I wanted a simple life, to live in the woods and study plants. Not once did I envision advocating for anything. I wanted to be left alone. But, sometimes life has it’s own plans. My dream was derailed in 2000 while I was working in the Great Smoky Mountains studying plants. While slowly realizing my dream a handwritten letter from my mom shook me off my tracks. Unknowingly, this became the most pivotal moment of my life.
Part of a long-term vegetation study, I was partnered with PJ, a wiz at reading topography maps and my role was to identify trees. Like any other chilly morning in June, we carpooled from staff housing the short distance to the office, a historical log cabin jammed packed with scientists and their research. I was adjusting to the harsh demands of hiking to remote locations and inventorying plants.
By the time we returned to the office, the afternoon sunshine had warmed the forest. PJ’s childhood friend was visiting and waiting, so I quickly grabbed my mail and headed out to his rusty blue Subaru. The boys sat upfront, cranked the music, rolled down the windows and talked about old times. The combination of sun, breeze and youthful energy electrified the air. Excited to hear news from home, I opened the letter from my mom. Thinking it a joke at first, I re-read the letter causing the weight of the words to catch in my throat:
Come home now please. The house is being taken. They want to build a road through our house. You must come home.
My father built that house, a fifteen-year labor of love. My parents spent decades rescuing native plants from bulldozers and transformed the property into a haven for wildlife. Their choice to keep their property intact and maintain open space amidst encroaching development offered the county a thoroughfare for the Fairfax County Parkway. A shock such as this created a shift in the fabric of my being so raw that only hatred and the instinct to fight became my most prevalent emotion.
I gave two weeks notice to the future I envisioned. My dream stolen, the only option, return home and get a job with Sierra Club on Capitol Hill and start taking graduate classes in environmental science and public policy. I began the long journey to fight the county, fight the Army Corps of Engineers, fight Congress. I was young, naive and full of rage. Over the next four years I allowed the battle to consume every fiber of my being. The lessons I learned while wagging war transformed this naive fighter into an effective advocate. I had no choice in becoming an advocate.
Keep following to learn how Mary uses what she learned to teach Maya and Meredith how to save their 44-acre botanical preserve in the first book WinklerWarriors, part of the anticipated Young Adult Series, EnviroWarriors. Read more about Mary’s journey to save her childhood home.