By MICHAEL FRETT
ISLE LA MOTTE – While the rock in this part of the island is maybe best celebrated for its record of life from millions of years ago, the now retired Fisk Quarry is still very much alive.
On a recent July afternoon, birds leapt between trees and frogs bounced their croaks off quarry walls, providing the soundtrack for a visiting family and, on the opposite end of the quarry, The Islander.
Turtles dipped into the water now filling the quarry at the first sign of a reporter’s camera. A beaver’s lodge sat idle. A fox sitting near the gate bounced into a nearby stand of trees.
Visiting wildlife specialists once told Linda Fitch, the eventual founder of the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust (ILMPT), they had documented as many as 110 species of bird around the quarry.
It was, to quote Fitch, “one of the richest habitats on the island.”
Four hundred million years ago, her statement may have been just as true.
Buried within Isle La Motte’s southernmost third are the imprints of what, according to the National Parks Service, represents the “oldest known occurrence of a biologically diverse fossil reef in the world.”
Across the island’s two nature preserves, both maintained by the Isle La Motte Preservation Trust, are outcroppings of a dark limestone pockmarked with the imprints of aquatic animals like gastropods and cephalopods, the early evolutionary ancestors of today’s snails and squids, respectively.
In the millions of years since snails and squids populated the shallow Iapetus Ocean, their remains would fall to the ocean’s bottom and subsequently be buried. Sediments washed over their left behind shells and as those layers of dirt and sand grew, pressure built and pressed remains into fossils.
Maybe more significantly are the remains of stromatoporoids caked into the Fisk Quarry’s walls. The ancient predecessors to sponges helped build the Ordovician Period reef now enshrined in the island’s limestone deposits once marketed as far away as New York City as luxurious “black marble.”
The outcroppings are significant enough that the two preserves, as well as the nearby Valcour Island in New York, have been enshrined as National Natural Landmarks, celebrating their contributions to modern understandings of evolution and prehistoric life.
“A deep satisfaction”
Today, the Fisk Quarry, a historic industrial site flush with wetlands, is one of two nature preserves maintained by the now well-established Isle La Motte Preservation Trust.
The second preserve, the Goodsell Ridge Preserve, fills out around 83 acres of former pastureland spread out northeast of the quarry. Now replanted as natural land, the retired farm is rung with trails, all leading back to a restored barn providing the preservation trust with its de facto headquarters.
Both are two of the only publicly accessible natural areas on Vermont’s westernmost island, a fact the trust’s founder and president Fitch takes pride in.
“I have a deep sense of satisfaction,” Fitch said. “I feel very good about having made possible a public place to go and to just walk.”
Earlier this month, The Islander met with Fitch at her property neighboring the Fisk Quarry, where the quarry’s former owners, the Fisk family, once headquartered their quarry operation and had raised a manor extravagant enough to host American presidents.
A state historical marker at the Fisk Farm celebrates such a visit from then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, whose visit would be notoriously cut short by news President William McKinley had been shot. Roosevelt, upon his return to Washington, D.C., would be sworn in as president.
While once the site of a general store servicing a small quarry town, the Fisk Farm is notably quiet.
Bikers occasionally stop by, passing cars rattle over the nearby gravel road and a gallery filling the farm’s former barn courts visitors, but things are, by and large, serene in the kind of romantic sense people often attach to the Champlain Islands’ quieter corners.
“Being here now,” Fitch said, “it’s quiet.”
It was when jackhammers began rattling off one day in 1995, threatening to break up that silence, that events would be set into motion leading to the preservation trust’s foundation.
“How cool is that?”
Fitch details the events leading up to the creation of the Fisk Quarry preserve in her book, The Qwarriors. According to her book, a not insignificant number of residents were concerned with the effects quarrying could have on both the environment and their lakeside quality of life.
Fitch’s book describes the roar of jackhammers and the sound of trucks pulling rock up the dirt road stretching past the Fisk Farm. “I was terrified,” she recalled to The Islander as she pointed in the direction of the Fisk Quarry, “because it was right there.”
By this time, the quarry had become the wetland habitat it resembles today. The visiting wildlife specialists who identified more than 100 birds in the area had already come and gone, according to Fitch, and her family had already made a habit of observing the beaver lodges pocketing the quarry.
In the years that followed, the quarry would become subject to a permitting battle involving Act 250, Vermont’s land use law that adheres new commercial projects to, among other things, a series of environmental criteria.
By 1998, the owners of the Fisk Quarry, whose limestone lines the floors of the Vermont State House and helps color the interior of Radio City Music Hall in New York, agreed to sell the quarry to the Isle La Motte Reef Preservation Trust, then a nascent nonprofit formed to allow for the quarry’s purchase.
While her book uses occasionally combative language, often describing the events as an “eco-battle” invoking environmental and historical interests and challenging a quarrying tradition that helped build Isle La Motte, Fitch is now far more diplomatic when recalling the quarry’s preservation.
The legal and political hatchets sharpened in the 1990s have, by 2021, largely been buried, she said, and the quarry owners who attempted to resume mining the fossil-rich limestone of the Fisk Quarry have become friends to today’s Isle La Motte Preservation Trust.
“We prevailed and, during the process, established a relationship with the owners of the quarry,” Fitch recalled from her front porch. “It turned out that, you know, we became friends.”
Eventually their organizing coalesced into today’s preservation trust, with Fitch, who had led much of the work to preserve the Fisk Quarry, at its head.
Their group would eventually purchase the nearby Goodsell Ridge Preserve from a family of local farmers who wanted to see the property’s fossil records preserved. The following years would see the farm’s farmhouse restored as an office and a dairy barn restored into a visitor’s center.
In the latter sits a grand piano Fitch repeatedly described as “beautiful,” used during annual concert seasons the preservation trust has since put on hold due to the uncertainties with public gatherings amid COVID-19 and Vermont’s potential emergence from the pandemic.
Wrapped around the Goodsell preserve is a trail marked with information about its 460-million-year-old fossil reef known more widely as the Chazy Fossil Reef, named for the New York town where the reef’s remains were first documented and studied.
Trail markers describe the Chazy’s snails and squids, and the millions of years of tectonics, the forces shifting continents and sparking earthquakes the world over, that dragged a diverse, fossilized reef from the tropics to an often far chillier home in the future Champlain Islands.
The histories transcribed on those markers continue to draw the interestof geologists and paleontologists, according to Fitch. They have also provided a new source of fame for Isle La Motte, winning headlines in publications like the Smithsonian Magazine and Los Angeles Times.
“I’m proud to have made my own contribution to something that has been a great interest to geologists for many years,” Fitch said to The Islander. “It’s the earliest biologically diverse reef in the history of life on Earth. How cool is that?”
Also perched along the trails are a series of placards detailing the formation of the Earth from loose gases formed at the start of the universe to the vibrant planet existing today, one of only a handful of such “Walk Through Time” presentations in the country.
“I want to see it thrive”
As she leaned back on her porch with her dog nearby, Fitch told The Islander her focus now is helping transition the preservation trust away from her leadership. Term limits for the trust’s presidentship mean Fitch will have to walk away from the preservation trust’s leadership sooner rather than later.
With that in mind, Fitch said her only priorities now, after helping protect two natural areas and guiding the preservation trust toward educational and cultural programs, like the Goodsell preserve’s concerts and its “Walk Through Time” presentation, is to set the nonprofit up to continue without her.
“I want to see it thrive,” Fitch said. “A huge priority for me is that it would be able to thrive, and be healthy and happy without me, with people that just care a lot about it and about the work.”