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If we protect the land, it will protect us

Mary Guptill spent thirty years buying up parcels of land on an island in the middle of a lake in southwestern Nova Scotia. She bought almost the entire island and then in 2018, she gave it all away. More correctly, she donated it to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust and she did this because a rare and endangered plant grows on this island that she believes is worth protecting. She also believes that we can’t really own land and that it is important to understand how much we rely on land. In her words, "After we die, the land stays and we draw all our wealth from the land. We draw all our resources from the land."

Mary graduated from the University of New Brunswick with a Bachelor of Science in Forestry. With a passion for small private woodlots, she worked for several years at La Forêt Acadienne Ltée based in Concession, NS, helping owners to locate and manage their lands. Mary then started two small businesses; the growing and selling of trees and shrubs suitable for local conditions and a Christmas Tree farm. Throughout her career she tutored a generation of elementary and high school students through the trials of various science courses specializing in mathematics. But her first love is the outdoors and, now in retirement, Mary grows all her own vegetables, catches a few mackerel, and spends time on her woodlots. For this blog, we asked Mary a few questions about conservation.

What can you tell us about the sweet pepperbush? What is it? Where does it grow? Why is it rare? Does it provide food/habitat for wildlife?

Mary: The sweet pepperbush is a lovely shrub similar in form to an alder although slightly shorter and finer in texture. It has tall spikes of white flowers at the uppermost tips of its branches which ripen into long-lasting, small, peppercorn-like fruit. When it blooms in the late summer, it fills the air with a sweet perfume similar to that of lilacs. These flowers are filled with nectar and are an important food source to butterflies and insects. The branches, however, are not browsed by deer. The sweet pepperbush seems to like having its roots dipped in fresh water because it grows around the edges of lakes benefitting from both the abundant water and sunlight.

Pepperbush is a member of the Atlantic Coastal Plain Flora; a group of about 90 plants all generally specific to southwest Nova Scotia. In its ‘wild’ form (non-nursery stock), it has only been found around six lakes in Nova Scotia, growing nowhere else in Canada although with an extensive range in the United States. Why pepperbush and these other plants grow only here in southwest NS is a direct result of the last time glaciers covered the province. All plants were pushed out by the ice but many took refuge on the extensive exposed flats just beyond on lands that are now flooded by the ocean (continental shelf). As the ice retreated and water levels rose, these plants moved off the shelf and back into the province often finding homes around the edges of the gently sloping lakes and rivers which fill the southwest portion of NS.

Was it as much about saving the island as it was about saving the bush? If so, why is this important?

Mary: The two go hand-in-hand; the bush cannot be saved without saving the island. Plants have specific needs or habitats and you can’t expect the plant to grow in the wild without protecting the habitat in which it needs to live. These needs are hard to measure and while some are known, others can only be assumed. For example, it is known that pepperbush needs lake shore to grow so lake edges that are cleared for cottages, lawns and wharves can no longer support them. On the other hand, pepperbush appears to need nutrient-poor lake water so even the bushes growing on a protected island will have a hard time surviving if cottages or farms around the lake cause nutrient levels to rise in the water.

Do you know of any other species at risk in our area? Are there things we can do to help?

Mary: There are many species, both plant and animal, at risk in our area. If someone is interested, the very first thing to do is to learn about them. The Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute has produced a booklet which identifies the ones that have been recognized by either our federal or provincial governments called Species at Risk in Nova Scotia; Identification and Information Guide. This booklet has lots of colour photos and interesting details about the various species and is a great place to start.

What are the top three things (in your opinion) that ordinary people can do to help save habitat or to protect the environment in general?

Mary: I would rather that ordinary people (nobody is ordinary) would look at their lives and pick for themselves three things that they feel they can do. We don’t all have to do the same thing. What is important is that as a group we reduce our demands. For some it might mean mowing less grass. For another it might mean using less plastic. And for another it might mean picking garbage out of the ditches. The choices are endless.

What is your favourite native plant and why?

Mary: At first, I was going to say that I haven’t got one, that they are all special to me, but then I thought back to when I was 19 years old and very new to life. I had just finished my first year in University and spring had started in northern New Brunswick. One of the older students, I suspect he was in his late twenties, brought me a flower that he had picked while he was working. I had never seen it before but the tiny, waxy flower with its five pointed petals entranced me. Unlike so many forestry students, he knew its name; one-flowered wintergreen (Moneses uniflora). This tiny gem opened my eyes to the smaller things and helped me to learn that a forest is made up of many, many parts each beautiful and important in their own.

Why should we care about conservation?

Mary: Why should we care? Why, indeed? If we could separate ourselves from the world that surrounds us, we would not have to care. But we are a part of this world and, if we care for ourselves, then we must care for the rest. This is a reciprocal arrangement; we take care of the world and the world will take care of us. There is no other way.

What is the Acadian Forest? How has it changed over the centuries, decades, years? Why is it special?

Mary: Those who study these things divided the forests of Canada into nine different regions based on climate, terrain and soil. One of those nine is the Acadian Forest Region which covers Nova Scotia, P.E.I., and most of New Brunswick (excluding a strip along the Quebec border). The trees that grow here in this Region are a mixture of the hardwoods more common to the south overlapping with the softwoods more common to the north. It is a Region with a great deal of variety and a large number of plant species. The more and varied the plant species, the more and varied the animals also able to live. To most people this usually means great complexity and great beauty.

There is very little in our world that has not changed in the past and does not continue to change today. At one time this whole area was once buried deeply under ice and no forests grew. Ever since the glaciers melted, the plants have modified the land they grew on which, in turn, modified the types of plants that were able to grow. This changing interaction of land and plants continues today but, today, this change is at an accelerated rate caused by the increasing influence of people. Examples are many. The amount of forest land has varied over the last 200 years as land was cleared for farming. The types of trees has varied as the cleared lands were abandoned and grew back into forests. Prior to land clearing for farming, beech used to be an important component of the Acadian Forest. Today, beech quality and quantity is much diminished by the beech bark disease imported from Europe. And Emerald ash borers, which threaten the existence of all ash trees, were brought to North America by people.

You once gave a simple, but profound piece of advice: Want less. Could you elaborate on this? Do you think we could add "Do less" to this?

Mary: “Do less” is such a restrictive adage that I fear it would hinder the many creative minds that are eager to make this world a better place. Plus I’ve never much wanted to tell others how to behave or what to do.

“Want less” was intended to help us cope in a culture constantly tempting us with the wonderful things we can buy and do while, at the same time for the vast majority of people, money is becoming increasingly scarce. It was intended to make us think about just what our needs are and where our joys lie. It was intended to start the conversation about just how much impact each one of us is having on the available resources around us. It was intended to make us look back in time to try and understand how and why our use of the resources around us has increased. It was intended to make us consider whether the resources we are using are being replenished. And, above all, it was intended to test our willingness to share our available resources with other, non-human, living things.

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