Linda Woodard is the director of Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center. But the former high school biology teacher is also a passionate contributor to the Maine Environmental Education Association, where she has been on the board of directors for at least 20 years. On Thursday and Friday, the association will hold its annual conference at Colby College in Waterville, where environmental leaders gather for 30-plus presentations on topics such as empowering the next generation. Woodard’s fingerprints are all over it. So is this particular political moment.
A WRINKLE IN TIME: The conference always has a theme. This year’s is “Resilience,” a natural for a group with a stated goal of advancing climate change education in Maine communities. Worth noting, in case you missed it, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new head administrator, President Trump appointee Scott Pruitt, recently called into question the basic science behind climate change: that it is caused by human activity. “A lot of people are feeling really disheartened,” Woodard said. “I said, ‘We have to do resilience.’ People are feeling the need to be rejuvenated and to work with other people.”
PRACTICING SELF-CARE: Although figuring out ways to reach Maine children and get them excited about the environment is the focus of the work the association does, one session encourages educators to look inward. “We are also talking about the people who are working within environmental education, who are overwhelmed by climate issues. Because you have to acknowledge that it is going to affect you, as well. You have to look at yourself. You can’t just focus on your audience.” It has to be hard – fighting an uphill battle without the tools or conviction – of the federal government behind you. Add to that the general anxiety around the issue. “They are talking about climate change and how it affects mental health. They talk about it as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
CHANGE IS GOING TO COME: Woodard has been visiting (or working at) Scarborough Marsh for the better part of three decades. What impacts, if any, from climate change has she seen? For one, she has noticed new birds “that weren’t there when I started. I remember it being a big thing when I started to see great egrets. Now we have so many.”
“We are getting more extreme storms. What they call 100-year storms are happening more often. This fall, we had a really high tide, and you look at where that water came in and think, ‘This is what it is going to be like.’ ” The 3,100-acre marsh is Maine’s biggest, and it is protected. But development is pressing in. “The sprawl has just really come in,” she says. “There is going to be no place for that marsh to migrate to.”
LEAVE NO TRACE: Not all the news/change is bad. The students and other visitors “are getting more savvy. I am seeing more awareness.” During wilderness walks with groups of students, Woodard says she used to point to birch bark on trees and ask, ” ‘If I rip this off, is that OK?’ ” and they would say, ‘Sure!’ Now they say ‘Noooooo.’ ” Woodard credits the educators who bring these students to the salt marsh with planting the seed of leaving no trace.
A DOOR OPENS: How did she end up working for Audubon? Woodard has always been a nature lover. “My father tells me I was in the backpack hiking with him when I was, like, 3 months old.” She read Ranger Rick. She was in a canoe at such an early age (and eagerly) that someone gave her a tiny paddle of her own. As a teenager, she moved to Maine from Springfield, Massachusetts, after her parents divorced, but they had been bringing her to Kennebunkport for summer visits since she was 6. She stayed in Maine for college, studying biology at the University of Southern Maine. She went into research and laboratory work, but something wasn’t quite gelling for her. “I worked in a lab doing research on cells,” she said. “With the door closed.” Woodard decided to open it.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS: She began working toward a teaching certificate and then taught high school biology. “The thing that really hit me was that the kids came to me so turned off of science, because something happens along the way.” Her theory is that some teachers at the elementary and middle school level are afraid of taking their students outside because of their own knowledge gaps. “It really depended on the how the teacher felt,” she said. “If they liked the outdoors and felt confident, they could do it.” If not, they made far less of an effort. “But you can learn with your students. You don’t have to be fearful. Discovery is the whole thing.” She started conducting teacher workshops. From there, an advertisement looking for volunteers at Scarborough Marsh caught her eye. Then a job came up on staff. That was in 1988. She never left.
DOCTOR’S ORDERS: In some ways Woodard feels the world has caught up with her early passions. “What is really interesting is the whole health industry is saying ‘Wait, people need to get outdoors.’ We see pediatricians writing a prescription to go outside.” And when those children come to Audubon, either at Scarborough Marsh or the conservation group’s Maine headquarters at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth, she’s there, waiting with lessons about pollinators, native plants and how tossing a seed “bomb” in the fall (that’s compost and seeds mushed together) can, in a tiny way, help combat climate change.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: