Name: Norene Hartley
Currently lives in: Rochester
How she got here: A car ride as a baby from St. Luke’s Hospital to her family home in Rochester, which dates back generations.
Favorite Tri-Town place: “I think my home. I enjoy looking at the animals that live there around me.”
What she’d change if she were the President of Tri-Town: “I wish there were more people who were born and raised and stayed.”
Ever seen a celeb locally? “Oh, I guess Ted Kennedy marched in a few parades … but if I ever saw someone famous, I’d just let them go about their business, ‘Have a good day, enjoy yourself.’”
By Jonathan Comey
If you ask Norene Hartley to describe how she’d take an out-of-town guest through Rochester to her home, be prepared for detours. Delightful, well-described detours, full of local history and theory, and an obvious and deep love for the town she calls home. By the time she’s done, you haven’t quite gotten to the destination … but who cares? You can’t wait to explore the town on your own.
“For me, there’s a feeling you get for a place when you’re really invested in it,” says Hartley, who is a founding member of the Rochester Land Trust. “You have a support system. Nothing formal, or anything. There are relatives, and relatives related to relatives … it just fits.”
Hartley is preparing for a Sunday picking blueberries on Eastover Farm, one of her favorite places out of many around town, and she’s got her sun hat and long-sleeved shirt packed in her sturdy white van.
She talks about the large parcels of land that once were this and now are that, the stores that have had different names and different roles with the changing times. About the pond that “Sherman Fearing dug, because he always got his tractor stuck there, so he decided to dig a pond.”
About how she owned two shares of the Rochester Golf Course back when it was converted from an open field by the Tallman family: “Finally, young Tallman came to me and said, ‘You know, you’re the last person that’s got shares that’s not a member of the family, are you sure you don’t want to sell them?’ And I said ‘OK, sure.’ But I don’t think I ever golfed there.”
She uses her work-beaten hands to shape the air in the form of winding roads and sloping hills, the ups and downs, the thens and nows of Rochester.
The town she loves.
While she spent more than 25 years away from Rochester after leaving for college in upstate New York, the town was always home.
“I figured, this is Rochester, but there’s a whole world out there,” she said. “Let’s see some of it. But cities just didn’t interest me a lot … I guess I just like all of the living things around here.”
So after a series of jobs that kept getting further and further from industry and closer and closer to nature, she returned to the town in 1989.
“I just decided Rochester was where I wanted to be,” she said. “I guess there was too much country in me.”
She’s got one of those well-known Rochester surnames like Tallman or Chase, thanks to the foresight of her forebears.
“There’s a lot of Hartleys around because my great-grandparents had fifteen kids,” she says. “So that’ll do it!”
After returning, Hartley spent five years living with her parents and building her own home on a small plot of family land on Bradford Estates (she’s a carpenter and still active with several local clients).
“My dad was a carpenter, and I was the oldest kid,” she says. “So there was a lot of ‘Hold the other end of this, kid!’ You can learn a lot holding the other end of it.”
Much of her time in Rochester has been spent in pursuit of land preservation, both as a founder of the land trust and current board member.
“I hate to sound antisocial, but we need to protect the part of the earth that supports life. We need to protect the ecology, but we haven’t figured out how to love happily without taking more and more and more.”
“I think it’s a case where if we can just keep our produce local, it’s going to be better for us. Everything is so conglomerated, agriculture through pesticides, patented seeds. I don’t think it’s a good thing.
The land trust, which represents over 700 acres of protected area, is trying to preserve green spaces, and Hartley has been its steadiest voice.
“Whether it’s agricultural or not, open land is certainly going to help. It’s going to be the lungs of the planet. As time goes on in town, it’s going to get more and more crowded, and that’s going to change it. But things have already changed, and things will always change.
“There are a lot of people in town who believe in preserving things, but it’s kind of like, ‘I want mine, first,’ you know? For me, it’s what are you going to give up, to accommodate all of the cycles we need to have intact to keep our planet healthy.”
While she knows she runs the risk of being considered “the crazy old lady at the end of the cul-de-sac,” Hartley doesn’t plan on changing her earth-loving tune.
“It starts in your neighborhood. You teach people how things work, and how they’re connected, and then you can start looking at bigger pictures. I just want to help things survive. People, animals, the earth, all of it. There are so many ways to preserve the land and still build and live happily on it.
“I hope people continue to do so.”