A man's reverence for the earth

Conservation: For 50 years, Bill Berry has found joy in the beauty of his "place" along the Severn River and has made sure it will remain undeveloped for generations to come.

January 09, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

It has been more than 50 years since Bill Berry looked out the window of a Baltimore-to-Annapolis train and saw the "for sale" sign stuck into the crust of a 46-acre wedge of waterfront land.

At the time, he was a Navy commander teaching French and Spanish to midshipmen at the Naval Academy. And the land was just an investment. He had no idea it would change his life, and so many others.

After four trips around the world, it still seems the most remarkable things he has seen and the most precious of times have been at what he calls "the place."

The place is just north of the Severn River Bridge on the eastern shore of the river in Arnold. It has grown to 75 acres over the years, as Berry bought up adjoining bits and pieces. It is now one of the largest undeveloped riverfront tracts. Berry has made sure it will stay that way by amending the deed to prevent development -- a so-called conservation easement -- despite lucrative developers' offers.

"We were deluged with real estate people," Berry said.

The property would be worth millions if not for the easements, and Berry's sacrifice to conservation earned him a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Severn River Association in June.

But the deeper story of "the place" is about more than environmentalists' pride and builders' sorrow. It's about a bond between a man and his land.

Berry no longer lives on the property, preferring in his retirement the simplicity of an apartment. When the bird clock on the wall strikes three o'clock, the sound of a house wren's trills fill the tiny apartment, and Berry knows it's time for a whiskey and water.

He just returned from his fourth cruise around the world. He's a little tired but anxious to get back out to the property to clear some overgrown trails. His mind is never far from the land, even when he's touring Japan, Pompeii, Cambodia or Calcutta.

Berry's trip was a University of Pittsburgh course -- a semester at sea -- and his 600 classmates were students in their late teens and early 20s.

"I was the oldest specimen aboard," said Berry, 90. But he noticed things they probably didn't, for example that there were no old trees in Hiroshima.

It makes sense Berry would have noticed the trees. Trees have been like family members his whole life, from his childhood in Richmond as the son of a farmer and timberland salesman, to the day, in 1944, when he paid $4,300 -- half the asking price -- for the original 46 acres.

As a child, Berry had an affinity for languages and began Spanish lessons in the sixth grade. He picked up French, German and Italian during his years at the University of Richmond and in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

He joined the Navy during World War II and was sent to work at the academy.

"Unlike their usual procedure, they sent me to a job I knew how to do," said Berry, who spent 30 years teaching.

The only man-made thing on the property in the 1940s was an 8-by-12-foot shack near the water's edge. Berry lived there in the summers, Thoreau-style, reading and bird watching. He dammed up a stream to make a fish pond. He etched trails, built fences, gardened.

"It was very pleasant living," he said. "I enjoyed being close to the things around me."

One by one, he met nature-loving children in the area. Children such as Colby Rucker, who was 9 years old and fond of snakes when he met Berry in 1946. The two became friends, and Berry allowed Colby and his friends to play on the property. And if they wanted to know the difference between a corn snake and a queen snake, he'd give them nature lessons.

"It certainly had an impact on my life," said Rucker, who became a tree expert for the state of Maryland and tended the grounds of the State House for 17 years.

To this day, Berry's former nature scouts will pull up to the house Berry and his wife built in 1957, hoping to introduce their own wives and kids to their mentor.

"He had an enormous impact on many young people's lives," said Betsy Morrison, Berry's stepdaughter, who lives in the house. In 1952, Berry married Morrison's mother, Elizabeth, whose first husband was killed while commanding the submarine Scorpion during World War II.

Some mornings, Morrison walks out to get the newspaper and spots Berry's car down the lane, which probably means he has been hiking through the property since dawn. Three years ago, he shocked relatives with tales of hiking in the Himalayas during one of his long trips.

"The doctor said he was in fine shape, but he was nuts," Morrison said. "He's the original Renaissance man, as far as I'm concerned."

The key to his longevity?

"I drink a lot of whiskey, and I try not to exercise too much," he said. "I don't know. I don't think I've done anything special. It's just luck."

He concedes, though, that a life spent mostly outdoors must have helped. And he's not done yet. He might do another semester at sea next fall.

"I'm hooked," he said.

Rucker thinks it's that subtle sense of humor and a youthful curiosity about things that has kept Berry fit for these 90 years. That and a place to call his own.

"In this day and age when people are intent on wringing all they can out of a property, where land is worth more dead than alive, it is remarkable to see someone really protect and cherish the land," Rucker said. "Without people like Bill Berry, it'd be wall-to-wall asphalt around here."

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