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Protecting the Land Gives Life Meaning
David Jones stopped at the edge of a mountain stream and dropped to his hands and knees, submerging his lips in the cold current of Transylvania County’s Johnson Branch. He gathered a mouthful of its crystal clear water and swallowed emphatically. Jones instantly appeared refreshed — rejuvenated not only in body, but in spirit.
“There’s something about getting down on your hands and knees and putting your face in the stream, without a cup or anything, and drinking directly out of it,” explained Jones. “It’s a profound experience.”
Jones’ drink was profound indeed. On the surface, it represents his trust in the cleanliness of the water — so pristine and untouched that he knows that it lacks contaminants that could make him sick.
His trust is thanks in part to a conservation easement held by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) on 61 acres through which Johnson Branch cascades. The easement ensures that the land surrounding the stream will always remain in its natural state — undeveloped, unlogged and practically untouched by human interference — forever keeping its water clear and clean.
Even more profoundly, Jones’ streamside sip was a fitting personification of his deep emotional connection with land that he dearly cherishes.
“I love this (land). This is my favorite place,” he said, pointing to a spot on the slope near a rock outcropping. “This is where I want them to sprinkle my ashes, right here.”
Periodically traveling from Florence, S.C., Jones formerly visited his father, Morgan, and stepmother, Betty — featured in June’s Stories of the Land column — at their Johnson Branch property south of Brevard. As an engineer, Jones’ professional lifestyle was in stark contrast to the natural setting that he enjoyed while visiting Western North Carolina.
“I was used to being inside all day, slapping a keyboard in a cubicle. Only fluorescent light hit my eyes. Then I would come up here and be out in the woods for just a few hours at a time. I would feel so refreshed being out here,” Jones recalled. “I knew there was something to this place,” he added, stretching his arms out toward the forest. “I felt pulled toward it.”
By 2007, that pull was so strong that Jones moved to the Johnson Branch tract to reside next door to his father and stepmother. Morgan and Betty, who had lived on the property since 1992, were already deeply connected to the land. Their conviction for it led them to preserve it forever, seeking CMLC’s aid to place a conservation easement on the tract in 2009.
Since his move, David and his wife, Kathy, have spent every available moment immersing themselves in the land — a process that has led to the discovery of caves, rock outcroppings, giant trees and waterfall after waterfall. Altogether, the Joneses have identified 12 significant falls and dozens more small cascades.
“It’s amazing to think that there are still a couple places we haven’t explored yet,” he said. “I bet we’ll find at least one more falls yet.”
In addition to wandering nearly every inch of the property, Jones constructed more than five miles of private trails throughout the tract, each leading to his favorite locales. Destinations include alluring names he bestowed such as Serenity Falls, Trillium Rock, Jesse James Hideout, The Man Cave and the Pillars of Hercules.
Most of Jones’ exploration is done barefoot — just one way in which he strives to feel the land in every way possible.
“Being out here is a visceral experience,” he said. “You smell it. You hear it. You see the light filtering through the leaves. When I’m out here, I interact” with the land.
Pointing at two tall adjacent poplars, Jones explained how walking between them and looking up at their canopy makes him feel. “It’s every bit as spiritual as walking into a cathedral and looking up at its vaulted ceiling.”
Countless places of natural wonder on the property have incited an equal emotional response for Jones.
“I don’t need any scientific proof to tell me what this place does to me. I know from direct experience that after a couple hours out here, this (land) chemically, physically and spiritually affects me.”
When he’s not maintaining the paths that crisscross the slopes of See Off Mountain, Jones’ favorite activity in the woods is simply doing nothing at all.
“All you really have to do is be able to sit back, be quiet and do nothing,” he explained. “It’s a magical experience. This (landscape) is a blank slate. It allows you to relax and embrace its indifference.”
While the Joneses relish their time spent in the forest at the Johnson Branch, they are quick to point out that they are only passing through.
“We see ourselves as stewards of the land. We’re not here to dominate it. Just because it is in the Jones name doesn’t mean that it needs to be cleared or wiped out,” Kathy Jones explained. “We’re guardians of this place,” David Jones added.
David and Kathy will ultimately inherit — from Morgan and Betty — the property to which they feel so connected. The land will come with CMLC’s conservation easement, always ensuring that it stays just how they love it — a natural setting in which to relax, reflect, and be inspired.
“We want to pass this on so that this place will always be a haven,” Kathy said.
“There’s really not a lot of heroic things left for me to do in my life,” explained David, 54. “To have people come to this place (long into) the future, and even if only even a few of them feel what I feel for it … that’s what will give my life meaning.
“I think that protecting this piece of land right here is the last heroic thing I can do.”
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.