The notes, written in differing handwritings and various colors of ink, impressed Margaret Forbes.
“I’ve been reading these great descriptions of this place,” she said. “The children and their dogs have found us.”
“This place” is the John Ripley Forbes Big Trees Forest Preserve, the 30-acre tree and wildlife sanctuary named for her late husband. It’s a patch of towering trees that stands near the center of one of the most developed parts of Sandy Springs, just a speeding car engine’s momentary roar down Roswell Road from Sandy Springs City Hall. It offers a small island of wild country within sight of the manicured sprawl of the city.
Forbes had been examining notes visitors to the forest left in a spiral notebook in a weatherproof box at the entrance. What did she learn? “That everybody loves it, that they’re grateful to John for saving it.” She laughed. “And their dogs love it.”
She likes it, too. “I’m fond of this place,” she said, looking around.
John Forbes dedicated his life to organizing nature centers and saving slices of the wild in areas that were developing. “I don’t know many people who had a dream like John had a dream from his early childhood,” Margaret Forbes said. “He put all his efforts into making his dream come true.”
By the end of his life, in 2006, when he was 93, he had helped preserve more than 2,500 acres and found 54 museums and natural science centers in 41 states, according to “Nature’s Keeper: John Ripley Forbes and the Children’s Nature Movement,” a new biography published by the Big Trees Forest board and sold through its website, www.bigtreesforest.com.
The Big Trees Forest Preserve was his last project. “Nature’s Keeper” says that Big Trees “had all the marks of a classic Forbes rescue: a precious slice of nearly forsaken nature with developers ready to fire up the bulldozers and enough political intrigue and massive fundraising demands to leave even seasoned conservationists trembling with fear.”
Sitting on a bench in the Big Trees one recent afternoon, Margaret Forbes recalled why she and her husband and a band of friends worked so hard back in 1990 to raise the money and the political will needed to preserve this patch of forest. It wasn’t just for the trees. It was for the people who lived near the trees.
As Sandy Springs attracts denser development, she said, people need a place to get in touch with what came before. “What they need to do is take a day and come into the forest and be absorbed by the wonder of it,” she said.
Sandy Springs was a much less-crowded place when Margaret and John Forbes settled in back in the early 1970s. “It was like a little country town,” she said. Back then, people called their neighborhood Dunwoody, rather than Sandy Springs. Once city lines were drawn, their home ended up on the Sandy Springs side of the line, in what is now generally known as the Sandy Springs “panhandle.”
He grew up in New England, the son of a preacher. Margaret came from south Georgia. When they met, she was with the Camp Fire Girls. They were at Fernbank in DeKalb County. John had been brought in to advise the keepers of that forest. “He came up after the meeting and said, ‘Would you like to have lunch?’” she said. “That’s how we met.”
They lived in Connecticut before moving to Sandy Springs. John Forbes traveled a lot to do his work and during one trip south, he met a real estate agent who suggested he take a look at a piece of property out in the woods north of Atlanta. The property overlooked a creek. The agent dropped him off down the road, saying she didn’t want to risk the snakes, Margaret Forbes said.
“John looked at it and thought this was the next place to heaven,” she said. He returned to Connecticut ready to move. “When I went out to meet him, his eyes were sparkling just like lights on a boat.”
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