It’s taken a long time for many people to get on board with environmentalism, but not Mary Davis, who has been on board just about her whole adult life. Now she is getting the formal recognition she deserves.
By Allen Clark
t’s taken a long time for many people to get on board with environmentalism, but not Mary Davis, who has been on board just about her whole adult life. Now she is getting the formal recognition she deserves.
On June 5, she was honored at the Bronx River-Sound Audubon Society’s (BRSS) annual meeting. Along with the Society’s award, she received four other proclamations and plaques, and the County officially declared June 5 “Mary Davis Day.” In all, she had at least 30 “Whereas”es.
Davis is a dedicated environmentalist and nature educator. The two roles go hand in hand for her. “I love sharing the wonders of the natural world with others and seeing them become aware of and enthused about things they’d never noticed before,” she said.
Her official start was 1974 when her daughter Suzey’s fifth-grade class at Midland School needed an ecology teacher. She was asked by the Rye Conservation Commission to create the curriculum and teach it to all the fifth grade classes in Rye. She had no official credentials, but she inherited a love of the outdoors from her Dutch/Scottish parents.
“When we were growing up,” Davis recalled, “we were sent outdoors to play; that’s what kids did.”
Based on what she’d taught herself and read, she taught the course for two or three years, once a week all school-year long. She recalled once getting the class to tap the Norway maples around the school and reducing the limited harvest down to some pure maple syrup. “Norway maples aren’t the best to tap, but that’s what was there.” The syrup was tasty and the project a success, although the kitchen wallpaper started peeling off.
Davis’ career in nature education took off after she received a Master’s of Science degree in Environmental Education at Fairfield University. That led to a consultancy with the Nature Conservancy for two years, writing an ecological assessment of the Henry Morgenthau Preserve, as well as a conservation program for the nearby Pound Ridge Elementary School, including a booklet, “A Guide for Exploring the Schoolyard.”
After volunteering at Greenwich Audubon Society, she was hired and worked for six years as Environmental Educator Specialist. In1984, former Marshlands Conservancy curator Alison Beall recommended Davis to the Westchester County Parks Department, which was the start of almost 20 years of impressive programming.
Her first position was County Naturalist (“I loved that title”). Through a series of promotions, she ended up Director of Conservation. Among her successes was starting the Children’s Summer Ecology Program, attended by thousands of school children, grades 1-9. The weeklong sessions introduce kids to the natural world, building both the observation skills of a naturalist and a personal relationship with nature.
She also conceived “Volunteers in the Parks” (VIP). Naysayers said she’d never be able to recruit volunteers, but they didn’t know Davis. She offered adults about a year’s worth of free training on a variety of environmental topics in return for taking school groups on educational field trips to the county parks. It worked and keeps on working. BRSS president Sandy Morrissey credits Davis with teaching her “most of what I know and propelling me along a similar path as a nature educator.”
Yet another of Davis’ accomplishments was setting up “biodiversity days” at the parks. Naturalists collected data about what species were using the parks and then set up natural resource management plans for each, including such functions as best times for mowing.
In 2003 Davis retired from Parks and became program director of the Sheldrake Environmental Center in Larchmont. In addition to her regular responsibilities, she trained adult volunteer environmental educators in 12-session courses consisting of a combination of ecology, the natural world, and teaching techniques.
Graduates work with young students from Rye Neck, Mamaroneck, Larchmont, Scarsdale, and New Rochelle schools, teaching them all about nature. Throughout the school year, they take turns going to the various elementary schools (“pre-trip” sessions) to work with kids K-5, leading field trips to the Larchmont Reservoir, Sheldrake River Trail, and Larchmont Dog Beach.
Last year, Mary, who with her husband Alan lives in Greyrock, just over the Rye line, had an accident in her home that left her with a severe spinal injury. She is approaching her extended rehabilitation with the same determination and positivity that characterizes her work and, while dependent on a wheelchair, she has returned to work. As BRSS President Morrissey observed, “Her legacy will live on in the many school children and adults she has inspired and educated with her love of the natural world.”
With all her organizational skill and calm attention to detail, Mary Davis has a whimsical sense of humor and charm that makes working with and knowing her a pleasure. It’s a big part of why she’s such a natural.