203 :: Childhood Discovery


My parents met at a little resort called The Homestead in the summer of 1970. My Mom was from Cincinnati and my Dad was from East Lansing, and they were both “up north” in Michigan to work for the summer. Their love story started in Leelanau — and perhaps because of that, after they were married they always wanted to move here for good. But it took them a while to realize their dream. Although they came up on summer vacations for many years, it wasn’t until 1992 — twenty-two years after they’d met — that they bought a home overlooking Good Harbor Bay. My parents had settled in Leelanau at last; they were here to stay. And so they gave us, my siblings and me, the gift of growing up in Leelanau.

I was ten years old when we moved. There was little I loved more then than my dog and the woods.

My parents owned a modest two acres at the base of the hills. But our land was surrounded by hundreds more acres of wild places. And pretty much as soon as we’d settled in to our new home, my brothers and I started to explore.

There was the meadow in front of our house that stretched down to orchard land; there was the National Park land beyond that; and, of course, there was the beach.

But for me it was the woods. The woods held the greatest appeal. I could walk behind our house, disappear up the valley into the woods, and explore for hours. Day after day. While my brothers climbed trees and built forts, I walked up and down the hills with my dog, following the ridge lines — learning my way back home from every direction.

On top of the tallest hill in the area there were incredibly tall beech trees, with their smooth gray trunks reaching up into the blue sky. Arms of branches waving up so very high. They had the best view, I thought: Sugar Loaf Mountain; Little Traverse Lake; Pyramid Point, and the Manitou Islands beyond. I didn’t know the names of anything then, but I liked to lie beneath the trees and look up, imagining what they saw, looking out.

* * *

One summer day when I was wandering through the woods, I followed an old logging trail farther south than I had ever walked. I went down a trail, in the cool, dark shade of ancient oaks . . . and then came to the forest edge, where the trees ended abruptly. I stepped out into a clearing and stood quiet while my eyes adjusted to the light. What I saw then took my breath away. I was standing on the edge of a farmstead that looked as if it had been frozen in time. A massive barn stood in the center surrounded by smaller outbuildings and a house nestled at the base of the hills behind. Immaculately tended gardens lined the rock walls and the edges of the house. The fields were newly mowed and the gravel drive well maintained. It was picture perfect and so very still.

It was as if I had stumbled upon the scene of a favorite childhood story. And I was completely taken.

After my first glimpse of the farm, I went back again and again — lurking on the edges, wondering who lived there and hoping I’d find clues. Then one morning, as I stepped out of the forest darkness into the clearing, I saw a man on a tractor, mowing.

I waited until he saw me and then I waved. He waved back and cut the motor. I walked toward him as he climbed off the ancient machine and then he greeted me by gesturing toward my dog as he said, “Now who is this fine meat hound?”

And that is how I met Ted Lanham. Ted introduced me to Tali, and the two of them welcomed me to explore their land — a ten-year-old girl and her dog given free reign over some 200 acres . . . and the only place I was instructed not to go was Ted’s workshop.

So began my friendship with Tali and Ted Lanham.

As I became acquainted with them and their land, they shared their love for their home with me and my family. They told us which ski hills were best in the winter (and which to avoid); they shared their names for the trails and the meadows; they told us the story of the old seep where a farmer had watered cows decades ago; and they shared dreams for the flat field above the house where Ted wanted to land his airplanes. They even gave away some of their favorite spots for spring wildflowers and morel mushrooms.

Their land became woven into my childhood and into my adolescence. When I needed to think, to pray, I went to those woods. They were as much my home as any place ever had been. They were a place to be quiet, reverent. In them I felt small and yet completely held in something much greater. And Ted and Tali were the generous caretakers, who opened up this wild place to me. Because of Ted and Tali, I always felt welcome in the woods.

In the spring of 2000, I graduated from Leland High School. Tali and Ted came to my graduation celebration and they gave me a gift.

Tali told me that she and Ted had decided to donate a conservation easement on 167 acres of their land to the Leelanau Conservancy. I was stunned. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what a conservation easement was, or what a complex process they had committed to — I just knew that their land would remain wild and undeveloped. And I was incredibly moved. It was the best “gift” anyone could have given me, and it was especially meaningful coming from Ted and Tali.

The gift wasn’t really for me, of course. But Tali and Ted’s decision made a tremendous impact on what I decided to study in college and, in effect, what I’ve come to value most in my life.

Because it wasn’t just the idyllic Lanham Land that I walked on as a child.

To the north of my family’s home was another stretch of forest ridgeline with incredible views of Lake Michigan. I walked there as well when I was young. My dog and I watched from a distance as those 40 acres were bought by a developer. We watched as the land was stripped of its trees. We watched as a wide, paved road was put in. We watched as electrical boxes hummed to life. There were no houses then. Just infrastructure. Building sites. And a view.

The story of those 40 acres of stripped forest land lived in my consciousness; but the story of the Lanhams’ land was stronger. Much stronger. And to go away to college, knowing that the land I so loved would remain wild — well that was a joy and a peace that is impossible to put into words.

So I went off to college. I studied French and Environmental Science and Sustainable Agriculture. Then I got married and moved to Pittsburgh with my husband Jeffrey. We said we’d return home to Leelanau in a year.

Seven years and two little girls later, we did move back. And now when we go to visit my parents, my daughters’ Grandmommy and Grandfather, we all walk together in Ted and Tali’s beautiful woods. My daughters know the land that I knew. They walk where I walked when I was a girl.

They stand on the edge of the woods and look into the meadow that holds the storybook farm of my childhood dreams.

(From a piece I wrote for the Leelanau Conservancy in the winter of 2014)

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