Nature and Art: Why we must “cherish, connect, preserve…”

For the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, your Capital Region land trust, each day is Earth Day. The lands we protect are protected forever — for our children today, and our grandchildren tomorrow. 

These protected lands, which are kept green and undeveloped in perpetuity, provide critically important and tangible benefits to our ecosystems and communities. Natural lands provide wildlife habitats, open spaces, and viewsheds. Undeveloped spaces store more carbon than developed lands; this helps in the fight against climate change. By maintaining forests and wetlands, we maintain the natural filters which protect air and water quality in Albany, Montgomery, and Schenectady Counties.

Yet there are other benefits, less tangible but equally important, that these spaces provide. Our 18 public preserves provide 2,000 acres and over 36 miles of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, and other educational and recreational opportunities.

The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy provides more than just space. We provide opportunities for people to connect with each other and with the natural beauty which surrounds us. A walk in the woods, an afternoon sitting by a stream, a morning trail run… these are experiences to be shared, cherished, and protected. Without open spaces made available to the public, the constant thrum of development in our region will continue to take away our opportunities to enjoy, experience, draw inspiration from, and find solace in the natural world.

As MHLC provides nature experiences for our community, many of our organizational partners provide artistic, cultural, and musical experiences. Last June, we teamed up with the brass musicians of the Albany Symphony for our Celebration of Music and Nature in Rensselaerville. In 2018, we are offering another plein air painting workshop as part of our Summer Festival and Helderberg Hike-a-Thon: these workshops have been a beautiful opportunity for local painters to find inspiration from the sights and sounds of our preserves. Our Family Wilderness Crafts Workshops with Ondatra Adventures encourage young citizens to use their hands to engage with both the natural world and with their own creative spirit.

These connections between nature and the arts run deep. At our 2018 Annual Awards Dinner, guest speaker Elizabeth Sobol, President and CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, spoke of her childhood in South Carolina, her connection to the land of her youth, and of the ties between conservation and the arts: we all must work together to cherish, preserve, and protect beauty in all of its forms.

“It is at that moment of shared beauty – birdsong, sunset, Mahler, Bach – that we are most utterly – and most fully  – human. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we are here to preserve and protect.”

Many of our guests asked for a transcript of Elizabeth’s speech, and Elizabeth has generously shared a written copy of her thoughts and words, as seen below.

In the spirit of Earth Day, we hope you’ll enjoy these words as a reminder that in order to enjoy the beauty around us, we must continue to protect it.

Elizabeth Sobol and MHLC Executive Director Mark King at the 2018 Annual Awards Dinner

Remarks by Elizabeth Sobol
Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy Annual Awards Dinner
River Stone Manor, Schenectady, NY
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

“I am very honored to have been asked to speak to you tonight – and to have the opportunity to celebrate the important work you are all doing.

I was watching the beautiful video that is on the website and was very moved by it – the lovely images, the evocative use of music…but most of all, I was moved by the words I heard. Words like:

cherish, connect, preserve, beauty, future, respite, protect, urgent, enduring.

These words resonated with me because they are part of the same vocabulary I use when I talk about the importance of the arts and beauty in the world.  

This winter…this very, very long winter…. I have had a lot of time to think about all this – the essential, the powerful, the underlying link between art and nature – and the urgent and critical work that lies ahead of us all.

Whenever I think about what brings us to a love of nature, what brings us to a love of art, I always end up at the beginning. Well, I should say, to my own beginning. I grew up in small town in North Carolina – a mill town – where all four of my grandparents had second grade educations – and worked in the cotton mill.  Doesn’t sound very auspicious does it?  And yet, I had the luckiest of childhoods. When I was very young, of a Spring and Summer evening, my Grandmother, my Mother’s Mother, would wrap me in a blanket and hold me on her lap while we swung in the front porch swing and she told me stories and sang me songs, enveloped in the soft sweet southern honeysuckle breeze. When I was a little older, in the Spring, my Grandfather would take me for walks down a thickly-over-grown ravine near the house and he would pull out his prized pocket knife and show me how to make a little flute from poplar branches when the sap was high. Later still, on the weekends, my grandparents would take me for drives out long country roads and we would stop by a plowed field and search for arrowheads and then wander down and look for violets by the edge of the woods and my grandmother would tell me stories about how her Mother made medicine from plants for her and her 12 sisters when they were growing up on a remote farm. On hot afternoons, we would look for the shade of a tree and drink sweetened tea from mason jars and eat the violet blossoms and we would just listen – to the sounds of birdsong, the high soprano keening of crickets and to all the exuberant music of nature.

I was lucky – as a child I grew up seeing the stars in the night sky, eating the medicine of plants, listening to the sounds of the seasons, the music of the spheres. Though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, the seamlessness of being – the sense of being connected to earth and to others – was articulated through the full embrace of nature and my grandparents’ love.

Of course, like every Adam or Eve in the garden, I did eventually leave paradise. As a teen, I rebelled against the small town and left for a music conservatory in a City, my eyes on a career as a pianist. From there to New York City to pursue a career as an artist manager. From there, my career, frankly, consumed me. It’s not to say that I didn’t seek and enjoy moments in nature, but the thrust of my life became completely yoked to work and to the relentless, singular focus and linear direction that left little room for expansiveness and breath. But, no complaints! I had an incredible run of it. Decades spent at IMG Artists, the heady thrill of going from small start up artist management agency in the cultural sphere to global leader in the field, working with artists like Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell and Renee Fleming.  From IMG I was recruited to Universal Music to start a new record company.  Some people in the business called that going over to the dark side. But I relished the challenge of creating a successful, ethos-based “classics” label in the middle of the most difficult time in the history of recorded music. I worked – and worked – and worked – until Spring of 2013 – when I finally knew I had to stop. My psychic gas gauge was virtually on empty. I knew I needed to do something to refill that very subtle vessel called “the soul”. 

I did something I had dreamed of doing for years but had never made the time for. I signed up for an intensive course on Ethnobotany & Plant Medicine in the mountains of North Carolina. When I came down off the mountain, as it were, the universe asked its usual; “and now what?” I remember sitting with friends by a lake in Black Mountain. I knew at that point that my future had to involve the plants and nature I felt I had “forsaken” so many years before. At the same time, a future without music seemed unthinkable. I remember saying to my friends: Oh god, I despair. Where in the world am I ever going to find a place that calls upon my deep love of nature and my deep love of the arts? Back home several days later, the phone rang – and out of the proverbial blue – a voice said “Hi – I am with the firm conducting the search for the new President of SPAC and your name keeps coming up.”

So, you see, I come to my new job with not a little of the natural zeal of the true southerner – a native proselytizer – with also possibly with a refrain of “I was lost but now I am found” playing in the background.  But most of all, my sense of purpose and urgency comes from the knowledge of the profound importance of beauty – both man-made and natural – in this moment of deepening human crisis. 

For it is in moments of encounters with great beauty – the transcendent grace of a Mozart aria, the majesty of a cathedral of pines  – that we enter that state of wonder – a place without time or boundaries or strife or differences.  On the top of a mountain, under the canopy of the night sky, we are both infinitesimal and infinite, luminous, radiant and eternally interconnected. Is it a religio-mystical state – or just a primal, wordless recognition of our common cosmic-energetic origin.  Does it really matter?

It is at that moment of shared beauty – birdsong, sunset, Mahler, Bach – that we are most utterly – and most fully  – human. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we are here to preserve and protect.”


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