By Emily Reily
Growing up on Long Island, 25 miles from Manhattan, Michael Nerrie often spent time in the woods or around the local farms, creeks and swamps.
“I remember sitting in the farm fields across the street form our house, eating their rhubarb and going to see their cows.” But when he turned 12, the open land started disappearing.
“All of the wetlands that I used to frequent, all the streams I used to go to and collect frogs and salamanders, all that was gone,” said Nerrie, of Walpole.
“Wetlands were not considered important. So they literally filled them all in,” Nerrie said of the developed land.
Seeing the landscape change and vanish in front of him impacted him greatly, and he never forgot that experience. Nerrie, now 72 and CEO of Distant Hill Gardens and Nature Trail, and his wife, Kathy, self-professed “1960s back-to-the-land hippies,” knew what they had to do.
“I had that history of knowing what development can do to community. And I didn’t want that to happen here,” he said.
They began buying and conserving the surrounding land, adding to the original 21 acres. Today, the 155-acre Distant Hill Gardens and Nature Trail, which straddles Alstead and Walpole, is in a conservation easement to protect it from future development.
Diverse and thriving landscape
Distant Hill has a healthy roster of biodiverse features, including about 450 varieties of labeled plants, a managed forest, a milkweed meadow, a pollinator meadow, a cranberry bog, a restored sugarbush, and 11 vernal pools. There’s also a mile-long wheelchair and stroller-accessible trail, a beaver pond, more than 30 species of native trees and 150 acres of forest. They are also improving a teaching pavilion.
Wildlife at Distant Hill includes bears, coyotes, bobcats, deer, porcupines, skunks, various weasels, otters and minks. A geology trail is 50 percent wheelchair-accessible and has 10 different rock outcroppings.
Besides conservation, one of Distant Hill’s goals is to forge connections between people and the outdoors. According to Nerrie, there’s more than one way to do that.
“Gardening is one way of getting people connected. There’s some people who don’t want to garden but they want to hike. So that’s another way of getting connected outdoors,” he said.
Distant Hill also strives to educate kids about nature conservation. They’ve created play spaces and jungle gyms from repurposed, donated materials. Nerrie also makes nature sculptures from found metal objects. In the winter, they provide donated snowshoes for kids to walk the trails. The kids return them when they’re done.
“I’m a big believer in repurposing — have been all my life,” Nerrie said.
Every month for the last three years, Distant Hill has partnered with local library to create “storywalks” on the Nature Trail using children’s books that emphasize movement, discovery and exploration — a form of “nature-based education.”
“We strive to inspire children and adults, no matter their ability, to cultivate an intimate connection to the natural world, to education, observation and play,” Nerrie said.
Trails are maintained by volunteers of all ages, including an active 6-year-old and his family.
“He is extremely good with loppers and uprooting of trees. He was unbelievably helpful. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do, is to get the next generation to understand that. Even if you have to work to keep it nice and usable, it’s still fun to be outdoors,” added Nerrie.
Helping now and for the future
Over time he’s noticed how the climate is changing. Springtime vernal pools, home to growing salamanders and frogs, are drying out quicker these days, and coyotes are thinning out.
But Distant Hill won’t end once the Nerries are gone. Hannah Silverblank of Walpole and her husband, Rowan Norlander-McCarty, longtime family friends of the Nerries, agreed to become future stewards to help sustain the now-thriving ecosystem.
A research academic, Silverblank was immediately on board.
“I was thrilled at the idea of participating in a project that is so meaningful to the local community (both human and nonhuman). I relish the opportunity to nourish this land as well as to learn from local experts and deepen my own knowledge in the process,” she said in an email.
“They were looking for people that could help with this organization, the next generation, and that became us, which was great,” said Norlander-McCarty.
After living and working in New York City and Philadelphia, the couple decided to settle here. “We’re pretty much just trying to sponge up all the knowledge that we can,” he said.
But the couple also wanted their first child to experience nature the way her dad did.
“It was important to me that she was able to grow up running around forests, like it was really foundational to who I became,” said Norlander-McCarty, a cabinetmaker who grew up in Alstead.
Their daughter, Willow, 19 months, already seems to have caught the nature bug.
“She’s always asking me to go out; she hates being inside now. She just wants to crawl around on the grass. Practicing her walk and picking up little stones is where she’s at right now,” her proud dad said.
The nature trail wasn’t created until Norlander-McCarty was in high school, but he remembers connecting with nature and loved swimming in the pond.
Silverblank said the trails and gardens are “magical places” to watch the changing seasons.
“My favorite places are the bog, which roars with choruses of frogs in the summer; and the pollinator garden, which brings so much vitality and constantly shifting scenery to the area,” she said.
Another long-term goal has been to make Distant Hill more accessible.
In 2013, Nerrie took an accessible trail building class at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield.
“Our Distant Hill property was a good candidate for a wheelchair-accessible trail, and the rest is history,” Nerrie said.
“It’s difficult to walk in New Hampshire because the shoulders are narrow on the roads. The forests are generally pretty thick and (have) rough terrain. So it’s a great resource for people who just want to take a walk — which doesn’t seem like a hard thing to do, but sometimes space doesn’t allow. We have a lot of daily traffic,” Norlander-McCarty said.
There was no specific reason for emphasizing accessibility: that’s just how Nerrie has always given back.
“As a grade-school student, my brothers and I would hold fundraisers for an orphanage in Omaha, Nebraska, called Boy’s Town. In my 20s I was a mentor for teenage boys through Big Brother Big Sister in Keene, and for all 10 years of my 40s, I was a ‘puppy raiser’ of guide dog puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind based in Yorktown Heights, New York. Developing the accessible trail was just the natural next step in my journey of helping those less fortunate,” Nerrie said.
Donations go to trail maintenance and materials, like landscape fabric and gravel. Distant Hill offers social events and free workshops, like vernal pool walks.
For more information, call 603-756-4179 or visit distanthill.org