Perhaps our values will catch up with Minny Pohlmann's someday. Maybe in a less materialistic age, she would long since have had honor and recognition.

As a modern American success story, however, she has been mostly a bust, an oddball, a mild embarrassment to some of her well-to-do neighbors whose estates and farms around Sugar Loaf Mountain encompass some of Maryland's richest rural heritage.

At age 62, Pohlmann is in debt, has deliberately squandered a small fortune and traded retirement savings in the bank for nothing more tangible than the integrity of a landscape, and has invested totally in maintaining what she calls "the mountain's beautiful serenity."

Sugar Loaf Mountain proper, which at 1,280 feet dominates the Frederick-Montgomery border for miles around, already is irrevocably preserved from development by the trust of its wealthy former owner, Gordon Strong.

It is a curious property of the Sugar Loaf that despite its prominence above anything else in the landscape for miles around, one can approach quite close before sighting it. The explanation surely lies in the dips and rises of the surrounding land, and the winding, forested roads that carry traffic through the countryside.

Nonetheless, the effect is quite magical when one turns a corner and the mountain springs out from behind a copse of maples, or rears its shaggy bulk from behind a groomed field of grain. If you choose your routes well through the region ruled by the Sugar Loaf, you can play hide-and-seek delightfully with the great mountain for most of an afternoon.

I suspect it was just such an exercise that impelled Strong to devote most of his long life to buying the entire mountain, piece by piece, as his private park, which he later opened to anyone who wished to share the beauty of its vistas.

Strong was not the only powerful person entranced by the mountain. In President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes seized on the idea of acquiring the mountain, only 32 miles from Washington, as a presidential retreat.

"A handful of people will benefit from it if you do that," Strong told Ickes. "Thousands can enjoy it if I keep it."

Not one to turn down a request without offering alternatives, Strong suggested other sites for the retreat, including a spot in the nearby Catoctins that became the present-day Camp David.

I find it pleasant to think, drinking in the panoramas from atop Sugar Loaf, that with all the power of the American presidency, we, the people, got the first choice of retreats in the region.

But if the mountain was protected under Strong's trust, no such terms applied to the farmland at its foot that was sold by Pohlmann's elderly neighbors to the private trustees who manage Sugar Loaf. The old couple had neglected to put any restrictions on the land's use because they assumed it would be treated as the mountain it adjoined.

The trustees, however, anticipating that it could be a ready source of money if it were needed in the future, got approval to subdivide the 17 acres of the farm that fronted on Sugar Loaf Mountain Road, a winding dirt track along the preserve's eastern flank. If anything, the development, by establishing a precedent for more zoning change in the rural landscape, would have enhanced substantially the dollar potential of Pohlmann's 54 acres, not far away on the other side of the road. There are few surer tickets to wealth than owning developable farmland within commuting distance of Washington.

But Pohlmann and her husband Ken, now deceased, were never much good at extracting profits from the land -- or perhaps they just defined profit differently from most.

They came to the valley at the foot of Sugar Loaf in 1952, Pohlmann said, after their first-born son, age 3 1/2, had died of cancer in 1948.

"The land gave Ken stability," she explained. "I still think he never would have lived as long as he did -- he had heart problems -- if not for the farm. He was never happier, never freer, than in the spring when he was bouncing along on his tractor mowing, pipe clenched between his teeth, sailor's cap on his head. Actually, he never got much mowed in the spring, because he was always stopping so he wouldn't harm birds' nests."

The Pohlmanns kept their land in grass, raising cattle instead of joining the movement in agriculture to continuous cropping of corn, which maximized income but, all too often, soil erosion as well. To support them, Ken commuted to a regular job in Washington as a pension analyst for the United Mine Workers.

If they never made much of a living from the soil, the Pohlmanns still were nourished more than most of us, one suspects, by the landscape. Pohlmann tells of winter mornings after ice storms when the forest on top of the mountain glistened like diamonds; of spring's new green on the slopes and fall's blaze of colors; and rising with the sun in the fleeting, precious cool of summer mornings, watching the light play on the mountaintop over a mug of coffee on the farmhouse porch -- and of something else that a nation of urban and suburban dwellers had almost forgotten: the beauty of the night sky when the surrounding land is completely dark, unbroken by street lamps and security lights.

She could not let a development come between her and the mountain, so Pohlmann bought the land back from the trustees at full development price, $5,000 an acre.

Payments on the loan she took out take all the interest on her savings and soon may leave her only Social Security to live on.

Pohlmann's plans for the land, once she owns it free and clear, are to turn around and slap a perpetual conservation easement on it, in effect devaluing its price back to open space, thousands less than she is paying for it.

"I believe, like the Indian prayer, the earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth," she said. "We are part of the community, not the dictators."

Be warned, if you would throw in with Minny Pohlmann, that she has more irons in the fire by far than this one 17-acre parcel.

She is working to ensure the rural nature, through easements and zoning and public ownership, of a chunk of countryside, 15,000 acres and 20 square miles, around the majestic mountain here.

Nor is it just acreage she aims at preserving; it is nothing less than country -- in the sense that the conservationist Aldo Leopold defined country as "the personality of land."

"Personable" is not a bad way to describe the region anchored by Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Physically it is rolling Potomac Piedmont that in an age of huge and featureless grain farms has retained a nice balance between woodlots and smallish cornfield and pasture. Hedgerows and thickets and occasional windbreak plantings of dark cedar trees lend pleasing definition to the interstices of ridge and stream valley.

Culturally, a lot remains of the old stone bank barns and huge white clapboard farmhouses, stone fences and silos typical of the area's early farming community.

Once Pohlmann took me down to where the Monocacy River flows by the mountain and into the Potomac. We stood near the archeological site of an old Indian village at the confluence. Looking back upriver, we could see the old C&O Canal Aqueduct still standing from the days of barge traffic. In line of sight, behind that, was the trestle for the nation's first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, and high in the sky, over timeless Sugar Loaf, cruised the French supersonic Concorde, descending to Dulles International Airport.

It was a rare window through time and cultures, all inextricably part of the countryside's unique personality.

"Worth keeping, huh," Pohlmann said. She and other citizens of the region have made a good start. Pohlmann, often at her own expense for lawyers, has been instrumental in changing the zoning of a corridor of land critical to wildlife habitat from industrial use to open space only; also in securing less dense zoning for more than 3,000 acres that she subsequently interested the state in preserving as the Monocacy Natural Resources Area.

Ed Weseley, a longtime environmental activist here, said he doesn't know a person anywhere who is not a millionaire who has done as much as Pohlmann to preserve land.

That, however, is not the nicest thing anyone has said about her, according to Pohlmann.

The nicest thing was when the zoning lawyer for a prominent developer pointed his finger at her in a public hearing on preserving another big chunk of the Sugar Loaf region and said, "Minny Pohlmann, all this is your fault."

Tom Horton, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, covered environmental issues and the Chesapeake Bay for 10 years. He is currently on leave from The Sun and is managing an environmental education center for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. This is the first of two articles excerpted from his book "Bay Country," published by Johns Hopkins University Press.