October 25, 2020

For Sale: The Headwaters of the Boardman River

Susan Morely and Donald Russell's Primavera Peace Institute's next chapter remains unwritten.
By Patrick Sullivan | Oct. 10, 2020


Two decades ago, Susan Morely and Donald Russell followed a calling that brought them from Maryland to Northern Michigan, a place where they’d never lived, and a place they didn’t know.

They were looking for land that would connect them to the earth, physically and spiritually, so that they could carry on an ecumenical ministry to teach peace and ecology.

And they were on a budget. The land would be purchased through the nonprofit they worked for, and funds were limited. They wanted water but assumed they couldn’t afford it.

Then they found a 26-acre property in eastern Kalkaska County that met all of their needs — it encompassed deep woods, fertile land, and the headwaters of the Boardman River, which bubbled up only a few hundred feet from the house where they would live and from where they would run their ministry and nature school and peace institute. They called the place Primavera, the Italian word for spring.

That was in 2001.

Today Morely is 74, and Russell is 91. It’s time for them to sell their beloved sanctuary, but they’re not interested in slapping up a for sale sign near the road and going for the highest offer.

Instead, in the spring of 2019, they formed a committee — they call it a “circle of possibilities” — and they’ve explored selling the property in a way that would attract like-minded buyers.

The most stunning feature of Primavera, the one that attracted Morely and Russell in the first place, is the river that flows out of its boundaries but never flows in.

For Russell, there is something sacred, almost magical, about the start of a river.

“Right there, in that area, the ground is all dry before that,” he said. “You can see water coming out of the ground, and then it forms a stream, and that streams gains more and more width so by the time it leaves this land, it’s a real stream, and eventually it turns into the north branch of the Boardman River.”

“When you came in, you didn’t cross a stream,” Morely said.

Two decades after finding the place, it sounds like the Morely’s still can’t believe their good fortune. That they were able not only to find but also to afford land with water on it — and not just any water, but the headwaters of a major river, bubbling up and turning into a stream — seemed a blessing.

“We wanted to have water, and then we thought we could never afford water. Nonprofits aren’t known for their money. So, we thought, we’ll get at the top of a region where the waters are below,” Morely said. “But when we went looking, here it all was. It’s stunning. We’ve been here 20 years, and I’m always in awe of it. I never ever have lost the awe of it.”

Russell shared his wife’s sense of awe when they first visited the property, off of County Road 612, five miles east of Kalkaska, on a road many people use as a shortcut between Traverse City and Grayling.

Primavera is nestled in your typical rolling Northern Michigan landscape — woods and farms, pretty country — but there is nothing about the two-track entrance to their parcel that would indicate that within is something so particularly special, a part of the natural world Morely and Russell consider sacred.

“We had looked at a lot of different properties, and we were really disheartened with what we were seeing,” Russell said. “And [when I came here], I’m not one that will even respond in this way, but I actually, not with my audible ears, but I heard the spirit of this land saying, ‘We have been waiting for you. We have been waiting for you.’ For me, it was more the land itself and the wildlife, and there was a certain — I don’t want to use the word spirit — but there was a certain essence of this land that was waiting for someone to come and recognize that awareness of all of life that was here, and to take care of it.”

Morely said that in Celtic spirituality, headwaters are considered a kind of gateway to someplace else.
“Some might call it, there’s not a big barrier between heaven and earth,” Russell said.

Given the depth of connection the couple feels for this place, there’s little doubt that selling it will be a real estate transaction that’s anywhere near ordinary.

In fact, it’s been three years since the pair first considered putting it up for sale. The impetus came when the couple realized they could no longer run the year-round nature school that they’d been overseeing at Primavera for almost as long as they had lived there.

“We started after we decided I felt no longer called to have the nature school. And we began a process,” Morely said. “What we decided was, it was time to make sure the land goes into the hands of someone who can take it into the future, doing whatever they have to do, not what we do, and that they have a similar philosophy about the land.”

That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the new owners have to be religious in the way Primavera’s founders are, but it does mean that the new owners have to come to the place with a similar approach to ecology.

Morely and Russell tend a garden that feeds them throughout the year, they’ve cut some trails through the woods, and they’ve overseen the construction of a rustic women’s cabin, but they’ve done all of that with a conscious effort to refrain from harming their natural surroundings.

We’re looking for “someone who understands that they’re part of a large circle, and they’re one part of the circle,” Morely said. “Our goal here has been to not get in the way of what needed to be done, to do no harm.”

Morely and Russell said that in recent weeks they’ve shown the home and property to several interested buyers. Some have come back for another look. Some of the candidates are people who have spent time at Primavera in the past, attending the nature school or Sunday worship.

Morely said they are “zeroing in on” several candidates, but they are still looking for other offers.

The process includes an R.F.P., or request for proposal, that they drafted with the help of their committee.

“We want to match with people who see themselves as partners with the land, as keepers of the land — and not with a heavy hand to do what they want to do,” Morely said.

Among other requirements, interested buyers are asked to provide a written explanation of their “overall plan for listening to the land and honoring its sacredness.”

The R.F.P. also asks applicants to provide written answers to questions like, “What is your philosophy about land?” and “What would living your ‘best life’ on this land look like?,” and, perhaps most importantly, “How do you see yourself being able to financially sustain this property into the future?”

The asking price is $275,026.

That last question is significant because it is important to Morely and Russell that the new owners have a financial plan in place so that they don’t have to sacrifice the land due to financial hardship.

Morely and Russell have sustained Primavera over the years through a small nonprofit in metro Washington, D.C., the Dunamis Peace Institute, where they met years ago after raising children with former spouses. 

When the couple were called and came to northern Michigan two decades ago, they followed Russell’s children, who had moved here earlier.

Once Primavera is sold, the couple plans to move into a condo in Traverse City so that they can remain close to Russell’s children and remain in the bioregion that they hold dear.

Russell’s daughter, Rebecca Finch, lives north of Mancelona and sits on the “circle of possibilities” committee.

Finch said she has shown the property to applicants and that she focuses on showing them the land’s natural features in the hope that those are what’s drawn them to the place.

Troy Stobert, a Kalkaska dentist, also sits on the circle and has shown interested parties the property.

“It’s a place where you can go and slow down and think about what’s real and what’s really important in life,” said Stobert, who met Morely and Russell at the Methodist church in Kalkaska and has spent lots of time over the years at Primavera.

Stobert said that people are drawn to the headwaters of the Boardman River for different reasons.

“It varies from people who have a calling to do something with a piece of land like this," he says, "to people who are trying to find their calling."


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