What’s in a name: ‘Harris’ of the Harris Center joined Eleanor Briggs’ environmental movement

  • Harris Briggs, namesake and co-founder of Hancock’s Harris Center for Conservation Education. Courtesy of the Harris Center

  • The Harris Center in Hancock, whose namesake is derived from founder Eleanor Briggs’ cat, Harris. Abby Kessler—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/2/2017 7:30:00 AM

In 1969, Eleanor Briggs was distraught at how quickly the natural features of her Long Island home were replaced with suburban developments.

Inspired by environmental movements and news coverage of the time, she moved to New Hampshire and dedicated her late grandparents’ land to nature and environmental education. Feeling that she was too young to name it after herself, and wary of naming it after anybody in particular, she turned to a friend that she said “represented a certain wildness, humor, savvy and strong instinct, all elements needed for a successful environmental education center.”

This was her cat, Harris. You know the Hancock site where Briggs summered as a kid where her grandparents lived as the Harris Center for Conservation Education. Harris even signed the first letterhead, which was monogrammed with his actual paw-print.

“There I was in Hancock, a little paradise to which I would flee on weekends from New York City,” she is quoted saying in the Harris Center history. “Listening to the tales of doom and remembering what happened to my childhood home in Long Island, I began to visualize skyscrapers around Norway Pond.”

Determined not to let that happened, she bought her grandparents’ estate and thought it would make a perfect site to start a fight for conservation. The environmental motto at the time was to think global and act local.

“She was responding to concerns about how the landscape of the region was going to look,” said Jeremy Wilson, the current Harris Center executive director.

Back to the cat. He and Briggs met when she found him starving in a New York brownstone. His coat reminded her of harris tweed.

“He came to New Hampshire with me on weekends and joined in outdoor adventures riding on the back of my snowshoes when tired and dodging the great horned owl that lived in the tall pines behind my father’s house,” she said.

Longtime Harris Center figure and naturalist Meade Cadot remembers Harris “running around the woods” with Briggs.

He sees similarities in the cultural climate of the 1960s that sparked Earth Day and the environmental movement with today, especially in resistance to the current presidential administration.

“In the late ’60s there was a lot of interest in the environment,” he said. “There were marches on college campuses the interest really culminated.”

At the time, the Harris Center’s mission was vague, but through partnerships with ConVal High School and the Audubon Society, it became clear that the goal should be education. Now, that goal has expanded.

According to Cadot, the center became a land trust in 1983 with only seven acres of forest. Today, they have thousands, and the Monadnock region is a hub of conservation and environmentalism.

A fun note: At first, it was called the Harris Foundation. In 1974, anthropologist Margaret Mead spoke in Hancock and surprised directors when she expected to be paid. She said, according to Cadot, “You can’t be calling yourself a foundation and not be giving money away.” The board changed it that year.

So yes, the Harris Center for Conservation Education came to earn its name from none other than a tweedy-looking cat and Margaret Mead.




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