The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 28, 2007


Environmentalist Kay Fairweather educates her community

Kay Fairweather dissects a chicken of the woods mushroom she found on the Conant Land. She prepared it for dinner guests that night. (Photo by Lois d'Annunzio)
How many of us knew that the white-tailed deer's mating season in our area occurs in November and that the Massachusetts deer population has grown from about 1,000 in the early 1900s to an estimated 85,000 in 2004? Or understood that we might want to save a black cherry tree, which has small black fruit that in late August and early September feeds a wide variety of birds, as well as squirrels and chipmunks? These are just two of the many interesting bits of information that can be gleaned from Kay Fairweather's weekly Biodiversity Corner column, which began running in November 2001.

Whether on rambles in the Estabrook Woods or Towle Field, with her dog Chewy by her side and a camera flung over her shoulder, or even in her own back yard on School Street, Fairweather can often be seen examining and identifying all sorts of flora and fauna, especially those from one of her favorite groups — the fungi.

To learn more about this environmentalist and creator of the Mosquito's Biodiversity Corner, I sat down with Fairweather, who was, I should note, the 2006 Carlisle Conservationist Award winner.

A native New Zealander

Fairweather was born in New Zealand, in the Southland Province on South Island, on a sheep farm, a day-trip south of Queenstown, that popular site for the many tourists who visit the country. It was on the farm, she said, that outdoor life automatically connected her to plants and animals. She worked with her three brothers on the farm, doing the typical farm chores, tending the animals and driving the tractors.

When she was nine years old, Fairweather's parents, who were unhappy with the small local school, sent her off to a boarding school. "My dad was enlightened for his time and among his peers and believed that education was not only for boys but that girls should get as good an education as did the boys," said Fairweather. The girls' school she attended was 130 miles away, so she didn't come home on weekends. There were three major school holidays during the year, she remembered, and this was the same school she would attend until she graduated from high school.

Upon graduation, Fairweather went on to college in Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, where she attended pharmacy school. "Dad suggested pharmacy school because I was interested in science and chemistry. So for two years, I had labs and lectures all day long, followed by a two-year apprenticeship in Christchurch," she recalled. And it was in Christchurch that Fairweather took her first job.

In 1967, at age 21, she married. Two years later, like many other young New Zealanders, she and her husband left the country for what she called an overseas adventure. "It was a rite of passage. We just took the big OE [overseas experience] like everyone else; it was normal, and they are still doing it today," continued Fairweather.

"We had two stopovers on our flight to London, so we decided on one in Sydney and the other in Johannesburg. Since Australia wasn't that exotic for us, we went on to Johannesburg where we decided to take a year's layover. I took a job as a pharmacist. It was very easy to get a job there. It was the height of apartheid in South Africa but what a beautiful country it was, and on weekends, we took off for game parks and nature reserves. Any spare time we had, we spent out-of-doors.

"We were intrigued by the different species of animals, not just the obvious ones like elephants, giraffes and lions, but we were seeing other creatures too for the first time — like snakes, chameleons and many of the insects. We wanted to see everything that was there. It reminded me of when I was a kid on the farm, discovering dragonflies and caterpillars for the first time, just observing stuff and writing things down in a notebook, which I found years later."
Kay Fairweather, her dog Chewy by her side and her camera around her neck, explore Towle Field. "I look for whatever is there," she says, which explains why she is examining a twig. (Photo by Dave Ives)

Settling down in London

After a year in South Africa, the couple finally arrived in London, their original destination. Here too, they easily found jobs, since New Zealand was part of the British Commonwealth, and Britain had not yet entered the European Union. During their time off, they enjoyed the out-of-doors whenever possible, and when the weather was bad, went to the theatre or took brass rubbings in the churches. "You can't possibly take brass rubbings of knights-in-armor in New Zealand," quipped Fairweather.

Finally, after a year and a half, they got tired of the English climate and decided to head back home, with one more stop in America.

"We made a stop in America. It was the year of Watergate, in the early '70s. I like to tell people that my introduction to America was living on Route 9 in Framingham," she laughed. "I couldn't get a job as a pharmacist since there was no reciprocal agreement with New Zealand, so I decided to stay in America and become a computer programmer. From Framingham, we moved around a lot, to Harvard, Lincoln, Bedford and Billerica," she said. The couple divorced and Fairweather moved to Carlisle in the early '80s.

"When I first came to Carlisle, I had long work hours and traveled a lot for work, so I didn't get to enjoy the town," said Fairweather. "But in 1996, I started working from home as an independent [contractor] and was able to schedule my own time."

In 2001 a significant event changed Fairweather's life — she bought a digital camera. "Now I could document all kinds of creatures — bugs, flowers, whatever I came upon while in my yard or walking on conservation land. It made a big difference to me," she continued enthusiastically. "I could look at things better by loading pictures on the computer and then see the details you would miss in the field. I could blow up pictures of burying beetles and see the mites on their backs, or tiny mushrooms growing on slim molds. I could see things that otherwise wouldn't be seen. I nature — the association between things that escapes us so much of the time." And most importantly, I could share these photos with other people. This is what gave me the idea for the Biodiversity Corner."
These two caterpillars grew from the eggs Fairweather captured from the Cecropia moth featured in the Biodiversity Corner on June 22, 2007. See them in their glorious colors on the Mosquito web site, (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Becoming a mycologist

In 2000, friends introduced her to the Boston Mycological Club, whose members take walks in the Estabrook Woods. "I was captivated by the variety of mushrooms that I saw — their colors, shapes and their smells. There was a huge diversity just among the mushrooms and I was astonished that I didn't have to go to the tropics to see those colors of green, purple and red," smiled Fairweather.

Since that introduction to the life of mushrooms, Fairweather has been looking at mushrooms locally and throughout New England. In September 2006, she contributed her expertise with mushrooms to the week-long Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative gathering. As for her knowledge of birds, she credits Tom and D'Ann Brownrigg with teaching her to identify signs and sounds of the birds.

"Interested amateurs can make a contribution to the body of knowledge when it comes to nature," Fairweather believes. "You don't have to have done biology in college. This hobby is open to anyone, be it mushrooms, birds, insects, whatever."

The community joins in

Once her Biodiversity Corner column took off in the Mosquito, and with encouragement from the author herself, community members have joined in with ideas for the column when seeing things she hasn't seen. "People call me with 'there is a beetle on my door step.' I like getting calls from people about something that interests them."

A few weeks ago Fairweather fielded a request from a seven-year-old in Carlisle who dropped off a plastic baggie containing a large, speckled nut at the Mosquito office, asking that it be identified by the Biodiversity Corner writer. It was an oak gall, Fairweather wrote back to the inquisitive young Carlislean.

"[This] is a hobby with no end to it," observed Fairweather. "We can't master it, and it's also part of who we are. We are just animals, too, and can't separate ourselves from the rest of nature. We are all sharing a planet."

At the end of our interview, Fairweather headed home to feed her caterpillars the crab apple leaves that they so eagerly devour. These were the caterpillars that came from the eggs laid by that huge moth (Cecropia) that was featured in the Biodiversity Corner on June 22.

"Tonight I am also hoping to succeed in getting some green dye from the mushrooms that I have soaking," Fairweather said. "I was able to obtain several attractive colors from last year's mushrooms — browns, yellow and purple," she explained. She uses these dyes to color her natural merino wool yarn. Maybe this will be the topic of a future Biodiversity Corner column, by Kay Fairweather.

This Cecropia moth laid the eggs that developed into the voracious caterpillars seen above. You can read about the moth in the June 22 issue of the Mosquito in the Biodiversity Corner. (Photo by Paul Hackbarth)

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito