By Alison Sheahan
Mary McLean’s name is well known among ARMN members and many others interested in our local natural areas. She has been a force for environmental education generally, and for stewardship of Tuckahoe Park particularly, for many years! It was a pleasure to get to know her further for this interview.
Tell us about your background and what early experiences shaped your perspective of nature.
I grew up in a rural area just northeast of Birmingham, AL. Our 1910 house was on 9 acres of open land with a pond near a natural spring and my mother’s beautiful formal gardens. As the “caboose” in our family of 3 children, I remember being free to roam a lot on my own and I was always drawn to exploring and learning about the outdoors.
One of my earliest memories of my father was identifying a brown thrasher for me. I also connected to the natural world as a spiritual place, fitting with my Dominican and Jesuit parochial school teachings. In high school I was able to do several science internships with the University of Alabama and went off to the University of Virginia (’78) for college, thinking I might major in one of the sciences. The premed competition insured that was not to be—though I did meet my future “spice” there at my first stream study! Instead, I discovered a deep affinity for history and teaching. I later received a masters’ degree from George Washington University for History of Science. I worked for several years in administration and research at various institutions, including the Library of Congress, but I came back to my love of natural sciences and education through my three children.
What brought you to ARMN?
As I began teaching at the Rock Spring Cooperative Preschool in Arlington and then volunteering at my children’s school, Tuckahoe Elementary, I found myself drawn to those involved in environmental education in Arlington. I was on a committee that planned Tuckahoe’s wildlife habitat and school gardens from 1990-2003 and helped to develop Tuckahoe’s “Expeditions” Exemplary program for outdoor learning. During that time, I took the Master Gardener training, and got into even more nature programs at the Tuckahoe Elementary. In addition, I worked with others to develop a nature trail at Tuckahoe Park and learned about stream restoration. Then, after receiving an English as a Second Language master’s degree, I worked at various local schools and communities as well as the National Audubon Society in Maryland. All the time I always kept in touch with my naturalist and schoolyard friends, including two particularly influential ones: Alonso Abugattas (currently, the Natural Resources Manager for Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation) and Cliff Fairweather (currently, a park naturalist with Arlington’s Long Branch Nature Center). Alonso encouraged me to take the ARMN training with the very first class in 2008. The rest is lots of fun volunteering and learning.
What do you like most/surprised you most about ARMN?
I absolutely love the people of ARMN and the camaraderie that develops as we care for our environment. Where else can you find so many slightly geeky, humble, knowledgeable, and knowledge-hungry folks? And the number of overlapping human connections is amazing and constantly surprises me! I also love and was surprised by the deep learning in the training class and have been pleasantly surprised by how that training continues with the wonderful annual conferences and statewide meetings. There’s nothing like sharing a long car ride to SW Virginia to get to know each other, either!
Tell us about your ARMN projects.
Well, I still do spend a lot of time in Tuckahoe Park! It’s such a precious little oasis in a busy urban area at the intersection of Lee Highway and North Sycamore Street. We have been very active trying to remove invasive species here in both the woodland and wetland areas and continue to hold monthly invasive plant pulls in which the public is invited to help. I also helped to develop the information along the park’s interpretive trail. I had the honor of receiving the Bill Thomas Outstanding Park Service Volunteer Award along with Don Walsh for our work in 2014. I love to help with so many of the projects at Arlington’s nature centers like the Firefly and Bat Festivals, as well as citizen science projects like the Cricket Crawl and Bioblitz events.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I think that I kind of fell into becoming a naturalist/environmental educator “seven ways to Sunday.” There was so much in my childhood learning and church upbringing and love of outdoors that brought me to where I am. I believe that the best way of learning about what is most important for children—or adults—is out in nature where we evolved. When you learn outside you learn with real stuff that you can use anywhere. ARMN folks, like park rangers and professional naturalists, represent the best teachers because they connect people to nature and to valuing natural resources by experiencing them.