A group of righteous neighbors in a New York suburb is on a mission to protect a historic forest.
The turtle plays a leading role in the Iroquois Native American creation story. Indigenous elders retell that it was a Great Turtle who saved the first human woman by providing its shell as an island. She survived and populated that island, and from there sprung all of creation.
One of the ways in which indigenous people once honored the Great Turtle’s sacrifice was constructing sculptures of turtles from local field stones. There are vanishingly few of these types of monuments left, so the sudden appearance of one set in Chappaqua, New York recently sparked a debate among school administrators, neighbors, native peoples, and conservationists.
Buttonhook Forest — located in Chappaqua and named for the curved shape of the adjoining road — is a 20-acre woodland home to bobcats, owls, and yes, turtles. Six hundred and fifty native trees grow on this craggy hillside nestled between miles of homogenous lawns. Chappaqua, a hamlet of Westchester county, boasts one of the top school districts in the state and country. The district owns the forest, which was originally intended to be the site of a new school. With the incoming K-12 population dipping in recent years, the district decided to sell the property to a residential developer with no regard to the forest’s key ecosystem features. However, their plan to build six homes was later scrapped, and three years, one faulty environmental review, and millions of dollars in costs later, the discovery of native stones has further complicated the property sale.
Tracey Bilski’s property borders Buttonhook. Earlier this year, upon learning about the tense battle over the neighboring plot of land and increasingly curious about the stones she’d noticed, she ventured into the woods to get a closer look. Later, she brought in scholars from nearby tribes to confirm what she had seen: dozens of rocks arrayed, carved, and piled into symbolic representations and ecological markers. David Johnson, an expert in native ecosystem restoration, told her these stones were used by the native people to both mark the route of the underground aquifer and honor the sanctity of the water source.
Most stone formations like this elsewhere were either scattered, paved over, or otherwise erased by early colonizers. The fact that these remain after hundreds of years of interference is near miraculous. Bilski has been hosting weekly guided hikes of the forest for the last few months, and she said that multiple visitors with Native American heritage were emotional upon first seeing the stones. “The same way in which we preserve American history, we should preserve Native American history,” said Nohham Cachat-Schilling, Medicine Elder and Chair of the Massachusetts Ethical Archaeology Society.
The presence of the native forest itself is also rare, and gravely important. These older trees not only sequester carbon, but their shade also reduces evaporation for the waterway that crisscrosses the forest and drains into the Croton watershed. The same water that flows through Buttonwood’s marked waterways gushes out of millions of New York City faucets everyday. Constructing housing would risk polluting this watershed.
The state environmental review conducted in preparation of the property sale did not account for all of these key ecosystem features. The site was approved for residential development with few conditions. The original buyer of the land planned the construction of six new homes with ample yard space. But when that developer unexpectedly abandoned the sale, Bilski saw a chance to protect the land herself.
She and a group of neighbors founded the organization Save Buttonhook with the mission to buy back the land from the school district and protect it from any further threat of development. The end goal is to create a preserve that educates about indigenous and environmental history. The organization hopes to design the space in collaboration with environmental organizations such as Westchester Land Trust, the Audubon Society, and indigenous advocacy groups.
With its dedicated team of community supporters and public outreach through GoFundMe, the group hopes to raise $1 million before the district deadline, August 30. No matter the outcome, Bilski is optimistic that the donations will go towards supporting environmental and ethical land use. “Even if we cannot be the stewards of the land, we will still collaborate with the owners to ensure that it is cared for. At this critical moment in our Earth’s history, we must do everything we can to preserve our native forests to help in the fight against climate change.”
Ed. note: The Chappaqua Schools Business Office declined to comment.