Above: Green salamander (photo by JJ Apodaca)
Sisters help protect salamander and bat habitat in creating outdoor classroom
by Frances Figart
Not long after they co-founded the Community of the Transfiguration as a religious order for women in the Episcopal Church, Mother Eva Mary and Sister Beatrice Martha came from Cincinnati, Ohio, to the mountains of western North Carolina seeking respite from the stress of their work. After three weeks in the Esmeralda Inn in Bat Cave in June of 1901, they rented a cottage for the rest of the summer for $10 a month.
Gaining strength and peace from their retreat in the natural world, they soon began to look for property in the Hickory Nut Gorge that they could use on a regular basis. They found an old three-room farmhouse high on a hillside above the rocky Broad River with a magnificent mountain view. They leased the house for $25 a year for several years, eventually buying it.
The old cottage underwent many renovations, including the addition of a lovely long covered porch and a second story. By the end of the 20th century, however, it was well over a hundred years old and in need of major repairs. The new generation of sisters made the difficult decision to tear down the old house and replace it with a modern structure, retaining much the same footprint and appearance with a long porch and several comfortable bedrooms. It was completed in 2001.
“The aspect that always touches me deeply is the silence of the mountains, the song of the river and the tree frogs in the evenings,” says Sister Teresa M. Martin, superior of the Community of the Transfiguration. “The porch is a wonderfully peaceful place to live into the mystery and beauty of the universe surrounding us.”
Sister Teresa was last here this past spring with several colleagues to accept the 2016 Lela McBride Award from the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC). The trust annually presents the award—named for its founder—to individuals who have made significant contributions to land conservation and stewardship in the region.
“The aspect that always touches me deeply is the silence of the mountains, the song of the river and the tree frogs in the evenings,” says Sister Teresa M. Martin, superior of the Community of the Transfiguration.
In 2015, the Community of the Transfiguration placed 410 acres of its Bat Cave property into a conservation easement and conveyed the title to 368 of the conserved acres to CMLC. The order will retain ownership of 42
acres immediately surrounding the retreat house, and the rest of the land will be managed as the Hickory Nut Gorge Teaching and Research Reserve. It will be made available for use by local schools, colleges and other educational programs by arrangement with CMLC.
“This beautiful and pristine land has been and continues to be a great gift to us,” says Sister Teresa. “Above all we want to see it protected and gently used in a way that will honor it and will give back a new vision for the larger community.”
In a 2006 CMLC study, the Transfiguration property ranked as the number-one priority for conservation in terms of its beneficial impact on protection of water quality in the Upper Broad River watershed. The property provides habitat for rare species such as the green salamander (Aneides aeneus) and tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus).
Sister Teresa says she has often heard and seen bats circling in the twilight. “They frequently found their way inside the old house, which was always a challenge,” she says. “I’ve never seen any of our famous salamanders in spite of looking for them. But they prefer the rocky inaccessible mountainsides.”
Currently, Warren Wilson College professor J.J. Apodaca and his students are using the Hickory Nut Gorge Teaching and Research Reserve property to gather data for their work on the genetics of the green salamander, which is endangered in North Carolina.
CMLC is dedicated to protecting and stewarding land and water resources vital to our natural heritage and quality of life and to fostering appreciation and understanding of the natural world. Since 1994, the land trust has protected more than 30,000 acres in western North Carolina.
CMLC’s land protection director, Tom Fanslow, who helped facilitate the Transfiguration property easement, says, “The Sisters’ conservation ethic set a high standard for CMLC to follow in creating an outdoor classroom.”
Since moving to the Asheville area in 2012, Frances Figart has worked to raise awareness about the work of local land trusts through her writing.