For a half century now, Jeff Leon has remained passionate about two things: The environment and good rock n’ roll music with a message.
“I came out of college in 1970 very concerned about the environment and convinced that we were ruining it,” said Leon, a New York City native who has lived on the family’s summer homestead in Montgomery County just east of Amsterdam since 2000. “And I guess I also came out of college listening to John Lennon. They were both very important to me.”
Leon’s love for Lennon and his interest in the environment become quickly evident as you head onto his property just off Cranes Hollow Road in the Town of Amsterdam. On the way up a steep hill toward his home, his family’s farm and the Strawberry Fields Nature Preserve, you pass about a dozen signs with the lyrics of Lennon’s 1967 classic “Strawberry Fields Forever.” On the way back down visitors see more sign posts on the other side of the road with the words to another Lennon classic from 1971, his solo piece “Imagine.”
“When I retired in 2002 I was thinking about how I could ‘think global and act local,’” said Leon, who was based in New York City most of his life and who worked in the corporate world for Avon Cosmetics for more than three decades. “One of the ways to do that was to make sure the land doesn’t get overdeveloped. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen here.”
The 118 acres of land that Leon owns was protected by a conservation easement in 2013 with the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy. Working with that group over the next three years, Leon created the Strawberry Fields Nature Preserve in 2017. It entails a series of trails measuring 2.5 miles that circle Leon’s property.
So when the MHLC joined forces with a handful of other groups to form a remote data-monitoring project called Motus –- a bird-tracking system also under the eye of Bird Studies Canada — they figured they had a willing partner and a great site in Leon and the Strawberry Fields Nature Preserve.
“Jeff has been on our board of directors for a while and we know he’s not only an advocate for conservation, he lives it,” said Sarah Walsh, the MHLC’s conservation director. “He has solar panels, he lives off the grid, he and his family are all about sustainable agriculture with a small footprint, and he is an incredible steward of the land. We thought he would be supportive of this kind of thing.”
Leon loved the idea, although one potential drawback was the prospect of a 30-foot-high receiver station that would have to be constructed on the property.
“My first reaction was, ‘well, this is terrific,’ but then I wasn’t really sure how I would feel about looking at that antenna,” said Leon, whose son and daughter-in-law run Lovin’ Mama Farm on the land, an organic, no-till farm that specializes in 250 varieties of specialty vegetables, herbs and flowers. “Given its purpose, I told myself that we could make this happen, and it’s not that bad. Around my house you can see the top of it, but it does not obstruct the view, and there are places on the property where you can’t see it at all.”
The receiver station at Strawberry Fields serves as a critical link from the Catskills to the Adirondacks, monitoring the flight pattern of migrating birds, bats and large insects.
“Strawberry Fields is a great place,” said Walsh. “It’s nice and flat with beautiful views. With the Motus tower, we’re capturing birds you wouldn’t usually associate with this area, like the sunderling and the red knot. Those birds, and the rusty blackbird, make up populations that are in steep decline and scientists don’t know why. But they’re flying across here to their wintering grounds in the Southern U.S., and all this information we’re collecting will help us try to figure out why they are in decline.”
The birds are picked up by the receiver station because of a small sensor placed on them by scientists earlier this year and in 2019 up in Canada.
The Willistown Conservation Trust just outside of Philadelphia is one of the collaborators of the Motus project, and Lisa Kiziuk, director of bird conservation for the group, is thrilled to have Strawberry Fields Nature Preserve on board.
“We now have nine stations set up along the I-90 corridor in New York, and the Strawberry Fields Preserve, located where it is, is a really important station because the Adirondacks and the Catskills are real hot spots for stopovers,” said Kiziuk. “So we’ve been collecting all this information as the birds leave the Adirondacks and head into the Catskills. We also look at some stations in Pennsylvania and Maryland and can learn how fast they’re moving and where they are stopping. We’re building a network that is going to help our research and maybe help us explain why there are three billion less birds in the world today than there were in 1970. There are lots of reasons, loss of habitat, pesticides, outdoor cats, but the collaborative nature of this project will help everyone working hard in conservation areas. This kind of work ends up benefiting all of us.”
Birds are not the only thing to see at the Strawberry Fields Preserve, situated where the Glenville Hills roll into Montgomery County. There’s plenty for botany lovers to appreciate, including fringed gentian throughout Leon’s property, and just walking the grounds are a treat to geologists as well as anyone who enjoys the great outdoors.
The land was originally settled by Phillip Groat (or Groot) soon after he took his family west following the Schenectady Massacre in 1690. It stayed in the Groat family until late in the 19th century and then had a series of owners until Alexander Leon, Jeff’s father, purchased the property in 1968.
“I came up here almost every summer for 30 years,” said Leon. “We lived in New York City but this was our country home. Soon after my dad died right after I got out of college, I realized it meant much more to me than just a country house. It’s a special place.”
It’s one of several outdoor places registered with the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, a group created back in 1992 to protect wild areas within the counties of Schenectady, Albany and Montgomery. In all, the MHLC has 12,500 acres in 20 public preserves that will keep the land safe from development while also offering the public hiking trails and cross-country skiing options weather-permitting. According to Walsh, since the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the country in March, getting outdoors in the open air has become a popular pastime.
“Our preserves are open to the public from dusk to dawn, and since the pandemic started we’ve seen an extraordinary increase in their use,” said Walsh. “It’s probably quadrupled over last year because people have been forced to stay local, and they’re looking for something to do.“
“We continue to have a great cadre of volunteers that make sure the trails remain clear and open,” added Walsh. “To me, getting outdoors is a safe way to get out and enjoy yourself. I love it, and when I hear kids laughing and having fun out in the woods, especially when the world is going through what it is right now, it really becomes a great experience.”
This Dec. 8 marks the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s death. Shot by a fan, Mark David Chapman, Lennon’s ashes were scattered in New York’s Central Park where the Strawberry Fields memorial now stands in his honor.