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An acquisition-minded conservationist discovers that he is no nature boy

The Nature Conservancy is often described as the most businesslike of the nonprofit conservation organizations. Newspaper and magazine stories about the Conservancy, which is based in Arlington, Va., inevitably stress that it is run by lawyers and M.B.A.s, tell how it wheels and deals to acquire private land, and conclude that it focuses on "the bottom line." These observations are apt. The Conservancy's M.B.A.s are constantly developing economic strategies, crunching numbers and hammering out deals, while its lawyers study statutes and agonize over affidavits.

But what these stories fail to mention is that the Conservancy's lawyers and M.B.A.s usually are not very good naturalists; that they tend to become babes once they enter the woods. The Conservancy is aware of that fact. One of its cardinal rules is: We do not mix nature with business.

I was one of those M.B.A.s for the Conservancy; I was its vice-president for land acquisition for 15 years. While I greatly appreciate our natural world, my knowledge of it is extremely limited. It is a waste of time for me to evaluate the natural attributes of a piece of land the Conservancy is interested in obtaining. We have botanists and biologists who are far better qualified to determine the ecological significance of a potential preserve. But they had better get out of the way when it comes time to make the deal. Mutual respect and professional courtesy dictate that our lawyers and M.B.A.s spend their time communing with money and leave nature to the naturalists.

Nonetheless, every now and then a Conservancy lawyer or M.B.A. must confront nature head-on. The result is usually disastrous. I stand as proof of that.

It was spring, and I was working on a project near Charlottesville, Va. The area in question was, at the time, a new Conservancy project. It was not even one of the largest or most spectacular tracts acquired by the Conservancy. It consisted of 100 acres of second-growth woods and floodplain that protected the watershed of a small creek. I became involved because a very generous donor to the Conservancy had committed a substantial amount of money toward the purchase of the land. This donor insisted that I personally inspect the property and handle all negotiations.

A key tract that we hoped to protect was one I nicknamed Hidden Springs. It was a country estate with nearly a mile of sloping frontage on the creek; within its boundaries there were, in fact, several hidden springs. If the land were to be developed, the resulting siltation of the creek and septic runoff would inevitably degrade the qualities of the 100 acres of land we had already purchased and set up as one of our preserves. Hidden Springs was owned by a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and his wife, whom I'll call Louise.

Unfortunately, the professor and Louise were not members of The Nature Conservancy. Our research showed that they were well off, childless and totally committed to the university. I was convinced that Hidden Springs was destined to be willed to the school. If that happened, the Conservancy Preserve would be in jeopardy. In my opinion, schools, churches and similar nonprofit organizations can be among the most callous landowners in the country; to them, land is a commodity from which they feel they have a fiduciary duty to squeeze every last nickel. I was fearful that the university would have bulldozers grinding over Hidden Springs even as the university overseers were still placing the professor's name in the Rotunda to commemorate his gift.

I called the professor and Louise to arrange a meeting. They were most cordial. They had already met our generous donor and claimed to be very sympathetic to the Conservancy's objectives as they understood them. They insisted that I come for dinner. They even implied that I was welcome to spend the night at Hidden Springs.

My strategy was simple. I was going to ask the professor and Louise to donate a conservation easement over Hidden Springs to the Conservancy. The professor and Louise could own Hidden Springs for the rest of their lives, and upon their demise they could leave it to the University of Virginia, but the property could never be developed without the Conservancy's approval. Such a conservation easement seemed like the perfect plan. The professor and Louise would get a substantial tax write-off, the University could still make a bundle by selling the property as a country estate (and only as an estate), and our preserve would be protected in perpetuity. All I had to do was sell the deal to the professor and Louise.

The evening could not have started better. It was cool and clear, with the scent of new grass and wildflowers wafting from the fields. The professor, who wore a University of Virginia tie with his perfectly tailored blue blazer, poured three bourbon and branches into silver cups. He and Louise escorted me to the patio. In the twilight, I could see the preserve below, and beyond it, the Rotunda, the centerpiece of Mr. Jefferson's university. "Ah," I said, sipping my drink, "it's a pleasure to be back in Charlottesville. I received a fine education here at the graduate school of business."

The professor and Louise looked at each other and nodded approvingly.

They were a calm, gracious, dignified couple. The professor still taught a course on Faulkner. He was surprised when I confessed that I had forgotten The Bear. He immediately produced a dog-eared copy. "I'm sure that, as a conservationist, you'll recognize this passage," he said. "Let me refresh your memory. And, if you'll permit me, your drink." The cool of the evening crept over Hidden Springs, and Louise suggested that we move inside by the fire.

Out of nowhere, an elderly man in a heavily starched white serving jacket appeared with a bucket of ice, a bottle of Virginia Gentleman and a silver pitcher filled with good Virginia branch water. He recharged our cups as the professor settled into his University of Virginia captain's chair and began to read aloud.

Now I remembered why I had forgotten The Bear. The professor went on and on and on. He didn't finish with Faulkner until we were ready to be seated for dinner. As we walked into the dining room, a full moon could be seen rising through the triple-sashed windows. In the distance a black Angus could be heard lowing at the Milky Way. The three of us took our places at a table as long as a Faulkner sentence. Another fire was ablaze, and I watched the flames flicker in my crystal wine glass as the professor said grace. Once the meal had been properly blessed, Louise tinkled a little bell. Out came the soup, and I prepared myself to strike. It is a Conservancy strategy to make the pitch right after the soup.

I took another sip of wine. My palate was already tingling with the taste of success. The deal was as good as done.

I was clearing my throat to speak when a cry came from the kitchen. "Professor! Professor! Come quick! We've got ourselves a snake!" Snake? My mouth suddenly went dry.

The professor looked over apologetically. "Please excuse me. The cook seems to be upset about something." He got up from the table and strode purposefully to the kitchen. I smiled at Louise. She smiled back. "It's probably nothing. Cook gets excited over the least little thing. I'm sure my husband can handle it."

I hoped so. I drained my lass and immediately reloaded. I could hear the professor stomping up the cellar stairs and shouting, "Sakes alive! You should see the size of that snake! He must be six feet if he's an inch. I don't believe I've ever seen one quite that big." By now the professor was in the doorway to the dining room with his arms fully outstretched.

I drained my glass again. I had read somewhere that the length of a person's outstretched arms equaled his height, which coincidentally was the length of a fathom. All I could fathom from this scene was that there was one damn big snake downstairs.

Louise and the professor looked expectantly at me. The message was clear. What they didn't have to say was, What luck! We have the biggest snake we've ever seen, right in our own cellar, and here's a professional conservationist to remove it.

I felt obliged to respond. "This is really an excellent wine," I said. I poured myself yet another glass as I tried to figure out how to get out of this. "Don't worry about the snake," I said as nonchalantly as I could. "It's probably just come in to get out of the cold. If we leave it alone, I'm sure it will find its way out."

At that point, Louise looked at me incredulously. "Leave it alone? We most certainly will not leave it alone," she said. "This is my house, and I shall not have a snake upsetting my help. That snake is going out, and it's going out now."

With that, she got up and marched toward the cellar. The professor immediately followed.

I had no choice. I fell in behind the professor. Louise hesitated at the top of the stairs. The professor manfully assumed the lead. When we reached the bottom step, I could see a light coming from an open door. It was the cellar pantry. We tiptoed toward the light and peeked into the pantry.

The professor pointed to a shelf in the far corner. "There he is," he whispered. "Do you see him?"

I looked at the shelf. I didn't see any snake. Then I rocked back in total terror as the whole shelf readjusted itself. There was a rattle of glass. The snake was laced around an entire row of preserves. It seemed to be everywhere. My eyes widened as they followed its long black body, around and around, until they finally reached the head. The snake was staring directly at me. It cocked its head menacingly, its tongue flicking in and out. I seriously thought I was going to lose it all and bolt out of there. What was a snake doing in the pantry? I prayed that it would show some professional courtesy and slither away. It didn't. It just lay there, as if to say, O.K., Mr. M.B.A., come move me.

Louise broke the silence. "Goodness gracious! It is the biggest snake I've ever seen!" She turned to me. "Be careful it doesn't bite you!"

I fought to keep my composure. I tried to chuckle, but my voice cracked. "It's, ahem, just a black snake. You're lucky to have him. You won't have any mice or rats with this fellow around. Ha, ha. I suggest we just ignore him. He'll leave when he's ready."

Louise was firm. "He'll leave right now!" She turned to the professor. "Isn't that right, dear."

The professor was equally firm. "Yes, by all means! It can't stay here. It's upsetting the help."

I knew that if I could walk into that room, grab that snake and throw it outside, Hidden Springs and the Conservancy preserve below it would be protected in perpetuity. If red-blooded conservationists were throwing themselves in front of bulldozers and standing in the line of fire of harpoon guns, surely the least I could do was pick up a snake. I took a step. The snake hissed menacingly. I recoiled. There was no way I was going to walk into that room and grab that snake. They didn't teach snake-grabbing at the business school.

I tried one last orderly retreat. "Black snakes aren't poisonous, but one that size can give you a nasty bite," I said. "If you're determined to move him, which I don't recommend, I suggest we find something to grab it with."

"The tongs!" exclaimed the professor. "I'll get the tongs from the fireplace. They should do the trick."

"Good idea," I said. "I'll help you."

"No, no," the professor replied. "You stay here and keep an eye on that fellow. We don't want him slipping away."

Louise stood there silently as the professor bounded up the stairs. The snake didn't move. The only thing slipping away was my deal. The professor was back in a flash. He was in good shape for an older man. Good old Virginia might have to wait a while before it got its hands on Hidden Springs. Maybe that was fortunate. The Conservancy would need all the time it could get to resell the professor and Louise on the idea of a conservation easement. My credibility was just about shot.

The professor proffered the tongs, but I was too quick for him. "I'll get the cellar door," I said, looking back over my shoulder. "Try to grab him right behind the head." I opened the door with a flourish. "O.K. Any time you're ready."

The professor entered the pantry. He was a brave man, but then again, it was his house. Louise backed away to the foot of the stairs. I could hear the professor snapping away with the tongs. "Dammit, hold still, you rascal!" A jar shattered as it hit the floor. "Ah ha, there, now I've got you!" Louise started to run up the stairs as the professor burst from the pantry. In front of him was the snake, twisting and twirling. I could see its white belly. He must have grabbed it in the middle, because both ends were thrashing wildly.

I tensed as man and reptile came hurtling toward me. Suddenly the professor let out a shriek. One end of the snake had wrapped itself around his hand. He dropped the tongs. The snake fell to the floor. It undulated back and forth, trying to get its bearings. It sensed its easiest path of escape and came wriggling right at me. I stumbled in panic out the cellar door and ran smack into a wall. The impact knocked me off my feet. I started groping my way up the stone steps. I froze as I felt all six feet of the snake slither over me and disappear into the darkness.

I got up. I tried to dust myself off, but my hands wouldn't stop shaking. Slowly, I followed the light back into the cellar. The professor had picked up the tongs and was going up the stairs with Louise. I took a deep breath, straightened my tie and sheepishly followed. I heard the professor reassuring Cook and the butler as he passed through the kitchen: "No need to worry now. That old snake is back outside where it belongs."

"Thank goodness. We don't need any snakes around here," Cook said with great relief.

"You're absolutely right, Cook, but it's all over now. Let's clean up that broken Mason jar and finish our meal."

I went back to the table and dutifully delivered my pitch. I should have just gone home. The professor and Louise were polite, but cool. They looked at me as if they had just caught mc cheating on an exam. I could no longer be trusted. Someone who was afraid to pick up a snake couldn't be much of a conservationist. I wasn't quite through with my pecan pie when Louise pointedly reminded me that it was a long drive back to Arlington.

To this date, we have no conservation easement over Hidden Springs and no guarantee that the Conservancy preserve will be protected in perpetuity.

Every now and then I think of the professor and Louise and what might have been if I had walked into that room, picked up that snake and thrown it outside. And then I think of the snake. Why wasn't it down by the creek where it belonged? I was in a house, where I belonged, with silver cups, crystal glasses and fine wine, communing with money. It was the snake that was wrong. It had broken one of the Conservancy's cardinal rules; it had mixed nature with business. The snake should have shown some respect and excused itself when it saw that it was blowing my deal.

Whatever happened to professional courtesy?



This is an excerpt from "Good Dirt: Confessions of a Conservationist, "to be published this fall.