Strawberry Plains Forever

What are conservationists doing in this old house?

By Alan Huffman

Five years ago, Phil Ensley discovered an abandoned shack hidden under mats of vines at Strawberry Plains plantation, three miles north of Holly Springs, Miss. Vultures were roosting inside it. To Ensley, a veterinarian who works with California condors at the San Diego zoo and a consultant with the National Audubon Society, the shack was a striking example of the land reclaiming what humans had built upon it. Nature was taking its course.

In fact, that was precisely the point. Two years before, in 1998, Audubon had taken possession of this former cotton plantation with plans to reverse the effects of 150 years of intensive agriculture and return the land to its natural condition. Some aspects of Strawberry Plains' life as a working plantation, such as the sharecroppers' shack that Ensley saw and two others like it, were to be razed. But after Ensley made a return visit with James Howell, an elderly local resident who had frequented Strawberry Plains as a boy, and listened to Howell describe the hardships overcome by families in the shacks, he realized that the plantation could be more than a nature preserve.

"Strawberry Plains was an opportunity for Audubon to do something unique—to couple conservation with the history of a community, to demonstrate man's relation with the land," says Ensley. With that goal in mind, he started lobbying for what became one of the most ambitious projects that the conservation organization had ever undertaken, a hybrid venture dedicated to restoring Strawberry Plains' environment, preserving its history, and educating the public about both.

With an imposing 12-room Greek revival mansion as its anchor, Strawberry Plains was a regional icon of the antebellum era. This posed a problem for Audubon. Founded by planter Ebenezer Davis in 1837, overrun by the Union Army during the Civil War, and once home to more than 100 slaves, Strawberry Plains is both a monument to the segregationist Old South and home turf for a deeply rooted African American community. Adding "bird sanctuary" would expand the already bewildering array of interpretive possibilities.

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