Letter From Bob Brown

Robert D. Brown 1930-2007

Letter by Bob Brown to West Meade Conservancy, March 2007

As a boy growing up in the Belle Meade Links during the 1930s and 40s, I loved to roam the wooded hills just south and west of home.

Countless happy hours were spend hiking with my dog exploring the Warner Parks in the early 1940s and then West Meade, still mostly woods and farm fields in the late 40s. By the end of the decade our destination was always the most distant ridge in West Meade. With its dozen or so spur ridges and hollows it formed an almost continuous belt of forest from Harding Road to Charlotte Pike.

To my youthful imagination this was a beckoning “wilderness” dark against the western sky, preserved much as it must have appeared to the early settlers two hundred years ago. As I recall it now the trees were tall and old. Oaks and hickories dominated the canopy on the ridgetops, and beeches and maples on the north-facing slopes. On the lower slopes and in the hollows the dominants were those of the mixed mesophytic forest.

The understory was generally open and mostly free from the exotic shrubs and vines that plague our woods today. Scattered across the upper slopes were patches of our native farkleberry, deerberry and azalea, and in the hollows, pawpaw, spicebush, and wild plum. A wide variety of native ferns and wildflowers carpeted the forest floor.

Springs fed the streams that drained each hollow. The one at the head of Jocelyn Hollow could always be counted on for a cool clear drink on the hottest, driest summer day.

An impressive dry-stacked stone fence that followed the spine of the main ridge was always an object of mystery to me. It was clearly a significant artifact of our community’s cultural history and deserved careful preservation. Whoever built it on this remote ridgetop certainly earned my respect for their workmanship and tenacity, I thought.

In 1986, W. Ridley Wills, II, told us in The Belle Meade Farm, Its Landmarks and Outbuildings that it was slave-built and was the longest unbroken segment remaining . . . a three-mile stretch of wall that snakes along the top of the high ridge which encloses Jocelyn Hollow on the north, west and south” – part of what in 1888 was the farm’s outer stone fence, 18 miles in length.

We seldom saw other people or dogs in our wilderness, but were always alert to the wildlife and enjoyed lots of brief sightings and some memorable long, quiet observations. Some individuals we saw so often they became old friends – a pair of red foxes in Jocelyn Hollow, a pair of red-tailed hawks nesting year after year in the same big white oak, a heavy-bodied timber rattler in the ridgetop wall, and a flock of crows whose calls I soon fancied I could interpret with help from an Ernest Thompson Seton essay on the subject.

In the fall and winter small game seasons I often carried my 20-gauge shotgun, kicking brush piles along the way for quail or rabbits, stalking a small abandoned quarry for doves getting gravel, or waiting patiently on the ridgetop for squirrels gathering nuts and acorns. A supper of Mother’s fried rabbit, braised and steamed quail or doves, or squirrel stew and dumplings was always a welcome end to the day.

We last visited our West Meade wilderness in the autumn of 1951. When I came home three years later after a stint in the military, our wilderness was gone, replaced by a growing residential subdivision, though a very beautiful and tastefully designed one. My old dog and I would never again walk the ridgetop fenceline, and I felt a deep sense of personal loss.

Over the next 50 years pursuing a lifelong love of our outdoors I have often felt again that pang of loss with an even greater urgency to not miss again an opportunity to save a threatened site of our state’s unmatched biodiversity, scenic beauty, or cultural heritage. For me it has been a touchstone and powerful motivator to join others so motivated, such as the members of the Nature Conservancy, the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation, the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, Tennessee Trails Association, and the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society.

Over the years we have had some sad losses, but, happily, in the last decade or so there have been some notable successes. The tide seems to have turned more favorable for conservation action at the grassroots citizens’ level.

Especially meaningful to me has been the wonderful news that our West Meade “wilderness” is not really lost, but much of it remains as I remember. Most wonderful of all is the rallying of an enthusiastic and dedicated group of West Meade neighbors with a carefully crafted plan to conserve the invaluable natural and historic values of their neighborhood forest.

In preserving this treasure for their families and descendants, they show the way for other neighborhoods in the Nashville community to do the same. And personally they bring me home again to a cherished place I thought was lost forever. So, best wishes, West Meade Conservancy!

To read more about Bob Brown, download this (PDF).

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