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Moonlight walk shows off Leary Field conservation effort

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Moonlight hikers head up Leary Hill on a recent moonlight walk to highlight conservation efforts. (Kate Wilcox photo)

Moose Mountains Regional Greenways (MMRG) held a guided Moonlight Walk in October to showcase its Leary Field & Forest (LF&F) conservation project on Bob and Debbie Leary's property in Farmington. Twenty people came out to learn about LF&F's important natural, recreational, and historical assets. The program featured naturalist Sally Cornwell of Wolfeboro, who shared traditional Native American stories while the harvest moon rose in the view shed.

Several months ago, the Leary's approached MMRG to request help with conserving the 63-acre LF&F, its special values being prime farmland soils and recreational opportunities. This land also directly connects to other conserved parcels: the 210-acre Thompson Family Conservation Easement and 73-acre Leary Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). MMRG Executive Director Patti Connaughton-Burns explained MMRG's long-term goal to first conserve and ultimately purchase the LF&F and WRP, a total of 136 vital acres that sit within the Cocheco River watershed, with 2.1 miles of trails that weave through LF&F and WRP, and impressive views from Leary hill that extend to the seacoast. Before the hikers set out, Connaughton-Burns handed out a trail map and described how LF&F fits into MMRG's conservation priorities, as outlined in its new Conservation Action Plan, 'Our Home, Our Land, Our Tomorrow.'

Along the trails, Cornwell pointed out natural features, such as a 50+ -foot tall white pine, impressive to look upon today, but which would have been dwarfed by trees four times its size a few hundred years ago, before the forests were cut by European settlers. Another impact of settlers was the plantain plant, one of the first known invasive species of this continent, perhaps brought as seed in the soil used as ship's ballast. Although invasive, plantains have some valued uses: the early leaves can be eaten in salads or later crushed and applied to soothe after an insect bite.

Between two hayfields, Debbie Leary pointed to the stone foundations from the first known settlers. Atop Leary hill, with a twilight view of the mountains behind him, Bob Leary spoke of the rich agricultural soil, recalling that when his father purchased the field in 1950, "It was all in Blue Hubbard squash." Conserving this land protects the soil, a valuable resource; it also honors his father's wishes, who used to say 'It's okay if it grows up to bushes, as long as it doesn't grow houses.' Bob added, "I'm convinced that in future years, people may be looking for a place to grow food."

As the sky darkened, a shooting star streaked across, a gold moon rose behind the mountains, and a bat darted and swooped by. Hikers enjoyed picnic suppers while Cornwell entertained with traditional Native American traditions tales, like 'How Coyote was the Moon'. Then, facing the woods below, Cornwell called to the Barred owls, who responded with their signature hoot: 'Who cooks for you?'

On the return, hiker Lee Prescott expressed his delight that this land will continue to exist as a farm with public access and to remind us of those who walked the land before us. MMRG has initiated the project fundraising and secured partial funds from the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Agricultural Lands Easement program, to ensure that LF&F remains in agriculture, forever. MMRG also received a generous financial pledge from the Farmington Conservation Commission and has applied for additional grants. To match the grants, MMRG seeks donations from individuals. Those wishing to support the project may contact MMRG Executive Director Patti Connaughton-Burns at (603) 473-2020.

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