Gail Greene is modest and reluctant to talk about herself. So, the best way to come to know her is to see for yourself what she does. And to do this, take a walk along the laneways through Simmons Mill Pond Management Area, starting at the Colebrook Road parking lot.
Gail has worked tirelessly, for more than ten years, helping to make this woodland, with its ponds, historic laneways, old mill site, and abandoned farm in the woods, an experience that you will enjoy again and again with your family.
First, though, a little bit about Gail herself so that people understand her total commitment to helping others enjoy this natural and historic part of Little Compton’s landscape. Gail grew up in a small town in Maine, in the countryside where a gravel road peters out to woods, abandoned farms and the river. She spent her childhood in these woods, playing with her sister at the abandoned farm nearby (the farmhouse was still standing then), and floating down the river on a homemade raft. She knows that her love of the woods and the history imbedded in them began with those days as a child. And as she told me, so many people she has talked with about their own love of the woods goes back to childhood experiences in the out-of-doors with their families or neighborhood friends.
Gail knows that those kinds of childhood experiences are so important that she wants to help families create those lifelong experiences for themselves. She has helped to do that for Little Compton families, as can be seen by the full parking lot at the start of the laneway on most weekends throughout the year. Young families walk the laneways carrying babies, pushing jogging strollers, or reading the informative signs to their children. Grandparents bring their grandchildren. Townspeople bring their visiting friends.
Gail explained to me that Little Compton’s natural and cultural landscape are layers of history, right in front of us ready to reveal themselves. She said that our town’s natural and historic landscapes are folded together and reflect the way generations of townspeople have lived. She said, “We can see this along the cartpaths and laneways that wend their way through Colebrook Woods and around the six ponds. People stop and look out over the old mill pond that provided the power for the mill behind the dam. Later, the mill pond was a source of ice that was delivered by Wilbur’s store to homes throughout town. The stone walls and the laneways themselves remain from the time the land was farmed. Walkers also see an old well and barn foundation remaining from the time of widespread farm abandonment.”
Gail introduced me to the term “palimpsest” when she explained the landscape in Colebrook Woods. When I looked perplexed, she explained that the literal meaning of palimpsest is an artist’s canvas that had been painted over so that another picture could be painted on top of the old one. Modern technologies have made it possible for art historians to actually see the original painting beneath. Here, the palimpsest landscape of Colebrook Woods is a layering of our town’s past, ready to be revealed.
To better understand Gail’s deep appreciation of this landscape and the value she places on helping others enjoy it, we should go back, for a moment, to South Berwick, Maine, where Gail grew up. South Berwick was also the town where Sarah Orne Jewett was born and spent her childhood. Jewett was born in 1849, exactly 100 years before Gail. Jewett loved her town and the rural life in Maine. Jewett wrote, “There is no better way of learning American history than to find out what one can of the story of an old New England town.”
Whether it was being brought up with Jewett’s books reflecting her love of small towns, or growing up just down the road from Jewett’s family home (now an historic site), it is clear that Gail not only shares Sarah Orne Jewett’s values, but wants others to have the opportunity to enjoy our town’s rich natural and historic landscape.
You will know her better if you take your family for a walk on the historic laneways through Colebrook Woods and see the work that she does to make Colebrook Woods a place for all of us to enjoy. She works to make the laneways an easy walk for all – passable for strollers and with benches where older people can stop and rest. There are small, unobtrusive signs telling people about the plants and historic walls, mill site, and abandoned farm. Then there are wonderful historic photographs that bring you back in time.
Gail Greene’s values and commitment can be seen with every bend in the laneway. In a way, Colebrook Woods is a palimpsest of Gail herself. You will enjoy seeing the layers revealed.
It seemed to me that our conversation was concluding when Gail said, “You know, we haven’t talked about Roger, my husband. All of the projects we have been discussing we have been working on together.”
“I realize that, because I always see the two of you working together in Colebrook Woods. But this interview is for The Women of Little Compton project”, I said.
“Let me tell you a quick story”, Gail said. “About 40 years ago, Roger was helping out in an elementary school and the teacher was teaching her class a poem. She had half the class learn the first stanza, then the second half of the class learn the second stanza. They recited back and forth this way through the entire poem. One student asked, “Why are we learning it this way?” The teacher explained that they wouldn’t need to memorize as much if they only needed to remember every other stanza. The student was amazed. He said, “Half a poem? What good is half a poem?”
Gail said, “If two lives are entwined, isn’t a description of one person’s life a little like hearing every other stanza in a poem?”
“Maybe”, I said. I didn’t know if this was modesty or insight. “Tell me more.”
Gail said that we are better understood by looking at the choices we have made over a lifetime – for instance the choice of who one decides to marry, or the jobs that one decides to take. Gail told me that she was a senior at Springfield College, majoring in Outdoor Education, when she met Roger Greene. He was her supervisor when she was doing her student teaching at Otter Lake Conservation School in Greenfield New Hampshire. They got married and soon started working for the Audubon Society but then took jobs with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
They always worked together on projects.
Their first assignment was to develop a state-wide Naturalist Program for the Rhode Island state park system. Then they were asked to develop a series of wayside exhibits for the parks, then a series of park brochures, and a series of environmental education curricula cooperatively with the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
Eventually, they both worked in the Director’s Office of DEM and spent most of their careers there before retiring and devoting all of their time to volunteering in the state-owned land in Colebrook Woods.
“We have always worked together since the day we met 50 years ago.”
During a more recent walk in Colebrook Woods with Gail, I saw changes in response to the COVID 19 pandemic and I talked with Gail about those changes.
She told me that a nursing professor from a Rhode Island nursing school suggested that signage be changed in a way that maps and interpretive signs aren’t handled when read.
So, most of the signs were removed, laminated with UV-protected laminating paper, and mounted on taller bases so that walkers wouldn’t need to handle them to read them.
Another change was to make the historic laneways through a little wider so walkers could pass each other in opposite directions and still maintain social distancing.
Gail told me, “So many more families are walking the laneways and fishing at the ponds all week long since the schools and many businesses are closed. Besides the distance learning set up by the schools, families are doing their own ‘home schooling’ informally here on a small scale using signage along the laneways. The families have windows into Little Compton’s history when they walk by the mill pond, the site of the mill, and the farmsite. When they walk along the laneways at the farm, they are walking the same path used by the farmer and his family to take the cows from the barn out to the pasture. It is so easy to go back in time during a family walk.”
Gail told me that many walkers have said that a regular visit to Colebrook Woods is a temporary escape from the pressure of being in the middle of a pandemic.
Written by an anonymous resident of Adamsville who walks often at Simmons Mill Pond