The Value of Natural Lands

by Christina Kessler-Sarson. When I was six years old, my family built a new house on a winding dead-end street in a beautiful shady valley. Before long, our yard seemed too small and we ventured out to the woods. Holding hands with Mom or Dad, we crossed Ridge Road and discovered new wonders of nature that had been absent from our Cleveland neighborhood.

Dad, who had grown up a few minutes away in North Royalton, told stories about coming to this area as a kid, and catching turtles with his brothers. Maybe he had even caught them where our house now stood. There were no turtles now, but we didn’t miss them; there were plenty of minnows, tadpoles, and salamanders to chase. We picked blackberries and discovered “fossils” along the banks of Big Creek – though at the time I didn’t realize this was the same water that I played in at my friend’s house in Brooklyn.

What we now know as Snake Hill Conservation Area was no pristine wilderness. It had a fantastic moonscape of an entry court along Ridge Rd., where fill and waste concrete had been dumped. Though the level surface was nearly bare, a jungle of vegetation grew from a few steep pits and depressions that hadn’t been filled in. Today I recognize the resilience of natural systems, pioneers on disturbed land reclaiming their places, creating conditions for the return of the forest. Back then, I peered down through the leaves and saw Land of the Lost. We continued deeper into the wood on tracks deeply rutted by ATV use, passing junked cars parked right in the middle of the creek. The rusting hulks became huge postmodern flowerboxes, with a profusion of orange jewelweed spilling from every broken window, until finally the cars disintegrated into unrecognizable scrap. To a child, these woods were unconquerable and wild.

I grew up among the briars and creekbed clay, and as I graduated to climbing trees and catching snakes, my siblings began to lose interest in the woods. They complained about bugs and scratches, and soon it was just Dad and me spending long weekend afternoons exploring. Surely this, I thought, was my natural habitat.

It wasn’t long before another habitat began to displace mine. The entire shape of the valley changed as houses and cul-de-sacs pressed in on it, and shifted the course of the creek itself. In addition to erasing swaths of wilderness, the new construction sent runoff and debris into the creek. Even in the areas that were outside the construction limits, I saw the vegetation changing; the quality of light under what was left of the canopy was different, and Canada geese started to appear at a new retention basin.

At first I blamed the newcomers – couldn’t they see that the land they were paving had so much intrinsic value? They were wasteful, irresponsible, and blind to the beauty they were crushing under their sprawl. Did they really need all the new parking, lawns, and houses? But I recalled Dad’s stories of catching turtles. It was only then that I understood. The pretty, private yard where I played catch and swam all summer had once looked a lot like the woods I loved. Long before these new incursions, my street had paved over the turtles.

The impregnable forest was falling. In high school biology, I had the opportunity to put my watershed to the test. Everyone brought in samples – of course I obtained mine from my favorite place on earth. We mixed the indicator chemicals, put the samples in the incubator, and returned the next day for our results. Most of the samples showed some yellow coloration, which indicated contamination by the fecal bacteria Giardia spp. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My sample was top-to-bottom yellow – the only one that read 100% contaminated. The situation was worse than I had thought.

At The Ohio State University, it didn’t take long for me to change my major from Veterinary Medicine to Natural Resources and Wildlife Management. I still remember the day, because I knew I was going in the right direction. Getting out of the clinics and back into the woods felt like coming home; to say my childhood in Snake Hill was an inspiration is an understatement.

Around the same time I also joined the Army, and started running often. When I visited my parents, I would run (and slog) through Snake Hill and pass the time by imagining the possibilities. I saw walking and jogging trails, with people from the new developments and the temple showing their children everything that I had grown up loving. Maybe if all the kids could see this, they wouldn’t grow up and build their houses on it.

Like most of those in the Army in the past decade, I spent a significant amount of time in Iraq, once in a 15-month stretch. I was fortunate enough to be on a base near Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, where he had constructed a huge man-made lake and canals. Here the desert gave way to rushes, and the smell of water and life overcame the dust. I would retreat here on Sunday mornings, when we were free for church services, and give thanks for the birds, jackals, and peacefulness I found on the banks. It was beautiful and exotic but also familiar. The water was a refuge and a promise of better things to come, and contact with nature refreshed my spirit for the coming week’s work.

When I returned to the U.S., I knew I wanted to do more than my Wildlife Management degree would allow. Armed with the G.I. Bill, I returned to school for a Master of Landscape Architecture. A landscape architect designs everything outside – “everything under the sky,” in the words of landscape architect James Corner in Time magazine – for both nature and people.

One day before class I received an email from my Dad. It was the Parma Sun-Post article announcing the purchase of the Snake Hill Conservation Area. I had had no idea that someone else considered this place so valuable. Something very right had happened, because of the vision of a dedicated group of people. I explored the watershed planning work WCPC had done. This was the first time I understood the full importance of the place I had grown up in. Only when people understand how much they are losing will they make an effort to conserve it; thanks to WCPC’s research and outreach, this is finally possible.

I have a long way to go before I am a practicing landscape architect, but I hope to be part of WCPC’s vision for Snake Hill Conservation Area. I owe no small thanks to Snake Hill that I am in this career today.

I hope to help bring us closer to the day when WCPC brings people and nature together and gives a new generation the same wonder and happiness I enjoyed in those woods.

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