A Life: Linda Wilson ‘always noticed what needed to be done’

Linda Wilson paints in Utah in 2013. Painting held her attention. Wilson often traveled to do so later in her life. (Family photograph)

Linda Wilson paints in Utah in 2013. Painting held her attention. Wilson often traveled to do so later in her life. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Linda with Mary in her backpack, and her nephew Owen Heine, in 1980 at Steve Wilson's parents' house in Hartford, Vt. Linda and Steve would build their house across the street shortly thereafter. (Family photograph)

Linda with Mary in her backpack, and her nephew Owen Heine, in 1980 at Steve Wilson's parents' house in Hartford, Vt. Linda and Steve would build their house across the street shortly thereafter. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Linda and Steve Wilson in New Mexico in the 1970s, with Steve's dog Barney. (Family photograph)

Linda and Steve Wilson in New Mexico in the 1970s, with Steve's dog Barney. (Family photograph) —

Linda Wilson and fellow Hartford Conservation Commission member Karen Douville hug a massive oak tree in Hartford, Vt., in 2005. (Family photograph)

Linda Wilson and fellow Hartford Conservation Commission member Karen Douville hug a massive oak tree in Hartford, Vt., in 2005. (Family photograph) Family photograph

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-15-2024 12:46 AM

Modified: 01-16-2024 1:56 PM


HARTFORD — Returning home from an errand run in a thunderstorm, Linda Wilson was stopped by a felled tree blocking the road. 

She got out of her car — where her young daughter Amy remained seated — slapped on some chaps and revved up a chainsaw, which had been stored dutifully in the trunk for such a moment. Wilson had just completed some training, for fun, in forestry management. 

“That was when another car stopped and a guy got out, telling her he could cut it if she gave him the saw,” Wilson’s daughter, Amy Wilson, said at her memorial service. “She told him she had it handled.”

Wilson and Amy later exchanged eye rolls after the departure of the presumptuous passerby. Amy was in on her mother’s secret, which she held humbly, but shared when it was helpful: Wilson knew how to do a lot of stuff.

Linda Jo Wilson, 74, born in Dayton, Ohio, died suddenly of an aneurysm last August. She was “active up until the very end,” her friend and fellow former Hartford Conservation Commission member Karen Douville said.

Wilson left behind and dense network of friends, and a material record of her capacious interest — a trove of paintings, a library of notebooks filled with leaves and scientific drawings, and a bountiful kitchen garden.

Linda met Steve Wilson at a boarding house in the mid-1970s in Louisville, Ky., where she worked for the city. He’d had stopped over on a trip to New Mexico, and after encountering Steve in the hallway, Linda decided to join him.

The Wilsons, married shortly after, took their first daughter Amy home from the hospital to what once a chicken coop they were living in on land they’d purchased in Kentucky. It was their final stop before landing on Jericho Street in Hartford, where Steve’s parents owned a chunk of property, and where they were determined to see out their construction dreams.

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“My mom was like, ‘We knew how to read so we thought we could teach ourselves how to build a house,’ ” Wilson’s daughter, Mary said. But she wasn’t wrong. The couple built themselves a house from instructions found in library books.

The house, never quite finished, but well loved and lived in, Mary said, “was like a lifetime experience.” 

At Wilson’s memorial service, Amy remembered a visiting nurse coming to the house as her mother recovered from surgery. “The nurse went through a series of standard questions with my mom, including asking if the shower had grab bars,” Amy said. “My mom said, ‘No, when I built the shower I wasn’t thinking of grab bars.’ ”

The family came to Vermont in the throes of the back-to-the-land movement, socializing with the likes of the Blue Moon commune group in Strafford, and other odd-jobers and free-thinkers. Having built their house, they moved onto demolition. Mary recalled a job in Sunapee — where couples similar to her parents brought their babies and young children along to tear down an old summer camp. 

The couple separated in the late 1980s and later divorced. Linda stayed in the house they’d built together, Steve moved down the road, and the two “maintained a pretty good co-parenting relationship,” Mary said. “We still did a lot of family things all together.” Linda proved an essential caregiver to Steve as he battled cancer before dying in 2019. He was 68.

The pair pulled off their graceful split in part because of Linda’s way of connecting with people, Mary said. “They were interested in each other’s ideas and thoughts,” she said. “My mom really connected with people on that level. She was such a big conversationalist and could talk to anybody, and also listen so well.”

Wilson practiced some of her burgeoning skills to perfection, and others remained curiosities — like the banjo, which she kept around because, she said, “it’s good to have instruments in the house,” Amy said. 

But painting held her attention. Wilson often traveled to the Southwest later in her life. On camping trips she brought along a camera to shoot the big skies of the region’s landscapes. She’d come back and paint the photos in her home studio.

Her curiosity, however, didn’t remain just a personal guide. Wilson made an indelible mark on land presentation efforts in the Upper Valley, taking a job with the nonprofit Upper Valley Land Trust in the organization’s earliest days as one of a handful of original staff members. 

Her inquisitiveness and instinct helped them all pick through some of the stickier questions of an organization in its infancy, UVLT President Jeanie McIntyre said. “It was a wonderful time to be working with Linda then,” McIntyre said. “It was a time when a lot of us were learning about what a land conservancy could be; how to build a strong organization.”

Wilson placed an emphasis on the human experience of land that wound its way into the DNA of the organization, McIntyre said. She organized “Voices from the Land,” a reading series that drew local people to share their writing about the Upper Valley.

“These were things about nature and landscape around us that were really meaningful to her,” McIntyre said. “She was always paying attention to things like that, and making work at the land trust really rich with personal things, not just tasks and goals.”

And she “always noticed what needed to be done,” and would do it generously and quietly, McIntyre said. “But she was also hilariously funny. She was so quiet at times that her practical jokes would be especially surprising.”

As the land trust grew, Wilson, who was very organized, found herself increasingly straddled with administrative work. “And those functions sort of became too small for Linda, I think,” McIntyre said. “The things that were her life’s interests weren’t clerical. They were out in the woods, and listening and looking at things. Making art and music, cooking and reading.”

“She was around, crucially, to get the land trust started and setting it on its way,” McIntyre said, “and then she went on her way.”

Wilson, who dropped out of high school, resumed her education when Mary was in middle school. In 1998, she resumed college classes, mostly studying natural sciences, before earning a bachelor’s degree from what was then Johnson (Vt.) State College in 2004. 

“She was a single mom, working full time and raising kids and going to school,” but still driving Mary to ballet classes a few nights a week in Hanover, and Amy to sports practices. 

“And she made us dinner every night,” Mary said. A boon for the girls, because Wilson is a legendary cook, with an experimental garden where she grew the standard Vermont cornucopia, but also more diverse produce, such as tomatillos and tatsoi. 

“For a moment in time there was a roadkill deer in our dining room because my mom was interested in separating the hide and then tanning it,” Amy said. 

McIntryre, of UVLT, was also a working mom, with a daughter a few years younger than Amy. “I could always look to Linda to learn from how she was interacting with her children, how she was talking to them, how is she making her life and their lives as full of joy and discovery and adventure while still working,” she said

Wilson remained a devoted participant in local land conservation efforts throughout her life, serving on the Balch Hill Management Plan Committee of the Hanover Conservancy, and working for years with the Linking Lands Alliance, a habitat preservation group, and as a member of Hartford’s conservation commission. 

“Linda was a night owl and I’m a morning person, so we’d work on projects pretty much around the clock,” said Douville, the former commission member. “She was a wonderful editor. She knew where to put a colon, a comma. She’d edit things and they’d be so much better when she handed them back to me in the morning.”

This spring, in Wilson’s honor, the Hartford Tree Board is planning to plant a Hackberry tree in Lyman Point Park, at the confluence of the Connecticut and White rivers.

Wilson is also remembered for her fearlessness. Mary recalled a backpacking trip in New Mexico with her mother while she and Amy were still in middle and high school. 

“As I look back as a mother myself now, I have insight: It didn’t occur to me until later how brave that was,” Mary said. “She was just out in the wilderness in a state far from home, with two young girls.”

But in front of Mary and Amy at least, Wilson didn’t flinch. “She was just like, ‘Yeah. This is what we do.’ ”

It was one of many adventures that Wilson took — or learned, or grew, or painted — and shared. 

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-  727-3242.