, some jobs follow you home, and personal time can sometimes be a misnomer. But still.
He also understands the irony that these connections are what he will miss.
“I don’t expect to walk away from it. I hope to maintain the relationships with the people I have become familiar with over the years. The storytelling that still goes on in the post office and Stop & Shop. I hope to maintain that personal contact.” ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. His work appears regularly in Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.