Connie Backlund is rarely seen without her ranger’s uniform on, accessorized by a smile. The National Park Superintendent of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, she manages the entire park, including the stately white house, Connemara, and the 30-acre grounds, part of a 264-acre parcel of land that includes forest, pasture land, and walking trails.
Carl Sandburg — that iconic Midwestern son whose burly free verse and folk-singing accompaniment earned him the tag “the people’s poet” — sought the peace of the Southern mountains later in life, moving to Flat Rock with his wife Lilian and their daughters in 1945. At Connemara, Lilian raised her champion dairy-goat herd, whose descendants thrive today. Carl spent his last 22 years on the farm, publishing more than a third of his works and accumulating awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Eleven-thousand of the books in his vast collection remain in the house’s library.
Although they certainly lived well, the Sandburgs prized a simple way of life. According to a passage on the park’s Web page, Carl’s favorite meal was soup with dark bread.
After 18 years on the site (and 38 years with the National Park Service), Backlund is retiring on October 3. Bold Life caught up with the sunny, inspirational ranger and asked her about a few of her own favorite things.
What’s your favorite native bush or tree on the property?
Behind the Sandburgs’ home is a magnificent hemlock tree whose size is just shy of the state record holder. This tree, along with the park’s other 400 hemlocks, is thriving due to the treatments provided by the park staff against the hemlock woolly adelgid, an aphid-like pest which can kill the hemlocks.
Who is your favorite current goat in the herd?
The last kid born this spring was a single boy whose mom, Bella, had him in the pasture — to the amazement of a group of visiting children. Following the tradition Mrs. Sandburg used to name her goats, we take the first letter of the mom’s name and it becomes the first letter for the offspring’s name. This little fellow, who we named Barney, is my very favorite.
Best little-known fact about the Sandburgs?
After they met each other for the first time, they courted through the letters they wrote. The letters are a beautiful expression of their growing encouragement and love for each other.
What’s your favorite way to connect with children who visit the site?
I ask if they have visited the barnyard yet to see the goats, and in the spring I share updates on how many baby goats have been born. I always mention to the parents to be sure to pick up a copy of the park’s Junior Ranger Activity Booklet so their child can earn their junior-ranger badge and patch.
What’s the best time of year at Connemara?
My favorite time of year has always been fall, especially here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Signs of autumn at the park first begin in the pastures with Joe-Pye Weed and New York Ironweed blooming in late summer, followed by the barnyard walnut trees dropping their fruit and the slopes of Big Glassy [Mountain] glowing in the vibrant fall colors. Come late autumn, the ginkgo tree next to the Sandburgs’ home drops a blanket of bright yellow leaves, forming a golden carpet on the ground.
Name one of your favorite memories of being a ranger.
I have so many, and I especially treasure the memories of my father visiting me in several of the national parks where I have served over my career. My dad was the one who shared his love of nature and the outdoors with me as I followed him around as a kid on our family farm in Ohio. He knew everything about the land. So it was special to share the National Parks with him.