By Alison Sheahan and Susan Berry. Photos courtesy of Pablo Nuesch
ARMN’s Membership Committee posts occasional profiles of our members, including how they came to be master naturalists, which parts of nature they most enjoy, and how they affect their environment. This latest biography features ARMN Member Susan Berry, who graduated from our training class in Spring 2012. She is active in outreach and recently helped out as a mentor for the Fall 2017 class. If you know someone in ARMN with an interesting story and think others might be interested as well, please contact Alison Sheahan (email@example.com).
Tell us about the ARMN projects you spend time on.
My favorite projects involve interacting with the public. I love to talk with people and so I take my very limited knowledge of the natural world (almost exclusively learned from ARMN activities) and use it to participate in education and outreach at the Arlington County Fair, library events, native plant sales, community center presentations, MOM’s Organic Market store displays, and wherever else ARMN might have a table set up.
I also adore the annual Firefly Festival at Fort C.F. Smith Park. Mostly, that is a night when I talk with people about how to glue wings on their firefly necklaces and such, but it still involves interacting with people and occasionally discussing actual fireflies.
What brought you to ARMN? How did you learn about ARMN?
A few years before I heard about ARMN, my husband and I bought some land in south Albemarle County. For those old enough to remember The Waltons TV show, our property is at “Walton’s Mountain” (actually Schuyler, Virginia).
After we bought the land, we started going to land-owner workshops sponsored by Virginia Tech. At one of them, the organizer asked that everyone who was a Master Naturalist raise their hands. All these hands went up. That was the first time I heard about the program. Then, we had a forester come out and walk our land with us, and I was overwhelmed by his knowledge and I really wanted to know more about the trees and other plants on our land. Later on, when I was looking for a volunteer activity to replace the pet therapy work I had been doing, I ran across a posting for the next ARMN class and I thought, maybe I could do that.
What has surprised you about ARMN?
I never thought that it would lead to my holding a snake at the County Fair while children petted it.
What do you like most about ARMN?
There are so many things I could choose, but one thing I love is the wonderful emails that show up in my box every day. I will never forget getting that first email asking for people to show up for Salamander Patrol. I thought, “Where else can you find a group of people who send emails like this?” They know so much and are engaged in so many activities. Even though I cannot volunteer a lot of hours due to my work and other obligations, I feel connected with ARMN every day.
Tell us something about your childhood/adult experiences that shaped your perspective on nature.
I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia. My mother was a guide for Colonial Williamsburg, and I worked there in the summers and on school holidays. My mother loved gardens and was trained to give special garden tours in Williamsburg. When I was in elementary school, I had to do a report for science class, and my mother suggested that it be on the various hollies found in Virginia. We drove all over and collected specimens together, and later I proudly presented my report, which included a detailed description of Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon holly). I know very few plants by their botanical names, but I’ll never forget that one.
What is your background?
I studied theatre as an undergrad at the University of Virginia and later got an M.A. in theatre from the University of South Carolina. I worked at various small professional theatres and community theatres and eventually figured out that I needed another line of work if I wanted to eat and pay the rent. After deciding that law was the closest thing I could get to theatre, I went to law school and have now been working in immigration law for about 20 years. I met my husband in law school. He is the one who took most of the pictures that were featured in a backyard habitat display that we used for many years at different ARMN events.
What would people find interesting about the non-ARMN part of your life.
I have been figuring out how to take what ARMN has taught me into other parts of my life. I am a ruling elder at Fairlington Presbyterian Church and have been helping the church make decisions about its property. That is particularly important now because we just sold a portion of our parking lot for an affordable housing project and there will be new landscaping going on throughout our property as we shift things around, so I would like to promote the use of native plants, wherever possible. I am also in the process of helping the church become an official Earth Care Congregation within the Presbytery. I have learned that one of the things most young people care about when they are looking for a church home is how the church acts in relationship with the earth. So, I am working to focus some of the energy of our small congregation toward being more sustainable.
Tell us something unusual about yourself.
I don’t use a cell phone.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
It was because of all I have learned with ARMN that I was motivated to convert the front slope of the home my husband and I bought in Alexandria four years ago from a bank of English Ivy to a mostly native plant garden. I got my husband on board and we both hacked away at the ivy while simultaneously collecting plants from native plant sales to install. I also got a lot of golden ragwort from a weeding party at ARMN’s demonstration garden at Potomac Overlook Regional Park. Shortly after we finished the “conversion,” we got a letter from the City of Alexandria saying we were going to be given a beautification award. We thought it was a scam until we found out that there really is an Alexandria Beautification Commission and they really do drive around the city and select properties for awards. So, we ended up receiving our award from the mayor in a very nice ceremony in the fall of 2016. If it were not for ARMN, we certainly would not have been able to achieve this.