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Brother’s and Sister’s Land Brought Together

Teaching and Research Reserve in Bat Cave Expanded

View of protected land behind the Thatcher house
View of protected land behind the Thatcher house

When two neighbors—Lew Thatcher and Mattie Decker—sat next to each other in the Episcopal church in Bat Cave, they discovered that they had something in common. Talking after church, they learned that Lew lives on land once owned by Bishop Paul Matthews. Mattie lives on land owned by the Sisters of the Transfiguration, which was founded by Paul Matthew’s sister, Mother Eva Mary. 

Lew is part of the Bishop’s family, while Mattie is an Oblate associated with the Sisters. 

Lew says, “She was telling me about the property and I thought, ‘Hey, wait a second, we are neighbors.’” 

Sharing their stories, the two learned that the Bishop’s family and the Sisters had both acquired large tracts of land starting around the turn of the 20th century. And both lineages had protected land among the sheer granite cliffs, plunging rivers, and extraordinary wildlife of Bat Cave. 

Paul and Eva Matthews
Bishop Paul Matthews and his sister Mother Eva Mary

Lew’s mother-in-law, Margaret Flinsch, protected the bat cave itself, conveying it to The Nature Conservancy starting in the 1980s. In addition, she put approximately 100 acres under a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy, so it couldn’t be developed. That was part of the land that was passed on to Lew.

For their part, the Sisters protected 410 acres with a conservation easement in 2015, conveying most of that land to Conserving Carolina to form the Teaching and Research Reserve. When Lew and Mattie looked at parcel maps, they found that these protected lands weren’t just nearby. They connected. 

Looking at the names on the maps, Lew thought, “Really, it’s a family get together.”

Long Walks in the Mountains

Lew and Josephine Thatcher
Lew Thatcher with his wife, Josephine Thatcher

Lew first came to Bat Cave as a young man with Josephine, who became his wife of 57 years. (She passed away in 2016). As a young couple with their children, they would start out from the family’s vacation home in Bat Cave, on the banks of a narrow gorge between two towering rock faces. Lew says, “We would start from here and have wonderful walks. You’d get all the way up there and there was a wonderful spot we called Eagle Rock. That was a long, long walk. But it was a lovely lookout and we’d have our picnic there.” 

Josephine was the daughter of Margaret, who was the daughter of Bishop Paul Matthews, who came to Bat Cave in the 1880s as a sick boy. Paul was one of ten children, of whom five had already died. While living in Cincinnati, Paul came down with a respiratory illness. The prescribed cure was mountain air. So, he and his father made the journey from Ohio to Western North Carolina.  

Paul was so struck by the beauty of the place that, years later, he came back with his bride on their honeymoon. Like Lew and Josephine, they loved to walk in the mountains. 

Lew reads a passage from a book that the Bishop wrote for his granddaughter, Ellen: “When your grandmother and I were married, we went down to the Esmeralda Inn, about halfway between Chimney Rock and Bat Cave, and we used to take long walks exploring the lovely mountain roads and paths through the woods. Our favorite place was a rising knoll just opposite Blue Rock. There we would sit and dream and talk of the future. Believe it or not, dear Ellen, one of the things we said to one another was, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday we could build a little mountain shack here to come to as a retreat when we have vacations.” 

Laughing, Lew says, “This is the mountain shack!”

View of Blue Rock from Thatcher House
View of Blue Rock from the Thatcher house

It’s a large house with rough-hewn beams and high ceilings, over a hundred years old now. There, Josephine’s mother, Margaret, started a school and also would hold meetings of people interested in the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff—a spiritual teacher. Lew describes Gurdjieff’s way as a spiritual practice, like meditation, that is compatible with Christianity and other faiths.

Lew first encountered Gurdjieff through Josephine. Now he’s been on this path for over 60 years. Educated at Princeton, Columbia, and MIT, Lew served as a naval officer in the Philippines, then worked as an engineer applying computers in the field of ocean engineering. His career and the global Gurdjieff community led his family to live in New York, France, Venezuela, and Canada, among other places. Lew and Josephine’s three children were all born in Venezuela.

Two Conservation Legacies

Bishop Matthews’ family built their mountain retreat around 1908. Lew recounts, “I was told that they purchased a lot of undeveloped property to keep it from being logged and sold for timber. They wanted to keep its beauty.”

The Sisters of the Transfiguration also purchased a place in Bat Cave as a retreat. The nuns would come from Cincinnati for rest and renewal. During the Depression, they saw some of their neighbors were in danger of losing their land because they couldn’t pay the taxes. The Sisters paid their taxes, acquiring the land while allowing the residents to continue to live there. 

By the early 2000s, the sisters were looking for ways to ensure long-term stewardship of their land. They also wanted the land to continue their legacy of education. Creating the Teaching and Research Reserve  in 2015 did both. At the time, Sister Teresa Martin said “This beautiful and pristine land has been and continues to be a great gift to us. Above all we want to see it protected and gently used in a way that will honor it and will give back a new vision for the larger community.” 

The reserve has been used by groups including Muddy Sneakers, Lake Lure Classical Academy, Warren Wilson College, Wofford College, Bowling Green University, and Conserving Carolina’s Summer of Service. Mattie, an Oblate of the Sisters of the Transfiguration and a recently retired university professor, has started offering forest bathing activities there—guiding the practice of mindfulness in nature. 

Related: The Snowy Forest—Forest Bathing with Mattie Decker

Mattie Decker
Mattie Decker is a mindfulness teacher who guides forest bathing activities.

What Next for the Cliffs?

Meanwhile, Lew had found that he could no longer manage the long, steep hike to Eagle Rock. One time, he and Josephine set out to see how far they could get—but they were detoured by a landslide and struggled on the steep terrain, pulling on rhododendrons to hoist themselves up. Worried they’d be caught on the mountain after dark, they turned back. 

Lew reasoned if he could no longer walk the land, it didn’t make sense for him to still own it. He wanted to sell the portion of the land protected by a conservation easement, including the cliffs. 

Then, at church, he met Mattie. Their intertwined histories sparked a new idea. Imagine, Mattie said, if they could bring the brother’s land and the sister’s land together. Imagine adding Lew’s land to the educational preserve. That would expand the preserve all the way to Chimney Rock State Park. Picture hiking trails that link to the park! As an inquisitive engineer, Lew connected with the mission of the Teaching and Research Reserve: research is one of his passions.

This November, Lew conveyed the property to Conserving Carolina as a bargain sale, adding it to the reserve. This addition expanded the reserve to approximately 500 acres. It opens part of the state-designated Bald Mountain/Round Mountain Natural Area for students and researchers. And it creates potential for a hiking trail to the dramatic rock outcrop with the beautiful views that Lew and Josephine, and their family before them, enjoyed.

Lew Thatcher with daughter Evelyn Thatcher
Lew Thatcher with daughter Evelyn Thatcher

This article is written by Rose Jenkins Lane as part of our our monthly Stories of the Land series which runs in the Hendersonville Times-News. These stories explore people’s connection to the land and the ways they give back to the places they love.  

 

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