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Backyard Birder: Remembering Rick and Duffy

Thirteen years ago I wrote a column, “Remembering Dave,” in memory of Dave Stephenson, and now I write in memory of Dave’s friends, Rick and Duffy Monahon. They were three peas in a pod, inspiring conservationists and friends to many.

“Rick and Duffy.” The names go together for their circles and circles of friends that grew from all the projects they engaged in with singular Rick and Duffy energy.

The Peterborough Conservation Commission created an award to honor Dave Stephenson. Duffy was the second person to receive the Conservation Award.

The hall was packed at the award dinner and I told some Duffy stories.

As a grandchild she visited her grandparents’ Four Winds Farm in Peterborough, running wild in the apple orchard and among the burnt-out ruins of a house at the top of a hill overlooking orchard and eastward to town. There was a walled secret garden, her very own secret garden she said.

She said the orchard farm always represented “a place to hang my hat.”

Thirty years later Duffy returned to Peterborough to live — and to piece the family farm back together again on what she described as the “lay away plan.”

The farm had been divided up, some parcels to family but many not.

She conserved her 35 acres and persuaded her mother and brother, Malcolm, to do the same on their land.

One 40-acre lot was flagged for 12 house lots. She decided to buy it at a time when their architecture business was in the doldrums along with the economy.

“Don’t tell Rick,” she said.

By then, she and Rick lived at the farm after designing and building a house on the burned-out ruins on the hill.

She told the award dinner gathering, “I knew the family turmoil resulting from purchasing the land — and going into debt — would be less than the turmoil of all those houses built right under our noses. But just in case, I didn’t tell the family.”

In 1991, Duffy went into action and applied for a grant for the town to buy 150 acres abutting Four Winds Farm. She made it look like many groups were partners in the project — an application criteria. She smiled, saying there’s a knack to that.

Deadline looming, she drove to Concord to hand deliver the application, just in the nick of time as usual.

The resulting 150-acre Fremont Conservation Area is one of the most appreciated conservation lands in town.

At the dinner I asked how many people had been given reading material by Duffy on town planning, zoning, preservation of historic buildings — all with the intent of maintaining town character. Duffy was one of the first to talk about “sense of place.”

Many people raised their hands, including Selectman Ed Juengst who stood up to say that the town master planning process underway at that time was putting in place a lot of the principles that Duffy had been talking about for years.

Ed’s pile of reading material hand-delivered by Duffy was a big one.

Duffy being Duffy took the opportunity to speak to the gathering at length about those principles, referring now and again to many pages of handwritten notes, a common practice of hers.

Rick, for his part, tended Four Winds Farm, chainsaw and tractor in steady use. He also became the very bedrock of town planning as chair of the Peterborough Planning Board and elder statesman mentoring members newer to town planning. Patient, thoughtful and hearing all sides, he was respected by all sides.

Duffy wore her politics on her sleeve, but come election day, when Democrats hold signs on one side and Republicans on the other, Duffy would visit with all. I suspect that because she didn’t judge people she didn’t feel judged herself, and saw most doors as open ones.

My favorite Duffy expression I heard when I was judging someone: She said, simply, “Aren’t we all mixed blessings.” It was her way of moving beyond the temptation to judge.

One week before the Monahons died, she called up — as usual at the 11th hour. She said we should get a group together for trail work on National Service Day a few days off. She’d provide hot chocolate.

My grumpy response was that I didn’t need another project, but her energy won. And there was a mess of trees uprooted and fallen across the trail at the Fremont town land that she had conserved. In hindsight, it was the perfect project.

Rick on one chainsaw and Carl Von Mertens on another, seven downed trees were cleared and slash piled by the hastily assembled workgang.

Rick emailed me later, asking that I send him photos of what he said was such a fun, “rewarding” time. As usual, his enthusiasm was high.

From the workgang they were heading to Peterborough Players. “Opera,” said Rick, smiling. “I do what Duffy tells me to.” Duffy was brushing sawdust off his jacket. Prepared for opera, he’d worn what Duffy called his “nice jacket.”

Anyone attending meetings or other events with Rick and Duffy knows there was likely to be hay or barn shavings clinging to their clothes. That day it was sawdust.

They left the group and walked back along the trail, side by side although the trail was narrow. Duffy was carrying the chainsaw. I couldn’t get my camera out in time for that Rick and Duffy photo.

Next January, and Januaries to follow, the Conservation Commission will host a Monahon Day of Service, clearing trails, hauling brush, hot cocoa provided.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Ledger-Transcript.

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