Sara Gordon on the back porch of the Manor House, with a view of Gardiners Creek that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
When Sara Gordon, Strategic Director at Sylvester Manor takes her usual walk around the Farm property, her route takes her past the site of an ancient native American settlement on the peninsula that pokes into Gardiner’s Creek. She walks through land that has been continuously farmed since the 17th century, and past a burying ground that holds the remains of 200 servants and laborers who worked and lived here centuries ago.
She never walks alone.
With past, present and future in mind, Sara sees a place where people who are living now, who lived before, and many who are not yet born, seem to coexist. “What makes this place so special is the fact that it has had continuous occupation through all these generations and millennia before that” she said, “and then there’s the vision of sharing this extraordinary place with everyone.”
Sara grew up in Cos Cob, Connecticut at the end of Indian Mill Road, a place named for an old native American corn mill that looked like a giant mortar and pestle. Her childhood home was adjacent to the headwaters of the Mianus River and 500 acres of woods, which she and her sister, Linda explored every day after school while her Mom, principal cellist for the Greenwich Philharmonia, gave music lessons in the house, and her Dad, a marketing executive, worked in the City. Sara said, “I feel a very close connection with Mother Earth and found my way back to a career that would embody that.”
After college at Barnard, and working in New York City in book, video and film post-production and editing, Sara entered a period of struggle. A chronic spinal condition made it impossible for her to work and eventually required surgery.
With her health regained; she moved to the Hudson Valley in 1986, worked as a production editor for a local newspaper, and took time off to raise her son, Sam. It was Sam’s birth that “made me more and more concerned about the state of the planet” she said. “Once I became a parent … I was very concerned about the world that I had brought this child into.”
In 1997, Sara moved to the South Fork with her former husband, and son. Settling in Sag Harbor, Sara got involved in conservation planning and land management at Peconic Land Trust and became a key player in the eventual establishment of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.
“My introduction to Shelter Island, was Hoot Sherman. “ she said. Sherman, who was working at the Land Trust, pointed out Sylvester Manor during a tour of the Island, shortly after its owner, Alice Fiske had died. Sara recalls Sherman saying, “This is Sylvester Manor and everybody in town is wondering what is going to happen to this place. “
That moment was a pivot point for her. Sara said, “It was a huge question mark. It could so easily have become a lot of houses and a cash cow.”
Eben Fiske Ostby took possession of Sylvester Manor and in 2008 brought in Peconic Land Trust to help manage conservation of the property with Sara as the project manager.
Sara’s initial connection with Bennett Konesni, Ostby’s nephew, and the person who first envisioned the property as an educational farm, was through music. Sara plays fiddle and sings. “We figured out we were both musicians and started playing music together” she said. “Making music was a big part of Bennett’s starting point. Bennett calls singing ‘erupting in joyful noise.’”
Sara’s other passion is the sea. “I am happiest when I am in the water,” she said “It’s absolute bliss.” Summer through late fall she swims in local waters, and then travels to Bimini when she can, to free-dive with Atlantic spotted dolphins. “I love staying down in the water…I think I was a sea creature in a former life.
In 2009 she joined the Sylvester Manor Board of Directors, and in 2013 became Strategic Director. During these years, she worked to complete the gift, made final on June 23, 2014, that allowed creation of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm and the preservation of the farmlands, buildings and historical sites. Sara said, “It’s just so fortunate, so lucky. When the Board received the gift of this property this year, there was not a dry eye in the house. It was an incredible moment.”
After hundreds of years of private ownership, the gates of Sylvester Manor have swung open wider and wider. Sara said, “It’s a goal of ours for this to be a welcoming place for everybody. It’s a big change. Those gates were somewhere you didn’t go.” The Manor House is now open most weekends for tours, and the grounds, historical sites and walking paths are open most days.
On Saturday, October 11, Sylvester Manor will hold a daylong event called Plant & Sing; part harvest celebration, part American music festival. The Wainright sisters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainright Roche are featured performers. Sara pointed out that the Wainright sisters are not strangers to Shelter Island, having spent time growing up at the home of their father, Loudon Wainright III. But, like most long-time Islanders, they had little experience of Sylvester Manor until now.
This year’s Plant & Sing will be another great opportunity to get to know Sylvester Manor. Sara said, “ Over 100 volunteers are needed for the event. If you want to attend, but you don’t want to pay, you can volunteer to work for a couple of hours and enjoy the day. “
Sara describes it a collective expression of “ Gratitude, collaboration and celebration. Everyone feels lucky to be able to be on this place.”
In many ways, Sara’s work is a return to her own roots. “I grew up in the woods of Connecticut in a family of musicians who like to cook. So I’ve circled back to where I began. This place is very New England in its feel, and it prioritizes food and music.” We are here to find more ways to erupt in joyful noise.”
What do you always have with you? Song.”I always have music in my head.”
Favorite food? Kale.“I don’t mind local peaches either.”
Favorite book? One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.“Its stories focus on relationships-community and family…connection.”
Best place other than Shelter Island? In the Atlantic Ocean.“I’m very, very comfortable in water. It takes the weight off. ”
Best place ON Shelter Island? Sylvester Manor.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Environmental activist, Joanna Macy.“She is a deep ecologist, who transforms fear into positive energy and action.”