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Inspiration Through Preservation

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The work of local artist Leslie Neumann is driven by the natural landscape. Neumann and the Gulf Coast Conservancy have worked tirelessly to preserve coastal areas of Hernando County and the inspiration derived from its beauty.

Nestled in the heart of a small village, a diverse group of individuals united by their shared passion for environmental conservation formed the Gulf Coast Conservancy, a not-for-profit local land trust. The organization boasts a wide range of experiences; all focused on preserving unique ecosystems renowned for their stunning natural beauty and rich biodiversity. Among the dedicated members of the Gulf Coast Conservancy is Leslie Neumann, an accomplished artist whose work is inspired by the beauty and wonder of the natural world.

For more than a decade, the residents of Aripeka have worked together with state agencies and non-profit organizations to safeguard specific coastal areas of Hernando County. It all started with protecting the wildlife corridor from the Chassahowitzka coastal areas to connect Hernando Beach, a significant habitat for the Florida Black Bear. After years of conversations and collaboration, the Weeki Wachee Preserve, covering over 11,000 acres, is now protected from development.

Aripeka estuary. [Credit: Alice Mary Herden]

“We did a lot of things [more] intuitively than one would expect. We all recognize that if that property would fall, there wasn’t a lot of point to do the rest we were going to do,” Neumann stated. “If we could preserve that, it would help us with the more minor properties.”

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The success of protecting Weekiwachee Preserve led to the preservation of the Aripeka Sandhill Preserve and other parcels, which Neumann and many others call their backyard.

“It was a terrific feeling to work with people of the caliber of the district- seasoned environmentalists and professionals,” Neumann said. “It wasn’t just friendships we had, but then we felt that we belonged to a group that was so worthy of our success.”

Many nature artists see nature differently; their objectives and interpretations are different as well. Artist Leslie Neumann truly understands this; not only was this in her backyard, but it also brought her the inspiration to transfer those emotions she felt onto canvas.

As a photojournalist, it is beneficial to capture the essence of the story. To truly understand the emotions and experiences of the people you are learning about, you have to be there with them in the moment. Fortunately, Leslie and her husband Mike invited me on an unforgettable kayak tour through the enchanting tributaries of Airpeka. Paddling through the glistening waters, we explored the hidden treasures of this area, discovering some of its most cherished spots. The lush landscape, the whispering breeze, and the soothing sounds of the water created a serene and inspiring atmosphere, perfect for capturing the essence of the story.

“Mostly calm, sense of well-being, gratitude, drinking in the beauty of it. In awe of all the natural systems and how perfectly they work,” Neumann said. “There was a period I would come out here, and a lot of times I would come out at night, and I would view the sky- It was so healing.”

I listened to her words and I felt a sense of familiarity and connection. I could feel the same emotions that she was experiencing, and I could envision the same landscapes that she described. Through her story, I gained a deeper understanding of the fight that she and her colleagues had undertaken and the reasons that motivated them.

As we settle down and immerse ourselves in the breathtaking scenery, we can’t help but marvel at the awe-inspiring spectacles before us: mullet leaping out of the water, a group of dolphins expertly herding their prey, and flocks of birds gracefully gliding and swooping through the sky. Each moment like this serves as a powerful reminder to Neumann of their pivotal role in safeguarding this picturesque and vital area of Florida’s ecosystem. With a sense of pride and accomplishment, Neumann declares, “We did this.”

Alice Mary Herden
Alice Mary Herden
Alice Mary Herden is an award-winning writer and photographer. She is also an Advance Florida Master Naturalist.
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