Les Hyde and an old oak in Long Cove
Les Hyde and an old oak in Long Cove
Over the past three decades Leslie Hyde has sowed the seeds for a flourishing land trust, planted and nourished an environmental children's camp, and pollinated a lot of people's minds with the idea that it's good to be one with the land.

Hyde retired last year after 32 years with the University of Maine (UM) Cooperative Extension. For 20 of those years he worked out of the Knox-Lincoln county Extension office. His title was extension educator; it fits him, but doesn't begin to tell the whole story of this gregarious guy who loves to be with people of all ages, sailing, singing, cooking up projects or perhaps just meditating on the rocky shore of a nearby island, on a mountain or beside the woodstove in his house on Long Cove in St. George.

The biggest accomplishment of Hyde's long tenure with UM Extension is the Tanglewood 4H Camp & Learning Center, located on 1,000 rolling acres of Camden Hills State Park. The Ducktrap River wends its way through the property, offering chilly swimming, paddling and a setting for studying the ecology of a watershed.

The camp's centerpiece is a rustic lodge with native stone fireplace and a kitchen ell where wholesome, organic foods are prepared. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the original camp in the 1930s. Old wooden camp buildings, long neglected, are now in good repair.

"All I had was an idea," said Hyde. Thirty years ago the old camp buildings were in decay, but Hyde saw their potential and, with like-minded visionaries, resurrected Tanglewood. Today it thrives as a place where children learn cooperation and respect for one another and the natural environment that supports life itself.

"The idea in the long run," Hyde explained, "is the kids will become conservation leaders in their communities."

Now 64, Hyde came to Maine in the 1970s from New York, where he worked as an extension educator in Dutchess County training conservation commission members, organizing visual environment committees, helping to save Eleanor Roosevelt's Valkill home, and relocating a 22-mile section of the Appalachian Trail from roads to the woods. A native of Rhode Island, he attended college at the University of Rhode Island and in Massachusetts at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. An invitation to live on Mosquito Island in St. George was all it took to convince Hyde that midcoast Maine was a kind of paradise, an unspoiled environment that at times felt like stepping into the past.

Then a single dad with a young son, he needed a job. There was just one opening at the University of Maine's Knox-Lincoln Extension office in Rockland, and Hyde landed it. As he worked with various organizations and individuals and came to know the land and seascape of the midcoast, he realized that helter-skelter development could permanently change the character of the midcoast (as, he acknowledges, it already has). An optimist, he set out to save some of the natural features that make this place special.

"You can attend a meeting and have a voice, but if you can create an organization with a vision, if you can create an organization with a mission, it's much more powerful. Then, that vision carries on, potentially forever." In 1987, after several years of organizing, the Georges River Land Trust got under way with an easement on two acres of St. George oceanfront where the sea sometimes charges up a crevice, hence the name Roaring Spout.

The leaders and members of the young land trust persuaded the state to upgrade water quality in the St. George River from Class C to Class AA, Hyde said, after a blitz of letters and testimony at public hearings. Today the land trust has protected about 2,600 acres of land, including farms and wildlife habitat.

A one-acre island just off Hyde's own shorefront is now owned by the land trust, thanks to his fund-raising efforts. Tommy's Island was acquired in 2001, ending attempts to sell it as a "house lot."

Eliza Bailey of Appleton, the first director of the land trust, said Hyde impressed her with his seemingly boundless optimism "for getting complex things done. As we know, this is a grand aspect of leadership, because those following need to be confident their leader believes not only in the mission but in the possibility and probability that it can be realized."

Hyde said he also came to realize that it takes more than laws to save a place. "Zoning wasn't going to do it, regulating subdivisions wasn't going to do it, even conservation commissions weren't going to do it. It had to come from people's hearts."

He speaks passionately about connecting children and adults with nature, making the point that "what you do to the land you do to yourself . . . the land is really us."

That philosophy is intrinsic to the 1982 re-creation of Tanglewood, Hyde's lasting lifetime achievement. The nonprofit nature camp has grown to include programs for young adults and older people. The public school program aims to connect children with the environment, just as the summer programs do - and sending a child to Tanglewood remains far cheaper than tuition at most other camps, and scholarships are offered.

The Tanglewood pledge, recited under an earth flag, catches the camp spirit: "I pledge allegiance to the earth and to the life she provides, one planet, interconnected, with beauty and peace for all."

In 1993, Tanglewood launched leadership programs for teens on the Ducktrap and St. George rivers, providing experiences for personal growth, understanding watersheds and natural relationships, as well as team-building and bonding among participants.

For many years Hyde led a weeklong workshop at Tanglewood called Yankee Woodlot Forestry Camp, a program for landowners who wanted to manage their timber harvest sustainably. Hyde also organized programs to encourage teachers to take their kids outdoors; an activity that he says is still all too infrequent at public schools.

Heather Francis, who runs year-round school programs at Tanglewood, caught the whimsical side of Hyde, remembering when he quoted Dr. Seuss' The Lorax as he jumped on a stump: "I speak for the trees."

She said Hyde "truly has been the Lorax of Tanglewood, speaking for the trees and, with his gentle wisdom, teaching us all how to do so in a way that can be heard by people of all walks of life and political persuasions."

Tanglewood staffer Leah Trommer, who assists Francis, said Hyde wouldn't hesitate to fill in if someone was sick. "He would show up ready for the day with his bag lunch in hand in his homemade, purple knit hat. The students were in awe of his gentle and compelling demeanor. I have images of them moving in as closely as possible to him, so they could gather every word."

Some of Hyde's words are aimed at the whole society, and the way we teach our children. "The technology in the classroom is a wall to nature, a wall to who we are." He says we need to get kids outside and let them explore, let them think and feel and blossom into responsible stewards of the earth. "In a larger sense, we don't really own the land," said Hyde.

We won't discover ourselves unless we connect to our environment, unless we connect with one another. "I don't think it can happen sitting inside watching a video. It happens by immersing yourself in the forest, in the lake, on the ocean," Hyde said.