The Audacity of Liz Putnam

Yankee
Monday, April 17, 2017
Like most origin stories, this one begins at the intersection of chance and destiny.
 
Liz Titus Putnam is telling it to me on a soft summer morning in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, about five miles north of Bennington, as we sit outside on a patio with her husband, Bruce, looking out at West Mountain. The peaceful farmstead, called Manatuck Farm, has been in her family since 1951, when her parents detoured to Vermont to see a friend while on their way to scout coastal properties for a second-home retreat from New York City. 
 
When Liz talks about the farm, her eyes sparkle, and then at times they close, as if she’s in a reverie of memories. And there are moments when tears well up. “I get leaky,” she says.
 
Liz Putnam is full of bounce and vigor at 83, as befits someone who has hiked endless miles on some of the most beautiful trails in America. Bruce has a few years on her, but he, too, looks as if he could hop onto the tractor that at this moment a farmer is steering as he cuts hay in the meadow. It’s late August, and on many farms it should be the third cutting, but this is the first—“to the dismay of the farmer,” Liz says. She won’t allow a single cutting until the bobolinks have finished nesting in the fields and coaxed their babies to flight.
 
The origin story Liz tells is about her Student Conservation Association (SCA). When only in her early twenties, she wedged her way into the male-dominated world of park rangers and superintendents and created what had never existed before in America: a youth volunteer conservation movement. Years later, Roger Kennedy, former director of the National Park Service, praised SCA as contributing “more to the national parks than any private volunteer partner in the parks’ history.” Today more than 10,000 youth from all backgrounds apply to fill some 4,000 SCA openings, and they fan out each year to work in national, state, and city parks.
 
 
Text by Mel Allen; photo by Mark Fleming