The land conservancy that I invented for the town of Darby–the Salmon Trust– represents an idea that I believe in. I am a strong supporter of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF), a group that does very good conservancy work while at the same time advises land owners on how to profit financially from their property. It's a core New England value, mixing idealism with practicality, a union of environmentalism and the capitalism.
So if I'm a tree hugger, why did I portray Raphael "Reggie" Salmon, the driving force of the land trust in the Darby Chronicles, as one pretty close to being a mad man? I did something similar in my semi-autobiographical novel Never Back Down. In that book I invented a priest, Father Sebastian Gonzaga, who was a little crazy, even an object of ridicule, and yet the great man in my own life, my uncle and the man I named for, Joseph Ernest Vaccarest, was a priest. Why do I mock what I love the most?
I pose the question, but I do not have an answer. For me, fiction writing starts as an adventure into the out-there, but always ends up being an inquiry into in-here, my own state of mind, memory and history interwound. However, the insights and revelations come in code that is not easily decipherable and is always full of contradictions. I like the messiness of it all. Keeps me curious and eneregized.
For the moment, let me stick with what I know. Raphael "Reggie" Salmon (pronounced Sal-mohn) is based somewhat on Newt Tolman, a writer, philosopher, and musician in Nelson, New Hampshire, who was also one of my mentors. I based Reggie Salmon more on Newt's looks, not his personality. Newt was a big, handsome man, who managed to look bookish, sophisticated, rugged, rueful, athletic, and just a little bit dangerous (hard to tell whether to himself or to others) all at the same time. Newt was also creative and, in his writing and behavior toward others, very funny. My kind of contrarian. Fictional Reggie is humorless, driven, and when he senses a threat to his land trust, without conscience. About the only real thing they both had in common was ownership of large tracks of New Hampshire woodland.
Salmon–the Squire, as he is sometimes referred to–believes that the land is always more valid and more important than the claimant of the land. People, through their legal systems, devise property lines for the land; people use (and abuse) the land for their own purposes. But people die, legal systems collapse or simply change, and therefore human habitation and claims on the land are temporary. In the end, the land can have no ownership. Reggie Salmon knows all this. His solution to use money and human law to achieve his goal to keep land as much possible in a natural state. He is quite reptilian in the means he uses to achieve his goal.
Reggie passes on his beliefs to his grandson Birch Latour, who carries on, somewhat modified, Reggie's devotion to and management of the Salmon land trust. Birch is moral and, unlike his grandfather Salmon, empathetic to the human species, and yet in his own way Birch is as driven as Reggie to preserve the land trust. Birch, like myself, asks: Should one do bad things to achieve commendable goals? I have no answer to this old question. I pose it in my fiction, and leave it to my readers to come to their own conclusions. Perhaps in some future work we'll see how Birch deals with the question.
My model for the Salmon Land Trust is the Warwick Preserve in Westmoreland, New Hampshire. It's a forest of mixed hardwoods and softwoods in rugged terrain that includes granite ledges and mysterious stone structures. Built by early Colonists? Or maybe Native Americans? Who knows? Pardon me for repeating myself but I do not seek an answer; I like the mystery. I prefer questions to the (usually disappointing) answers.
I believe that the best reason for a land trust, or any such legal mechanism designed to preserve an environment, is that landscape plays a big role in determining human identity. Alter the landscape and you alter who you are, who your children will be, and in the end maybe the entire course of human history.
In the New England countryside, and indeed throughout the United States, yea, the world, from New Hampshire to New Mexico, from both sides of the Great Divide, from the Cajuns of the Louisiana bayous to the boat people of China ("drifting twigs," as they are sometimes called), you will find in the dwellings of ordinary working people a certain dishevelment that mirrors the natural landscape. Recently I drove through the beautiful hill country of central Texas when I came upon a yard of junk cars, trailer home; outside, the family sat around an open fire with skewers over a grill. To my eye the scene fit perfectly into the surrounding of cacti and mesquite bushes, no lawn. It was also familiar. I'd noted its equivalent in my road trips across the country, not to mention descriptions in my own writings derived from my own region.
A difference between people with ordinary and extra-ordinary income is that those with limited income often find ways to fit themselves into their landscape. Their more financially successful brethren show of their wealth by imposing themselves upon the landscape. Is this true? Well, not quite. Almost all of us humans reflexively attempt to impose ourselves on the landscape. It's just that the greater our resources the greater our success.
Perhaps the most pleasing landscapes (to the human eye) are a compromise between wild nature and the imposed humanscape. A garden would be such a compromise, or maybe even a well-architected golf course. A perfectly imposed humanscape without compromise would be a parking garage designed by a Brutalist architect. Even the surface of mars is less alien to my sensibilities than the terrain of a parking garage, but maybe you have different aesthetic. Which is the point I want to make. In the end nature doesn't matter. Nature is. Even if human intervention causes, say, global climate change, the result will still be nature. Nature is. What matters is human aesthetics bought to bear on nature. And aesthetics is just a kinder word for "imposed humanscape."
How close can we come to the best "garden," as it were, the best compromise between the natural world and our human desires for dominion. The Salmon Trust is my answer.