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  • There is a little piece of land along the western shore of Lake St. Catherine in southwestern Vermont. You can find it if you look carefully for the humble sign for the Wells Town Park, the dirt pull-off, the un-landscaped parking area, the simple boat access.

    For most of recent history, all of the land surrounding the lake has been peppered with private cabins owned by people from away. For the locals, there was no place to access the water in their own town. All they could do was drive the road around the lake, peeking in between cabins to catch a glimpse of the view.

    About five years ago, the last of the Delany sisters passed away. Their property -- which included 1300 feet of undeveloped shoreline -- went on the market. Selectboard member Rich Strange and my husband Donald (who conserves land for the Vermont Land Trust) put their heads together and conceived of a plan to put in a cash offer on the property just days before three out-of-state developers were set to come in and swoop up the parcel. The offer was accepted. The community and the Land Trust then had to quickly raise $750,000 -- an ambitious task in a town of 1150 people.

    Rich and my husband worked very closely for several months and became friends. Donald learned that Rich didn’t really want to be on the select board. He has a quote from him on a yellow sticky note taped to his computer: "I don't much care for other people but I do see their point of view." Rich was a very private person, but he was also a very compassionate person. It was in him; he had to help.

    Raising the money to purchase this land for the town involved the entire community.

    One venerable elder Barbara Godspeed who always had her nose in things attended every town meeting on the topic. She said, “I just wish one nice thing in Wells could stay the way it used to be.”

    Not everyone was supportive of the project. One of the resistors was Town Clerk Nora Sargent’s father, Felix. Nora told her father, “Dad, don’t you know that my strongest memory from my childhood is you taking me bull head fishing from that spot? Wouldn’t it be nice if all the kids could fish there with their father?”

    Barbara, Nora, Rich and many others got their wish. Thanks to a lead grant from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, they raised the money and now the community has access to the serene lake. Felix became a champion for the property. He built the picnic tables. He picks up the trash. Rich and his partner Ellen of 20 years finally got married, last November, on this little piece of land.

    One day this winter, my husband was traveling in central Vermont and was desperate for a WiFi connection. He found one in the lobby of the Rutland Regional Hospital. As he was typing away on his laptop, Rich’s wife Ellen walked by. Donald learned that Rich had been diagnosed with cancer. Ellen had to go home and take care of a few things and she asked if Donald would be willing to go up and keep Rich company for a bit.

    Donald spent several hours with Rich that day. They talked about mundane things and they talked about life. Donald was encouraging and supportive, telling him that he can beat this thing. Rich was relaxed. “I'm okay. I feel good about my life's work.” They said goodbye with something more than a handshake as Rich was rolled away for some kind of test or treatment.

    That was the last time Donald saw Rich; he had no idea then that Rich's cancer was terminal, and that he would be dead within two weeks.

    This weekend, family and friends gathered at the park for a picnic following Rich's service at the local cemetery. It was a stellar spring day, the very day that the leaves on the red maple trees were bursting out and proclaiming the season. Everyone brought food. Many were wearing short-sleeved shirts and straw sun hats. Everyone talked about how much they loved and missed Rich.

    At the park, you can put in a kayak and get out to the middle of the lake, rest your paddle, and look back at the shore. You can look at the farm across the road, and the mountains on the other side. You can drift quietly and think. You can think about how serendipitous life is and how important land is. You can think about how wonderful people are and how death eventually comes to us all. Or you can think about anything else that comes to mind.

    All this, from this little piece of land along the western shore of Lake St. Catherine in southwestern Vermont.
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