Category Archives: In Your Words

Barbara and her husband Nick with a cold-stunned Loggerhead sea turtle

In Your Words: Barbara Brennessel

Barbara Brennessel is a long-time volunteer at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, where her work includes cold-stunned sea turtle rescue.


Barbara and her husband Nick with a cold-stunned Loggerhead sea turtle
Barbara and her husband Nick with a cold-stunned Loggerhead sea turtle

My husband Nick and I have volunteered at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for more than 15 years. In the spring, we survey and tag Horseshoe Crabs in Wellfleet Harbor.
Later in the summer, I monitor and protect Diamondback Terrapin nests, an interest sparked by attending a Cape Cod Field School program at Wellfleet Bay.

Barbara Brennessel measuring a Diamondback Terrapin
Barbara Brennessel measuring a Diamondback Terrapin

The highlight, by far, is how we mark the end of each year by volunteering to rescue cold-stunned sea turtles on Wellfleet and Truro beaches. These turtles get trapped in Cape Cod Bay’s cooling waters, especially when it gets below 50 degrees F; they become cold-stunned and thus lose the ability to swim south into semi-tropical and tropical areas.

We keep our phones handy so we can respond to calls from Wellfleet Bay’s Turtle Rescue Team. When the wind is howling from a westerly direction, we anticipate
being called to walk along a specific stretch of beach to look for turtles. We prepare for the cold, the wind, and a good sandblasting.

Our gear is always ready near the front door: boots, down parkas, hats, gloves, and headlamps for night patrols. This past year, we included face masks to our supplies so that we could adhere to COVID protocols. Our sled for transporting turtles from the beach is in the trunk of our car, along with a banana box or two in case we are asked to bring a turtle to the sanctuary.

Barbara during a Cape Cod Field School program on Diamondback Terrapins
Barbara during a Cape Cod Field School program on Diamondback Terrapins

We have seen some spectacular sunrises and sunsets while on turtle patrol. It is quite eerie yet also amazingly beautiful to be on a beach in the middle of the night. If you see a headlamp headed your way, who else could it be but another sea turtle volunteer!

Most of the two dozen or so turtles we rescued in 2020 were Kemp’s Ridleys, but the last few were loggerheads. Every live, rescued turtle has the potential to contribute to future generations of these endangered reptiles. It is tremendously satisfying to know that these rescued turtles have a chance to live a longer life, mature, and produce baby turtles.


In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares their story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected]  to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 

Willow writing in her nature journal beside a vernal pool at Arcadia

In Your Words: Willow, Age 8

Willow is a young Mass Audubon member making a big impact. Check out our “Nature in Your Neighborhood” videos that highlight some of her adventures in nature, including a Fun Fungi Hunt and Exploring a Vernal Pool.


Nature Hero Willow, Age 8
Nature Hero Willow, Age 8

I’ve been going to Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and Northampton my whole life. When I was very little, my mom (who is a teacher naturalist at Arcadia), dad, and I would go snowshoeing on the trails. I would get tired, fall over on the snow, and that was Dad’s cue to pick me up so I could fall asleep in his arms.

Mom decided to start regular walks at Arcadia called First Child in the Woods Walks because she couldn’t find any fun events for little kids to get out in nature. At first, I was just going on the walks my mom would lead. As I got older, I started helping. If I noticed kids were interested in a natural object, I would help them discover its story. For example, how hollow logs can be animal homes and sometimes, if the hollow tree is still standing, you can listen and look for bats.

Willow and her mom, Brittany, leading a First Child in the Woods Walk at Arcadia © Phil Doyle
Willow and her mom, Brittany, leading a First Child in the Woods Walk at Arcadia © Phil Doyle

In addition to the walks, I attended preschool and camp at Arcadia, where I learned how to do a leaf rubbing, identify animal tracks and plants, and make pancakes with delicious homemade maple syrup. As a camper—a Kingfisher!—I play games like Predator/Prey, identify fungi, make nature crafts, and go on adventures.

But my absolute favorite thing to do at the sanctuary is visit the Pine Forest and the Clay Pits. I love making forts, and the Pine Forest has the perfect natural materials—sticks,
twigs, pine needles, leaves, logs, trees, branches, and mud. I like to make little clay mushrooms and hide them around the Clay Pits to find later.

Willow writing in her nature journal beside a vernal pool at Arcadia
Willow writing in her nature journal beside a vernal pool at Arcadia

I hope all kids can enjoy nature like I do, and try to protect it, too. If I could give other kids advice, I would tell them to build forts, hike, climb safely, go birding, look for
salamanders under logs and by vernal pools (but please don’t touch—it could hurt the salamanders), listen for bats, inspect pond water, play, and use their imagination.


In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares their story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected]  to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 

Scott Edwards by James Deshler

In Your Words: Scott V. Edwards

Scott V. Edwards © James Deshler
Scott V. Edwards © James Deshler

Scott Edwards is a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, Curator of Ornithology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Mass Audubon Council Member. On June 6, 2020, Scott left his home in Concord, Massachusetts, to set off on a cross-country bike trip. He spoke to Mass Audubon’s Hillary Truslow in July from a campsite in Wall, South Dakota.


On Biking Across the Country

The idea for this trip was hatched a long time ago. It’s a wonderful way to see a place—some say it’s the classic American adventure. It’s got a scale that is frankly awesome.

Birding Then & Now

My first introduction to birds was when I was 9 or 10 years old when a neighbor took me birdwatching in Riverdale, New York, where I grew up. The “spark bird” for me was the Northern Flicker, or what we used to call a Yellow-shafted Flicker. I couldn’t believe that something so gaudy and outrageous in a field guide could be in my backyard. On the bike trip so far, I was excited to see a Western Flycatcher, the Upland Sandpipers were super cool, and when I saw Yellow-headed Blackbirds I almost fell off my bike.

A Scene from South Dakota © Scott V. Edwards
A Scene from South Dakota © Scott V. Edwards

Attracting More People to Science

I was fortunate that I could follow my dreams and do what makes me happy. Not everyone has that luxury. We need to ensure that young people can make a living in science and that some of the coolest, weirdest, offbeat people are scientists. It’s not all people in white lab coats spending time indoors. In fact, a major part of my classes is spent outdoors learning biodiversity everywhere from Costa Rica to Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield.

Black in Nature

I consider myself a naturalist and pretty good at outdoorsy stuff like camping. Yet I have never worked on a farm and have very little knowledge of agricultural life. The other day I was fascinated watching a hay baler and posted a video on Twitter. I used #blackinnature mainly to poke fun at myself and to say that this is a totally different world than I am used to.

At the same time, it’s interesting to think of the intersection between African Americans and the natural world. Black Birders Week convinced me that there are lots of young folks out there in this space. And the hashtag is a nice way to say, hey look, there are African Americans interested in nature, that nature is for everyone, and hopefully get even more people of color learning about nature.

Wetlands in South Dakota © Scott V. Edwards
Wetlands in South Dakota © Scott V. Edwards

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares their story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected]  to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 

Otter Brown leading a maple sugaring program at Oak Knoll

In Your Words: Robert “Otter” Brown

Otter Brown on one of many nature walks_1
Otter Brown on one of many nature walks_1

I met my wife at the bottom of a pool at Wildwood Overnight Camp in 1976, back when the camp was located at Cook’s Canyon Wildlife Sanctuary in Barre. It was not an auspicious introduction. As the new director, I decided to drain the pool before camp started and paint food chains on the floor instead of lane lines. My wife, Suzy, had been hired as the water safety instructor and arrived from Ohio around midnight. I looked up and saw my new pool director with a cast on her arm from a cheerleading accident. Suzy looked down and saw a long-haired, 30-year-old camp director painting a turtle at the water line while dancing to folk music.

Suzy and I were married at Rutland Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in 1977 and lived there for three years while starting our public school teaching careers.  My experiences teaching with Mass Audubon  served me well, from summers at Wildwood to providing biweekly science programs to thousands of fifth-graders.

In 1980 we moved to Rhode Island and I started a new ninth-grade environmental science program at the Wheeler School in Providence. Recognizing the power of student research teams, I developed several curriculums, the most successful of which focused on river science in our local watershed. This led me to adopt my nickname, Otter, an animal I fell in love with while whitewater kayaking and doing field research along rivers.

Otter Brown leading a maple sugaring program at Oak Knoll
Otter Brown leading a maple sugaring program at Oak Knoll

I retired in 2015 and headed to the nearest Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary, Oak Knoll in Attleboro, to volunteer. After getting my early start with Mass Audubon, it was a natural place to finish…and what a special place Oak Knoll is! Although I miss my former students, I can see the same fire in the eyes of kids that attend programs at the sanctuary.

These days, when I’m not spending time with Suzy and our family, you can often find me working in the gardens, tapping maple trees for vacation-week programs, maintaining the trails, leading programs, or even appearing as the famous Rock Man in our Halloween Spooktacular. One place you won’t find me: at the bottom of a swimming pool!

Otter Brown with his granddaughter Phoebe at Blue Hills
Otter Brown with his granddaughter Phoebe at Blue Hills
Jackson Lieb walking a Wildwood trail at sunset

In Your Words: Jackson Lieb

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares his or her story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. In the Spring 2020 issue, we interviewed three counselors from Mass Audubon’s Wildwood Camp. You can also read Nina and Dustin’s stories. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected] to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 

Jackson Lieb walking a Wildwood trail at sunset
Jackson Lieb walking a Wildwood trail at sunset

When I was 10, my friend Evan was going to Wildwood for the first time and was nervous about not knowing anyone there, so he invited me to go with him. I loved it so much that this will be my ninth summer, first as a camper and then as a Leader-in-Training (LIT), a Leader-in-Action (LIA), a Junior Counselor, and finally as a full-fledged counselor.*

I loved being out of the school environment in a place where I could run around and be a kid, but the biggest thing for me was that there were new people every year who didn’t know me. Each summer that I returned to camp was a chance to create a better me. Having the freedom to remake yourself over and over is a great way to experiment and explore who you are at a time in your life when everyone’s trying to figure it all out. You don’t always get to do that at school where people may have known you for years and already have expectations about who you are.

At first, I didn’t think much about the nature camp aspect. I just thought that all camps were like that. But over the years I’ve come to enjoy Wildwood’s emphasis on teaching kids about nature more and more. Having staff naturalists leading programs every day is so helpful because I don’t always have the answers to kids’ nature questions—plus, I get to learn about nature, too. I want to run for political office someday, and protecting the environment is a big reason why.

One time, when I was a camper in Leopold (boys ages 9–10) and we were sleeping in the cabins, I woke up to a HUGE spider right near my face. I was convinced it was poisonous, but I also thought it was just a cool spider and wanted to know what it was, so I convinced my counselor to go wake up the staff naturalist to come identify it for us—at 2:00 in the morning!

Jackson Lieb playing a game of tag with campers on a hot day using a super soaker
Jackson Lieb playing a game of tag with campers on a hot day using a super soaker

LIT and LIA were the most fun I’ve had in any Wildwood program. I loved the leadership aspect and felt like we grew even closer as a group than we did as regular campers. Toward the end of the program, we climbed Mount Ascutney and sat at the top for over an hour, just looking out at this magical view in silence. There was a real sense of community and camaraderie after spending several weeks learning and growing together. The beauty of the natural setting definitely enhances the Wildwood experience, but for me, it’s really all about the people and the connections I’ve made.


Jackson Lieb is studying business and political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and will return to Wildwood this summer for his 10th year, and second as a counselor.

*Wildwood’s Leaders-in-Training and Leaders-in-Action programs are now known as the Environmental Leadership Program, Years 1 and 2, respectively. The Junior Counselors program will be replaced with a Counselors-in-Training (CIT) program this summer.

Nina Swett (bottom right) enjoying some downtime with fellow counselors

In Your Words: Nina Swett

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares his or her story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. In the Spring 2020 issue, we interviewed three counselors from Mass Audubon’s Wildwood Camp. You can also read Dustin and Jackson’s stories. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected] to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 

Nina Swett leading a group of campers during a Camp Olympics activity
Nina Swett leading a group of campers during a Camp Olympics activity

Since my parents met as campers there, it was always a foregone conclusion that I would attend Wildwood for overnight camp as well. As soon as I was of age, I started spending part of every summer at Wildwood, eventually working my way up through the Leaders-in-Training and Junior Counselors programs and finally becoming a counselor myself.

My clearest memory from my childhood years at Wildwood was taking a walk down First Point Trail, learning about vernal pools from staff naturalist Johnathon Benson. It was so amazing to me that all these frogs and salamanders were completely dependent on these small, temporary pools to survive and procreate. Wildwood definitely instilled a fascination and love of nature in me. I remember being a Leader-in-Training (LIT) and asking for special permission to get up at 3:00 am to watch the Perseid meteor shower from the activity field. We laid in the grass and counted shooting stars and talked for hours—that was a really special memory.

Like most kids, I had a few mixed experiences as a camper, which is a natural part of the growing process. A few really great counselors helped me through the challenging times and made me feel like I mattered. Now, as a counselor myself, I want to be that person for other kids, and the culture at Wildwood fosters that kind of supportive environment. Wildwood is a kind of safe space where kids are encouraged to be themselves, to drop the “false personas” they may be holding at home or in school, and even to try out new ways of expressing or defining themselves as they figure out who they really are and want to be.

Now that I’m in college, I want to become a science teacher so I can impart the lessons that Wildwood has taught me and use the skills I’ve learned there. Even now, I find myself using my “counselor voice” to make sure my friends are staying hydrated and rested through finals!

Nina Swett (bottom right) enjoying some downtime with fellow counselors
Nina Swett (bottom right) enjoying some downtime with fellow counselors

It’s hard to communicate the power of camp to my “non-camp” friends and family. The skills I have developed through my years and experiences at camp—how to connect with kids, how to be patient, how to love nature, how to love yourself, how to appreciate what you have and what’s really important in life—most people outside the camp world don’t really “get it.” There’s something about going into the woods for a few weeks with no internet or cell phone that does something really profound to you. It’s being in a place you love with people you love. It’s so important.

Every day that I’m alive, I’m so glad that I went to and continue to be a part of Wildwood. It has given me the best friends I’ve ever had—and ever will have—for the rest of my life. I don’t know who I would be without it. In a literal sense, I wouldn’t be here without Wildwood; in a figurative sense, I wouldn’t be the person I am now, and for that, I am so thankful.


Nina Swett is a first-year student at Mount Holyoke College, where they hope to pursue a career path toward becoming a teacher. They will return this summer for their 14th year at Wildwood and third as a counselor.

Dustin Ledgard leading a silly Camp Olympics activity involving shaving cream

In Your Words: Dustin Ledgard

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares his or her story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. In the Spring 2020 issue, we interviewed three counselors from Mass Audubon’s Wildwood Camp. You can also read Nina and Jackson’s stories. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected] to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 

Dustin Ledgard leading a silly Camp Olympics activity involving shaving cream
Dustin Ledgard leading a silly Camp Olympics activity involving shaving cream

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by nature. I’ve lived near conservation woodlands all my life, where I explored every nook and cranny as a kid. I caught frogs and snakes; tallied the hawks, warblers, and cardinals; and fed birdseed to baby Mallards. I read book after book about whales, dinosaurs, and penguins and devoured episodes of Planet Earth. As a Wildwood counselor, I found a place where that nature-loving child in me can return as I sing silly songs, canoe around the perimeter of the pond, bury myself in sand (long story), and search the camp for a stuffed toy raccoon (longer story).

This past summer, one of our mid-session overnight camping trips saw temperatures soar to a scorching 100°F. As a team, the staff proposed to the campers that we could avoid the heat by waking up at 3:00 am to climb the mountain and see the sunrise. We were all aware of the challenges involved in taking 50 13- and 14-year-olds up a mountain in the dark, but to my surprise, they were game! When the alarm rang in the early morning, my campers ran over, fully awake and ready to hike. We clambered up the mountain by moonlight and flashlight until a sliver of pink pierced the horizon as we ascended above the tree line. At the top, we were rewarded with the most beautiful sunrise I’d ever seen. The mist blowing across the valley distorted the sunlight, and we found ourselves inside a giant rainbow. It was a magical moment, and we all felt accomplished.

We are in unbreakable connection with nature—we inhale what plants exhale, our food grows from the soil, and we’re constantly at the mercy of natural phenomena. Humans haven’t conquered nature as we like to believe: we are nature. At this critical time when the health of our planet is in our hands, camps like Wildwood, which foster that connection in children and teens, are exceedingly special places.

Dustin Ledgard enjoying an outdoor lunch at Wildwood with chopsticks
The 2019 Wildwood camp staff took part in a “Chopstick Challenge,” eating every meal (even soup!) with chopsticks.

Since first coming to Wildwood for family camp in 2011, I’ve treasured this special place for its community, sanctuary, and opportunities. I’ve spent some of the best weeks of my life at Wildwood, whether as a camper, a trekker, a Leader-in-Training, or a staff member. I’ll be returning this summer for my third year as a counselor, which I see as a way to give back to a community that has given so much to me.


Dustin Ledgard is studying Composition at Indiana University and will be returning for his 11th summer at Wildwood this year, his third as a counselor.

Jeanne Li - Volunteer at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary

In Your Words: Jeanne Li

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares his or her story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected] to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 


Jeanne Li - Volunteer at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary
Jeanne Li – Volunteer at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary

I have always enjoyed the outdoors and science. When I went to college at Vassar in the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and other writings started me thinking about a career in ecology. I wrote to government agencies asking about job opportunities; the replies were not encouraging. So I switched my focus from zoology to chemistry and spent my working life in laboratories—indoor places. In my free time, I went hiking, skiing, sailing, and birding, and had many other outdoor adventures around central Pennsylvania.

When I moved to Massachusetts in 1984 and began looking for places to hike, I discovered Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries. In 2000, a move to the North Shore put Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield just 10 minutes away. I wanted to give back and help the environment but my job did not permit donating much time. So I helped with special events and did trail monitoring while I hiked, reporting any problems I found to the property manager.

Boardwalk choked by Glossy Buckthorn
Boardwalk choked by Glossy Buckthorn – May 2012

As retirement approached, I began looking for new ways to fill my time. I spoke to the staff at Ipswich River about volunteering to do some type of outdoor work related to ecological management and they asked if I would help restore a field by removing an invasive plant, Glossy Buckthorn. That fall, I successfully cleared a small patch with the guidance of Richard Wolniewicz, the property manager, and Lou Wagner, the now-retired regional scientist.

Unfortunately, the buckthorn grew back the following spring. To permanently eradicate it, we would need to take a targeted approach, individually cutting and applying herbicide to each plant by hand. Today, the fields contain more grasses and wildflowers and fewer invasive plants, which is very satisfying to see. With the help of other volunteers, student interns, and staff, we have extended the work to remove buckthorn along the wetland trail edges, as well.

Clearer views and healthier native plants after Glossy Buckthorn removal - Winter 2019
Clearer views and healthier native plants after Glossy Buckthorn removal – Winter 2019

This volunteer work has provided opportunities to meet and work with people from many different backgrounds, to learn botany and ecology, to present at Mass Audubon’s annual Staff Natural History Conference, to drive a tractor, and to keep physically fit. As a bonus, I observe birds, mammals, amphibians, and insects as I work. I am honored to be a part of Mass Audubon’s effort to conserve our natural world.


Jeanne Li is a volunteer at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield.

Flavio Sutti holding binoculars at Arches National Park in Utah

In Your Words: Flavio Sutti

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares his or her story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected] to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 


Flavio Sutti holding binoculars at Arches National Park in Utah
Flavio Sutti at Arches National Park in Utah

Growing up in the Italian Alps, I spent most of my time on my grandparents’ farm. The animals and the surrounding forests and fields provided a magical and safe place to explore nature, learn how to care for animals and crops, and understand the intricate connection between humans and the landscape they inhabit.

As an adult, most of my life experiences have had animals as a key component. In Italy, I had many jobs: working in a natural history museum, as a wildlife biologist conducting environmental impact statements, as a researcher with universities, and as a wildlife rehabilitator, where I came to know the stories of individual animals and greater realize the importance of educating people.

My first introduction to the U.S. began in 2003 when I spent several semesters interning at the Glen Helen Nature Preserve and Raptor Rehabilitation Center, part of Antioch College in Ohio. I met and married my wife in the pine forest in Glen Helen. Our ring bearer was an imprinted Barred Owl (a bird that had become habituated to humans such that it couldn’t survive in the wild) I’d trained at the raptor center, who was carried down the aisle on my mentor’s arm.

Flavio (right) on his wedding day with his mentor, Bet Ross, and his ring bearer owl, Grinnell
Flavio (right) on his wedding day with his mentor, Bet Ross, and his ring bearer owl, Grinnell

In 2006, settled in a new state, my first official job was as a teacher naturalist at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln. When I think back, what drew me to Drumlin Farm must have been the familiar combination of farm and wildlife, both of which so strongly impacted me as a child. I was, and continue to be, impressed with the ways in which Mass Audubon’s mission is so in line with my values. Those same values brought me back to Drumlin Farm in 2013 to run the Wildlife Care Center after earning my master’s and doctoral degrees in Wildlife Biology at the University of Vermont.

My work at Drumlin Farm feels more important every day as I see my own daughter grow up and connect with the animals and nature. Now that we’re embarking on a renovation of the Wildlife Care Center, I’m looking forward to using my experiences to make Drumlin an even better place for animals and education. I believe that we can profoundly help wildlife by inspiring people to take better care of the natural world.

Flavio holding a millipede and showing it to children as part of a school program in Lowell.
Flavio leading a school program in Lowell

Flavio Sutti is the Wildlife Program Coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary.

John Burk © Stan Sherr

In Your Words: C. John Burk

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares his or her story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them. If you have a story to share about your connection to Mass Audubon, email [email protected] to be considered for In Your Words in a future issue! 


John Burk © Stan Sherr
John Burk © Stan Sherr

I arrived in Northampton on Labor Day weekend in the fall of 1961. I was 25 and unmarried. My second-floor apartment looked out on a parking lot and then beyond to the Mill River.

Sometime over that weekend I decided to explore and followed the Mill River down through the meadows. Crossing the bridge where the river flows into the oxbow and trying to return back on the opposite side, I encountered signs that informed me I was entering Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary. Not wanting to trespass, I turned around and retraced my earlier route into town.

I had been newly hired by the Botany Department at Smith College to teach, among other subjects, plant ecology. I wanted to take my students on a field trip and wondered whether I could take them to the wildlife sanctuary since the state’s woodlands were closed due to drought and a threat of forest fires.

We drove out that Friday afternoon to the white farmhouse that serves as Arcadia’s offices and knocked on the door. The person who answered was Ed Mason, the sanctuary director. He graciously welcomed us. We walked down the trail to the Mill River and its marshes, the first of many such expeditions through the years for class field trips and an assortment of independent research projects.

John Burk © Kai Jensen
John Burk © Kai Jensen

I learned that a colleague was serving on the sanctuary advisory committee, and she eventually asked me to replace her. It was an obligation I happily took on.

In the five decades since, I have focused my volunteer activities on issues of ecological management. I’ve worked with students and sanctuary staff to document the plant life of the area and identify patterns of vegetation and its responses to outside forces, such as oil ollution in the marshes, invasion by aggressive non-native species, and a changing climate.

Carefully documenting these changes over time provides important data that can help inform and guide conservation efforts. As a period of accelerated climate change becomes increasingly likely, I hope that my work with students and staff will better position us to meet the challenge.


John Burk is Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences at Smith College and a longtime volunteer at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and Northampton.