Lara Lutz is a writer for the Bay Journal and associate editor of Bay Journeys.She has worked as a writer and editor dealing with environmental issues and heritage in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for a variety of organizations and publications since 1995. Lutz is the author of the book “Virginia Indians at Werowocomoco” (National Park Service 2016); “Chesapeake’s Western Shore: Vintage Vacationland,” covering the recreational history of the Bay’s Western Shore; and “Watershed Moments” (Chesapeake Bay Trust 2006), featuring local-level stewardship initiatives in Maryland. Lutz is an Emmy-award winning segment producer for the MPT program Outdoors Maryland, and was the lead writer and editor for the Chesapeake Bay Commission’s Manure-to-Energy report. She holds degrees in English from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and Binghamton University of New York.
I grew up in south central Pennsylvania town at the foot of an Appalachian mountain ridge. My dad would take me on short hikes and fishing trips on the Appalachian Trail. When I got older, I also spent a lot of time at Renfrew Museum and Park, which is right in town but a world apart. It’s centered on two old homesteads along a branch of the Antietam Creek, and there are trails through the woods and fields. I’ll never forget walking the trail one day and coming up on my high school health teacher, sitting in one of those old canvas-strap lawn chairs in the middle of the creek, up to his waist, reading a book.
My family also spent a lot of time in the mountains of western Maryland and I looked to my cousin as the guru of all crayfish-catchers. She taught me well.
No, not at all. I’ve always been writing, since I was a kid. But for a long time, I had no interest in writing nonfiction, let alone journalism, because I thought it would be boring – you know, just the facts. I enjoyed analysis and persuasive writing in college and grad school, where I studied literature. After school, I moved through positions with a few nonprofit organizations and always found myself writing, and helping others with what they needed to write. When I had the chance to become more involved with conservation and the environment, the pieces came together. Descriptions and messaging co-exist with facts. When you bundle them together, it’s powerful.
I’ve been working on Bay-related projects for about 20 years, so I’ve had the chance to watch and work with a number of people who inspire me. Most of all, I’m inspired by people who have visible passion, especially when they need to question the status quo or hold on to their enthusiasm despite discouraging odds. The list would be a long one. There are amazing people working on behalf of clean water and healthy forests and on protecting the places we love.
I’m very lucky, because my work often sends me to wonderful places in the region, so I don’t need time off to visit them. But, as a result, I’ve been to a lot of great places and can’t pick just one favorite. Two places that I have especially enjoyed are Sotterley Plantation in Southern Maryland and Harpers Ferry, WV.
I’ve always been drawn to places where heritage and landscape are preserved and interpreted as one. I think approaches that treat land protection and historical preservation as separate efforts often miss the mark. It’s the combination that gives rise to a sense of place and to the depth of human experience that took place there, with the land and the people affecting each other in a loop. It moves people in a way that facts and figures —and more narrow perspectives — sometimes don’t.
Sotterly Plantation has a beautiful setting on the Patuxent River. The stones on the floor of the long portico, overlooking the river, were built from the ballast of English ships. You can walk the “rolling road,” where hogsheads of tobacco were once rolled down the slope to a wharf. And guides excel at explaining the many ways that generations of families and enslaved people made a home on this land through changing times.
For me, one of the most important features at Sotterley is a small cabin where enslaved people lived — an original, not a recreation. The opportunity for this kind of encounter in the Chesapeake region is rare. And while you will have a friendly reception from Sotterley staff and likely encounter other guests, a crowd is unlikely. There is space and time to stand quietly, and think deeply. And during the same visit, you can have a picnic, watch birds and hike.
Harpers Ferry has a similar draw for me. It can be pretty busy with visitors during warmer months, but the size and spread of the area ensure that there are always places to just be still and absorb. The mountains, the rocky geography and the juncture of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers are a commanding presence; you can hike to dramatic overlooks (the Appalachian Trail cuts through here) and raft or tube on the river. And you can’t separate the heritage from its setting. They are completely connected. The cobble streets and old buildings on the historic district easily invoke another age. And while guides and tours can be found, you can also just wander around and open doors on most of the buildings owned by the Park Service.
As with Sotterley, I found that the staff was committed to sharing multiple perspectives about the people and events of Harpers Ferry — black, white, rich, poor. There is emphasis on the Civil War area, because this is the site where the abolitionist John Brown led his raid on a federal arsenal. I also learned that, when Harpers Ferry was at its height as a passage for westward migration, the streets would have resounded with a range of languages and accents. Take your time if you go. There is much to explore. Be sure to sit on a rock and watch the water go by. I wrote about it here.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park offers a variety of experiences for visitors. Whether you enjoy recreation or historical inquiry, a quiet stroll by the river or a guided program with a ranger, there are opportunities for everyone.