One Couple’s Love of Simmons Mill Pond Brings Management Area to Life
October 16, 2023
LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — As the seasons change at Simmons Mill Pond Management Area, frequent visitors may notice the crunched leaves and dormant understory along the forest’s paths turn to spring ephemerals, then, the gradual unfurling of fiddleheads into full-bodied ferns.
Nature is always shifting at the Little Compton preserve — from small alterations, like the sprouting of the beaked hazelnut’s tiny red flower, to large swings, like the volume of the overstory when migratory birds sweep through and start to sing.
Although life in Simmons Mill is constantly growing and changing, waking and sleeping, there are two constants: Roger and Gail Greene.
The couple has lived in the stone farmhouse next door to the management area off Coldbrook Road for decades, and their stewardship of the land, which has been owned by the state since 1995, has made it a safe and happy place for visitors from Little Compton and beyond.
The Greenes take care of forest management and carry out projects for the land’s owner and their former longtime employer, the Rhode Island Department of Environment Management.
While Gail and Roger are modest about their work in the management area, they have spent thousands of volunteer hours making sure it remains a special place.
The Simmons Mill Pond Management Area includes more than 500 acres of various habitats. There are several bodies of water formed by the different dams — the first installed on Cold Brook back in the 1700s. Simmons Mill also includes pasture, and uniquely, coastal oak-holly forest, which as the name implies, means it’s full of holly and oak trees, a rare habitat that grows in the right conditions in southern New England. Several other tree varieties can also be spotted there, including sassafras and red cedar.
The land had many uses before it was conserved three decades ago. Inhabitants and previous owners used it for farmland. Its water powered a mill and provided ice before modern refrigeration. During its most recent occupation, it was a hunting and fishing retreat after the last owner, the Chace family, dammed more of the water on the land to create a game preserve.
After DEM bought the land from the Chace family, the agency saw a series of staffing cuts, and some of Simmons Mill’s upkeep fell behind.
That’s when the Greenes stepped in.
Since 2005, the pair, who own dozens of acres adjacent to the management area, have devoted a lot of time and energy to Simmons Mill.
Roger and Gail weed-whacked the hundreds of feet of stone walls that used to divide up the land when it was filled with homesteads. Once overgrown with vines, the walls now reveal winding lanes where horses and carts would have traveled long ago.
The couple repeat the process of clearing the stone walls and the other trails — timing it perfectly so they don’t catch the ferns under their blades — so that visitors can walk through without major risk of ticks, and people fishing have areas by the various ponds to hang out for an afternoon.
Almost every day, the Greenes spend time in Simmons Mill, checking for fallen trees after windstorms or spotting the newest blooms so they can put up signs to alert walkers.
Roger often cuts the wood and Gail does the lettering to make the signs telling visitors about the types of trees they will pass or illustrating where they are on maps of the management area. She has different signs she brings out depending on what micro-seasons the area is in: Are orchid flowers blooming this week? Have the boogie woogie aphids come back to the beech trees?
Those aphids, which appear to dance when their branches are shaken, are something new that Roger and Gail have only seen in the past few years.
“So, we just had to put a sign out,” Roger said.
Gail records when each forest event appears so she knows when to bring out a sign the next year.
Although their signs give visitors a wealth of knowledge about Simmons Mill, taking a tour of the place with the Greenes in August was like having an encyclopedia.
They both know so much, but agreed that Roger is better at tree identification, while Gail is better at shrubs. They learned a lot during their time at DEM, not just about what Rhode Island’s habitats contain and how to maintain them, but also how to teach about the natural world. They’ve lent those skills to the educational materials around the management area and to the many walks they have hosted through the years.
Picking a few heads of greenbrier, Gail examined the leafy bud. “You always have to evict the ant,” she said, offering one to taste.
If the ant is accidentally left behind inside, “it just changes the flavor,” Roger said, laughing.
“Isn’t it nice?” Gail said, after taking a bite. “It has kind of a lemony flavor to it, but I think the deer like them.” She noticed that many of them are gone as soon as they are ripe.
The pair are tuned in to tons of small details like that. Taking care of the property is their biggest hobby, Roger said, besides dancing, which the couple — who have been together for almost 50 years — does every day.
As we leave Simmons Mill and head toward their own property, Gail brushes off the signs she sees have gunk on them and Roger spots a beaked hazelnut, small as a flower — “tiny,” Gail said — but impressive once it fruits.
“Once they reach that stage, the chipmunks, squirrels, all love them,” Roger said.
There were only a few of the hazelnuts left, which look like a bird’s head with a long beak, when Roger and Gail pointed out the plant in mid-August.
“Must have been a hundred or so just a couple of weeks ago,” Gail said.
“It was a great year for beaked hazelnuts,” Roger added.
The handmade sign pointing out the hazelnuts will just have to go away until next summer.
This story is part of our “Special Places” series. Read other stories in this series.