Gerald Almy: The challenge of owning 100-plus acres leads to downsizing

Gerald Almy

Regular readers of this column are familiar with my fanatic devotion to wildlife projects and land management. This concluding article of a two-part series explains why I will soon be downsizing the amount of such projects I undertake due to health and age issues.

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After my wife, Becky, and I sat back and realized we had sunk most of our life savings into the purchase of 116 ½ acres of land in Shenandoah County, there were sometimes feelings of “can this be real?” But that was a long time ago, in the 1990’s. We were young, energetic, and while perhaps a bit naïve, mostly just full of passion and a “get to it” attitude about managing the land.

Our priorities were projects that would both yield benefits for the wildlife and also improve the aesthetics, since simply looking at the land and the wild creatures inhabiting it was one of our favorite forms of entertainment.

There were no regrets. We were in our 40’s, healthy, and full of enthusiasm. We contracted Clayton Smoot and his crew to build a modest Lincoln Log home for us out of western red cedar on a knoll overlooking Little North Mountain in one direction and Back Road in the other. Then we had several ponds built by Charlie Keller and his son, Glenn, who live just up the road a piece.

We planted pin oaks, white pines, and fruit trees, plus a variety of shrubs to provide more wildlife food and cover. While never very good at it, we religiously put in gardens to grow our own vegetables and compliment the fish and wild game that formed a big part of our diet. We put up tree stands for me to hunt from and mowed trails through fields and brush so we both could explore this new treasure of land we were now the stewards of. To our delight, the deer love those trails as much as we do and walk on them often.

We owned this prime piece of land on paper, yes. But it was not really ours and would eventually go to other stewards who hopefully would enjoy it as much as we were.

Projects included building wood duck and bluebird boxes, feeding birds, creating brush piles for small animals, and growing food plots, which I began devoting more and more passion to. Over time, the bulk of my income was eventually coming from writing about habitat and land management.

I experimented with growing this plant and that, plowing, mowing, removing harmful weeds, and providing cover for rabbits and songbirds. We’ve seen the occasional woodcock and grouse, but sadly, in spite of our habitat improvement efforts, the quail that were here in low numbers at the start (one or two coveys) eventually totally disappeared.

One of the very best projects we undertook was encouraged by a neighbor up the road, Jim Hepner, and Natural Resources Conservation worker Mike Liskey. They talked me into planting many acres of native warm season grasses.

The grasses have thrived and created incredible wildlife habitat. They can be burned, hayed, or left alone and do just fine. Switchgrass, Indian grass, and bluestem now thrive where fescue once dominated.

I put trout in the small pond we dug out where a large spring emerged on the property. But the trout kept washing out after major storms, so we now leave it just for ducks, which visit regularly. We also built islands in all the ponds to encourage Canada goose nesting and did a limited amount of selective timber cutting in the woods to improve the habitat. (Woods that are too thick with little sunlight penetration make poor habitat for almost all wildlife.)

But age, and sometimes sooner, health issues, catch up with all of us eventually. Some earlier than others. Gradually, my legs began bothering me. When I couldn’t stand up for long hours on the tree stand watching for deer, I realized I had to see a doctor. An MRI revealed that the leg pain I was having was actually from back problems–severe spinal stenosis.

A relatively minor surgery at Winchester Medical Center–a lumbar laminectomy–partially helped things for a while. But over the next eight years after that, the pain gradually increased. Another MRI at Winchester last December showed a dramatic deterioration of the back.

A comprehensive evaluation at UVA this year revealed the return of stenosis and other issues that required extensive repair, including a complete fusion of the lumbar spine and part of the thoracic spine with rods and screws to stabilize the back and prevent further decline.

I was fortunate to have Dr. Christopher Shaffrey take me on as a patient. Dr. Shaffrey is a world-renowned neuro and orthopedic surgeon, professor at UVA, and head of the spine division at that prestigious medical center in Charlottesville. He has performed neurosurgery on members of the Detroit Lions and Pistons professional sports teams when he lived in Michigan, and is on the list of best spine surgeons in the country every year. Six and-a-half hours of surgery took place a few weeks ago, and thanks to God and Dr. Shaffrey’s skills, the operation was a success.

But in spite of successful surgery, my mobility and stamina will never match pre “back problem” days. And age, too, takes its toll on everyone. Between back issues and age, I knew I could no longer keep up with 100 acres. And it was wrong to continue to try. It would be selfish not to let a family or individual who could initiate new improvements and enjoy such a large property take over.

No, I will never give up living on a piece of land, doing habitat work and enjoying the wildlife. But finally, Becky and I made the difficult decision to downsize.

Many people with large homes find it eventually comes time to downsize. We were facing the same situation, only instead of our house, we were downsizing the amount of land we would own, selling around two-thirds of the acreage and keeping a smaller portion for ourselves.

No, it wasn’t an easy decision. But the time had come. Part of growing involves admitting how we change and facing the reality of new health parameters. Now I will manage a smaller tract, yes, about 30-40 acres. But hopefully I will be able to do so more intensively, devote more care to each project, and appreciate the chance to enjoy each acre more than when we owned the larger tract of land.

As I recover and rehabilitate from surgery, I expect to feel a lightness and a weight lifted from no longer being the caretaker of one-hundred-plus acres of God’s habitat.

So there it is. Another difficult decision made. Not quick and easy. But hopefully, the right one.

Now it’s time to take it easy, or at least slow down as much as a habitat management fanatic can!

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.