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A century of loving and protecting nature

North Stonington - In the fullness of summer, Adele Erisman's tidy three-room cottage all but disappears into the surrounding forest, the weathered redwood siding wrapped in an embrace of leaf and shadow.

Even now, with branches stripped of leaves in the November chill, the simple dwelling she and her late husband Robert built in 1953 barely stands out as something man-made amid the natural setting, with none of the colored vinyl or grass carpet lawns of many modern houses.

Inside, Erisman can be found, reading Paul Theroux or the Sunday New York Times in her favorite chair, watercolors she's painted hanging on the walls around her. With a careful, cane-aided gait, she'll go out on her screen porch to take in views of the slanting autumn sun on a small pond where a pair of wood ducks swim.

"To me, it's heaven," she said, looking through the screen to the black oaks and cedars that rise from the sloped, amphibian-rich habitat of her 65-acre forest. In her will, she has ensured that both the house and forest will be preserved into perpetuity.

"We have to have trees," she said, "to keep the water clean, to help clean the air, and to house the birds and the animals, because they belong here."

Erisman is 100 years old. Her small frame is stooped from age, but still strong enough to enable her to stand under her own power, and cook for herself in the small galley-style kitchen. An aide helps around the house twice a week, and neighbors keep her bird feeder filled. Otherwise, she takes care of herself.

"My friends get angry at me for staying out here by myself," she said Tuesday, the day before her very significant birthday. "They want me to go into one of those assisted living places. But I won't. This is what keeps me alive, being here."

Disliking fanfare, Erisman didn't want a big party for her 100th. But a small group of those who have come to love and admire this unassuming, stalwart lover of nature marked the occasion with a visit to her home and sanctuary.

"We owe a lot to Adele," said Kevin Essington, who got to know her eight years ago while working on the Nature Conservancy's Borderlands Project along the Rhode Island-Connecticut border. "I'm always inspired by her. She's this quiet little conservationist living in our midst."

An inspiring talk

Essington, now head of government relations for the Nature Conservancy's Rhode Island chapter, joined Anne Nalwalk and Anne Roberts-Pierson of the Avalonia Land Conservancy, Frank Eppinger of the North Stonington Historical Society and Anna Coit, a friend and fellow centenarian, at Erisman's home Wednesday. Maggie Jones, executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, visited a day earlier, bringing Erisman a small container of Brussels sprouts cooked with leeks and greens. It was something Jones thought Erisman would enjoy, knowing she's particular about what she eats and favored fresh, locally grown foods long before it became fashionable.

During her stay, Jones asked Erisman to recount a talk she gave to the Mystic Garden Club in 1943. It inspired the creation of the nature center, now an important local institution with 1,800 members and a 300-acre forest in its care, so much so that Erisman can be called the center's founding mother.

"It's important to chronicle this history, before it's lost," Jones told her. "You gave a talk…"

In typically understated fashion, Erisman recalled what she could, apologizing for gaps in her memory.

"I played them a record with bird songs on it, and asked them to listen," Erisman said. "Then I said, 'Isn't there some land we could use for a sanctuary?' People then had no idea what a sanctuary would be - it wasn't part of the scope of their life. But someone mentioned there was land at the Denison Society."

Three years later, the center opened. Erisman has been a member and donor ever since, for many years editing its newsletter, The Chickadee, and doing other volunteer work there. She wrote many articles over the years for The Chickadee, as well as other nature magazines, drawing on the knowledge she's gained from her extensive reading about birds, wildflowers, native plant gardening and national or international environmental issues.

"Even today, when you go and sit with her, she'll bring up some hot environmental topic," Jones said. "She keeps herself so up-to-date, and always has."

A generous volunteer

Erisman's deep love of nature paired with understanding of the many threats it faces does leave Erisman sounding pessimistic at times about the future. Overpopulation, Erisman believes, is the main culprit in environmental degradation and destruction, even if it's politically incorrect to say so.

"She can be like Cassandra howling, about what's happening to the environment," said Coit, her friend since they met at the North Stonington Garden Club in 1958.

But Coit and other friends admire that the concerns and pessimism Erisman expresses, even if sometimes to a fault, come from someone who has unobtrusively lived the ethic of a conservationist. It's evident in her simple lifestyle in her small home, her financial generosity despite her modest means - she once lamented to Jones that she'd been forced to economize on the number of conservation groups she donated to, cutting back to just 30 - and in her volunteer work.

In the 1960s she created a nature trail for town schoolchildren, and in the 1970s she and Coit planted a wildflower garden on the village green. She would lead walks at the nature center to teach people about native plants and birds - before her hearing diminished, she could identify a particular warbler by its song - and there are fern and wildflower gardens at the nature center that are the result of her handiwork.

She's also spoken out on environmental issues facing the town, and is credited with helping start the town's Conservation Commission. When she first began advocating for land preservation in town, she said, few were receptive. Erisman, people who know her say, was just ahead of her time on environmental issues.

"I worked very hard at the Conservation Commission," Erisman said. "But back then, people were not interested in giving their land for conservation. There's been a big change. There's acceptance now. But the thing that makes me sad now is the lack of birds. I still have the variety, but not the quantity. I used to have tree swallows and evening grosbeaks by the hundreds at my feeder."

Birds, she said, first drew her into nature, and she's been captivated ever since. That part of her identity was solidified as her life intersected with some of the most prominent American environmentalists of the past century. Among them was Frank Egler, a plant ecologist. She was a secretary for him in New York City, while her husband worked in magazine publishing, and helped Egler write what were then considered controversial statements advocating preservation of early successional habitats - so much so that he was ousted from his post at the American Museum of Natural History. The 1,100-acre Aton Forest in the northwest corner town of Norfolk, a center for ecological research, remains as Egler's legacy.

She and her husband found their way out of New York to southeastern Connecticut through a friend with a vacation house, first settling in North Stonington in the early 1940s. Soon she became part of the small group of people in the area who considered themselves conservationists, and was among those in attendance at one of the early organizing meetings of the Nature Conservancy in the 1950s. Today it's an international nonprofit with 1 million members and 119 million protected acres. Fittingly, that meeting took place at the nature center, and among the core group there were Connecticut College botany professors William Niering and Richard Goodwin.

Over the years, said Essington, Erisman's commitment to the conservancy hasn't waned. One of her donations helped the conservancy purchase the 123-acre Cossaduck Hill preserve a few miles from Erisman's home. She's bequeathed the house and five acres, with deed restrictions to ensure it can't be expanded or substantially changed, to the conservancy to sell to fund the purchase of more land. The rest of Erisman's property will go to the Avalonia Land Conservancy. Though never one to call attention to herself, those who know her say she's made a lasting impression.

"Her contribution is her lifestyle," said Eppinger, president of the town's historical society and past president of the nature center, "her example, the way she's kept her property, the way she's lived the conservation ethic."

j.benson@theday.com

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