Columbus, Ohio USA
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Doing right by the earth and the people
Benevolence and Highlands Nature Sanctuary
by Michele Spring-Moore
August 2003 Issue

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© Photos courtesy of Larry and Nancy Henry
It is perhaps the ultimate in armchair activism: Eating a simple, wholesome lunch in the Short North helps preserve wilderness 90 minutes southwest of Columbus in Highland County.

Benevolence, A Cafe, at 41 Swan St., welcomes diners into its small, sunny space with blond wood paneling and communal tables and benches crafted simply and beautifully from tall trees. The profits from the cafe and from Benevolence, A Bakery across the road in North Market, go to save live trees at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary, founded in 1995 by Benevolence owners Larry and Nancy Henry.

The Henrys started Benevolence 20 years ago as a bakery and gift shop selling crafts made locally and in other countries. When the time came to reopen in North Market after its renovations, Nancy says, they couldn't see the old shop fitting into the new atmosphere. Now all that remains of the gift shop is a small collection of progressive books for sale at the café, but the menu remains true to its old self.

Bread, salad, and three soup choices are available daily for lunch at the café. Both of the Benevolence locations offer food made with natural ingredients, including organic produce and grains. Larry and Nancy have long had a keen interest in the connections between caring for the environment, growing healthy food, and offering that food to others.

"We've always been dedicated to the earth," Nancy says. "People are in denial about the earth being in peril... You try to do your best to do right by the earth and do right by the people."

In the mid-1990s, the Henrys had the opportunity to take these "ethical actions" to a new level when they bought a small piece of land in Highland County. Nancy and Larry's first career was working as naturalists for the Ohio state park system and they had owned Benevolence for more than 10 years, so preserving a parcel of rural land seemed like a good service project. The Henrys didn't set out to live in Highland County, nor to found a nonprofit wilderness sanctuary, Nancy says. Making their first land purchase "was a fairly simple, very personal sort of thing."

But they saw an unfulfilled need – many Ohio residents were putting money into houses, but very few into the land itself, and charities focused on causes besides the environment. And the more time she and Larry spent in the Rocky Fork area, Nancy says, the more "connected" they felt to this "sleepy, beautiful part of Ohio." Their timing was serendipitous: more and more pieces of land near theirs &endash; many of which had been owned by single families for generations – were going up for sale, and the Henrys realized that this real estate boom signaled the end of the county's era as sleepy and beautiful and the beginning of the development that had destroyed so much of the rest of the state.

They decided to go public with their nature preserve idea and see if they could find others interested in saving wilderness areas. Several thousand people have responded in the last eight years, giving money, volunteer time, and services - an 81-year-old woman from Columbus even donated her electric car. The organization has been working this year on obtaining eight new properties, and the Highlands Nature Sanctuary now consists of 1600 acres and is incorporated as a nonprofit public foundation directed by the Henrys and a 5-member board of trustees.

The foundation has obtained more land by using a combination of individual monetary and property donations, loans, and a matching-funds grant from the Clean Ohio Fund for the preservation of botanically significant natural areas and river corridors.

Saving wilderness is particularly important in states like Ohio, Nancy says, which retain so little virgin forest.

"Basically the entire state was cut down," she says. "Our job is to restore it. We do have a few remnants - a few square acres - of old growth forest. Our job is to link it back together and let nature do its job." Nature is incredibly intelligent about healing itself, Nancy says, and humans need to "just get out of the way."

"The forests are in pretty good shape if they were never clear cut or pastured," she adds.

Highlands is home to an abundance of wildflowers, animals, and insects, including fox, red-tail hawks, salamanders, and saturniids (commonly known as silk moths), and at least a dozen rare species, including the barn owl and the yellow ladyslipper. But the foundation puts less emphasis on saving endangered species than on preserving the environment as a whole, Nancy says: "The entire large ecosystem is in peril."

Educating the public about this ecosystem is another of Highland's missions. The sanctuary has a full year-round calendar of weekend guided hikes, workshops, classes, and retreats, led by more than 20 naturalists, botanists, zoologists, and historians. Among the most popular offerings are monthly Sunday afternoon hikes followed by catered vegetarian dinners (Flavors of Latin America and Shakespearean Dinner have been among the recent themes), intensive courses (June and July's "In Praise of Trees" taught identification of 48 trees in a series of four workshops), and Larry Henry's real estate tours, during which he shows the pieces of land the sanctuary is looking to buy.

Some of the foundation's recent land acquisitions have made it easier for visitors to feel like guests not only in the woods - a few of the properties have houses in stunning locations and have been converted into bed and breakfasts and retreat centers. Prices range from $22 a night at Taloden Woods Campground, to $80 at Ravenwood B & B, to $300 per group for Beechcliff, a historic former hunting lodge that includes a kitchen and dining room and sleeps 10. Discounts are given for off-season visits.

Those who work and volunteer at Highlands want people to come to know wilderness more as an essential part of their lives and have "less a sense of nature as pretty backdrop," Nancy says.

As she writes in The Emerald Web, the latest issue of the Highlands newsletter, "Why would humans invest in wilderness? The reasons are many, but one of the most 'selfish' is that many of us find that wilderness gives us the renewal, the beauty, companionship and inspiration we cannot find in our own creations."

The next time you have an hour for lunch and want to do something for the environment and your own sense of serenity, drop into Benevolence Café for a fresh salad and a bowl of hearty soup, and help contribute to "wilderness sprawl"!

For more information on Highlands Nature Sanctuary, see the website at Benevolence closed June 2009 after a change in ownership.


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