Volunteer of the Month: Mary Guptill

30 Jun 2021

Mary standing on the mainland across from La Grande Île, which she donated to the Nature Trust in 2018.

This month, we’re delighted to showcase Mary Guptill as our Volunteer of the Month! In 2018, Mary and her husband Delbé made a 44 acre land donation that encompasses almost an entire island on Belliveau Lake. Protecting the island had been Mary’s quest since the 1980s, and since giving it to the Nature Trust to protect in perpetuity, Mary has continued to volunteer there as a Property Guardian to support its stewardship.

“I love all land, to tell you the truth,” says Mary. “I enjoy land – walking on land, working with land. I’ve always been especially interested in the ‘sous-bois’ – the whole plethora of little plants that take up the holes between the big plants – the ferns, the little spring and fall plants that are everywhere. That’s always been my hobby – identifying them, looking at them.”

Mary’s perspective on land was shaped in large part through her career as a forestry consultant. “Land ownership here is very fragmented,” she notes. “For me, and I think for a number of people, that fosters a tendency to look at land communally – you can’t get to your land without passing over other people’s land. As the strips of property get smaller and smaller, you can’t really manage your land unless your neighbour is managing theirs.” The Nature Trust often talks about this fragmentation in terms of the challenge it can present for preserving connectivity for habitats and wildlife.

Flowering Sweet Pepperbush

That perspective helped Mary identify and eventually protect an ecologically significant island in Digby County. Her interest in the island was piqued in 1986 when she learned from a friend that it hosts the rare Sweet Pepperbush. At that time it wasn’t known to grow anywhere else in Canada, and Mary describes it with great affection: “It grows mostly around the south-facing side of the island. In late summer it comes into bloom and it has a spire of small flowers grouped together at the ends of all the branches, all over the top. These spikes of small little white flowers are really fragrant – you can smell them from the lake if you’re paddling.”

“I initially thought I would give the island away in my will, but as you get older, you realize these things are best taken care of sooner rather than later!” She and her husband made the land donation in 2018, and the Nature Trust celebrated the protection of La Grande Île as a conservation win for the Sweet Pepperbush as well as for the unique old forests found there, well on their way to becoming Acadian old growth forests.

La Grande Île

Mary continues to care for the island as its Property Guardian. “Being the volunteer to go out and look at the island forces me to go out and look at it, which is great. It’s one thing to know you can go and it’s another thing to be obliged to go,” Mary explains. “That’s just the extra spur a person needs to put the canoe on the car and get out there.”

But Mary’s lifelong love of plants and being outdoors extends far beyond the island. “The island is special, but I find all places special.” She describes a path she’s cut that goes from behind her house, through scrubland and to a nearby river. The path crosses many people’s property, all of whom have given Mary permission to maintain her path. “I use it constantly, all the time. I’m often there daily, to keep the path open,” she says. “I thought it would get boring, because you see the same thing over and over. But the fascinating thing about land and plants is that the more you look at it, the more there is to see.

“You see the different visitors that come, you see their footsteps or the traces they leave. You see your own footsteps and the traces that you leave. You see strong trees eventually lose the race and die or fall down and then become places for other trees to grow upon. You see the cycles. The more you look, the more you see. So even though it’s the same piece I see over and over, I’m constantly learning from it and seeing new things.

“When I come back from that sort of walk, there’s no problem in the world that bothers me. It gives me peace. There’s no room in my mind for anything else. My worries are gone. I’m ready to start again.”

Please join us in thanking Mary for her ongoing dedication to caring for La Grande Île, and for sharing her captivating love of the many plants, trees, mosses, and lichens she encounters.

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