On the Path with Patti Smith


On most mornings, Patti Smith and Boomer the black lab can be found trekking to the Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve.

Michael Lach, Patti Smith, and Patti's trusty dog Boomer

Michael Lach, Patti Smith, and Patti’s trusty dog Boomer walk the trail at HCT’s Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve. Photo: Janet DiMattia

Back in 2001, the Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT) acquired the landscape found in the heart of busy Harwich Port. The more than sixty acres of upland and wetland comprise a long since retired cranberry bog system bordering the slow moving waters of Cold Brook that meander to Saquatucket Harbor on Nantucket Sound.

HCT had studied the potential for bringing back cranberries, but site conditions and a market surplus from areas like the mid-West made bog renovation unrealistic. So, HCT started on a path of ecological restoration.

“I take Boomer out and try to do a mile and a half to two almost every day,” Patti says. “We do the medium trail there. It’s nice. You see other people along the way. It’s beautiful. I’ve even snow shoed there.”

Patti loves the way the landscape changes with the seasons. Boomer likes the exercise, she says with a smile.

Trail map for the Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve

The land also holds a special place in Patti’s heart since the Preserve was named in her late husband’s honor. Back in 1988, Robert F. Smith (Bob) was a founding trustee of the Harwich Conservation Trust, and the board’s decision to name the land in 2015 shortly after Bob passed away, celebrates his legacy of saving special places.

“He would have liked that,” she says.


Local Land Trust Forms

The story of the Smiths’ arrival in Harwich is a familiar one. Both had vacationed on the Cape growing up. They met in college, married and moved to the Cape when Patti’s mother passed away and left a vacation home in town to Patti.

They eventually sold that home and moved into the large antique house they lived in for decades. The move to Harwich Port came as the couple got older and wanted to downsize.It wasn’t any one particular event or conversation that inspired Bob to join in the effort to start a land trust in Harwich, Patti recalls.

“There wasn’t one thing that said we need to start a trust,” she says. “It was more a general understanding of what was going on. In the seventies, lots of condos went up, development was increasing. And it wasn’t just in Harwich, it was Cape-wide. He found himself with a group of like-minded people, and the trust was formed.”

Today, Harwich Conservation Trust is one of many Cape town land trusts that work independently and collab-oratively to preserve properties. HCT now protects more than 575 acres.

“Harwich Conservation Trust carries the banner of letting people know how important it is to preserve land. When you preserve land, you main-tain our wildlife and our water quality. It makes for a better place to live,” Patti says.

“It’s hard to imagine not being able to walk down and see a clean beach or walk a trail through the woods. I was thinking the other day that the signs on HCT property send a message to visitors and homeowners and second homeowners that this is a town that cares about the environment and is willing to put money into protecting it.”

Ecological Restoration Evolves

Dilapidated flumes hinder water flow. HCT’s eco-restoration project seeks to improve water flow, wildlife habitat & walking trails. Photo by Bill Giokas

The Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve is the largest of HCT’s conservation properties and does more than protect wildlife habitat and water. Buried deep within the wet earth, in the wandering animal trails and ancient ways, in what grows there now and what doesn’t, lies a history of Harwich and its people.

Through the Cold Brook Ecological Restoration Project, HCT and project partners are working to restore the site to a more natural setting.

“The more I learn about it, the more excited I get,” Patti says. “All the sand is not original. It was brought in to create the commercial cranberry bog. Going down through it, eventually it turns to peat. That’s original.”

Patti explains that once the over burden of sand is removed, the underlying soil and peat contains the seeds of original wetland plants that grew there. With fresh sunlight, water and air, those seeds will be inspired to grow into plant life that thrived in the area long before the cranberry industry boomed in Harwich.

The restoration project is complex, involving the state Division of Ecological Restoration and the federal U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as well as Town partnership.

More than a century of agriculture resulted in an unnaturally straightened Cold Brook, steep stream banks, and deteriorating water control structures that inhibit water flow. When the area is restored to a more natural state and Cold Brook is able to flow more freely, migrating eels will benefit and the state Division of Marine Fisheries is also studying the potential for a restored river herring run.

Corks for Conservation

Corks from wine bottles. Shallow Dof

In addition to serving on HCT’s Board of Trustees, Patti created a new and different way to raise funds and reduce waste, one cork at a time. Several years ago, when she and Bob were moving out of their former home, clearing the attic, they found a bag of used wine bottle corks.

“I have no idea what we were saving them for,” she says with an infectious laugh. “We were selling things on eBay, crazy things: old graduation gowns, a bag of corks.”

To their surprise, the corks were snapped up quickly online.

“That got us thinking that it might be a project for the Harwich Conservation Trust,” she remembers.

Since then, Patti estimates they’ve sold more than 100,000 corks through the unique “Corks for Conservation” campaign. The corks sell from between 3 cents apiece to 10 cents. Patti boxes and sells them in 500-cork lots.

Crafters use them, Patti explains. She’s heard from some people that they’ve used them for back splashes, wreaths, even a floor.

“It’s fun and a little different,” she says, explaining corks are collected from restaurants and friends collect from other friends, then deliver them to HCT’s office. “It raises money and keeps something out of the landfill. It gets people involved in a fun way.”

Laughing, Patti remembers a call from an elderly woman who said she’d been collecting corks for years. When they went to her house to pick them up, the woman had a small bag with a handful of corks.

HCT’s Executive Director Michael Lach recalls another time when a fellow stopped by the HCT office with two 4-foot high bushel bags of corks, and as he lugged them inside, he made sure to clarify that “these are not all mine…”

Help Build the Nest

Beyond her volunteer work, Patti has supported HCT financially, too. Recently, Patti explains she made a donation through her Individual Retirement Account or IRA. When she needed to take a distribution from her IRA, she chose to give it to the Trust.

The process of donating was simple, she explains, and was handled quickly and easily by the investment company with whom she has her IRA. She points out that people interested in contributing that way don’t have to give the entire distribution, it can be done partially as well.

Through her will, Patti has also planned for a bequest to help support HCT’s “Help Build the Nest” endeavor. The goal of HCT’s “Help Build the Nest” effort is to create a sustainable source of funds that can help proactively preserve priority lands as well as steward them over time.

Their “Help Build the Nest” brochure describes HCT’s aspirations with vision and inspiration:

“Help us build the nest to preserve this special place. Established over 300 years ago, Harwich with its sandy beaches, sweet salty air, and welcoming beauty is a fragile place. We walk, bike, swim, and enjoy the outdoors in a setting that offers diverse natural habitats, a variety of wildlife, and scenic lands to discover.

But our quality of life is at risk from too much development. Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT) believes that saving land is smart, practical, and necessary for all of us and future generations. We are dedicated to land preservation, land stewardship, and community education. We ask you to stand with us through time to help protect our shared quality of life.”

The brochure describes four ways to “Help Build the Nest” including annual gifts, donations to endowment, bequests via will, and “homes for habitat” where a property owner can gift their house to HCT. At least two homeowners have participated in the “homes for habitat” program.

“By contributing to an endowment fund, donors are building HCT’s nest egg of funds that can make a real difference in preserving and caring for sensitive natural lands for all time,” says Michael Lach.

“What I’ve done is plan for a percent-age of my estate that will go to HCT,” Patti explains. “It’s a nice thing to do. I understand that some people, as they get older, don’t feel comfortable making an outright donation. They want their money to last. But by putting HCT in your will, you’re still making a lasting commitment. The older you get, the more you think of the next generation, and the one after that, and after that. It’s nice to think those generations will be able to enjoy what we’re enjoying.”

Land will always be expensive, Patti points out. By contributing to HCT’s financial future in her will, she’s helping to create a legacy of protected land and water for both people and wildlife.

Patti says she loves Harwich and the Cape and feels blessed to live here. Her volunteer work with HCT and philanthropy are reflections of that love.

“It all goes back to helping the overall, larger picture,” she says. “If I can help in ways to support the organization, which really cares about the environment, and takes care of the environment, well that brings me joy.”

By Susanna Graham-Pye