SHIRLEY -- Gaynor Bigelbach decided to volunteer for AmeriCorps last fall after she read the Nashua River Watershed Association's advertisement for a service-learning coordinator.

"I jumped at the chance because I had had some experience with the NRWA's programs," the Shirley resident said. "I was always very impressed with them, and I had met some of the staff, who were amazing. I had also always admired (NRWA founder) Marion Stoddart, and was excited to get to work with her. Then on my first day, I walked in the door and she was there. I was thrilled!"

Service learning is a type of experiential education that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience. Bigelbach's job at the NRWA is to engage youth from kindergarten through age 24 in conservation projects that enrich their communities.

One of the projects she has been working on is the building and installation of 20 wood duck boxes with the Shirley Venture Scouts, Boy Scout Troop 7, and some of the Shirley Cub Scouts.

"Monty Tech cut the wood for us. They waived the fee for the NRWA as part of their own service-learning project," said Bigelbach. The boxes are being placed at Leatherboard Pond and Catacunemaug Brook in Shirley and Robb's Hill in Lunenburg.

Wood duck boxes are necessary to aid the birds because they nest in cavities, and many trees with cavities die and fall over, Bigelbach explained.


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"The boxes can be placed near water, which increases the ducks' chances of survival. Wood ducks have an 84 percent mortality rate from predators like coyotes, raccoons, and snapping turtles. Having their nesting areas near water increases their chances of survival."

"We also have a bluebird nesting project in Devens. The Parker Charter (Essential School) juniors and seniors who are in the environmental studies program are building the boxes and will put them out at Parker.

"The campus has a perfect landscape for that because it is meadow, and they visit all the time and there is sumac there. It is also a safe environment because it is a school and there are no cats around," she said.

"What is great about it is that, in school, students get to learn about these things on paper, but they don't always know what it is they want to do," she said of service-learning projects.

Another project Bigelbach conducts with youth is a species-inventory program called BioBlitz.

"It is when you go into a small area and look at the diversity of life that is there and make notes about it," she explained. "It gives you a sense of the wildlife you spend your life around that you rub up against every day but don't notice, and this helps you to really pay attention."

"You don't have to be a professional to do some good in the world," she said. "The thing with service learning is that you can show people -- 'just give it a try.' And people get hooked. We have volunteers who come to NRWA and they have been there for years.

"George Moore is a wonderful waterman and he comes out for the outdoor classroom. He has a lifelong love of learning and it is nice for the kids to interact with him, because he is really willing to share what he knows. What we need are more George Moores," she said.

Bigelbach feels that hands-on environmental education is extremely valuable.

"Writing a paper on it is not as fun as doing a survey on the banks of the river or cutting back invasive plants. You just do this for the sheer love of it. I think it's intoxicating for kids.

"All you have to do is turn on the news and there is something terrible happening. And I think kids get overwhelmed with that. You can't let them lose hope. Service learning shows them how easy it is for them to make a difference in the world.

"Marion Stoddart didn't just come out of nowhere. She already had a love for nature and she put all her energy into cleaning up the (Nashua) river. We are trying to empower youth to take an active role in conservation and really get their hands dirty," said Bigelbach.

Halfway Around the World

Bigelbach's own background is in television. A native of South Wales, she worked for the BBC as a researcher for arts programs in London. 

She met her American husband 18 years ago in a café in McLeod Ganj, a British hill station in the Himalayas.

"I was traveling one way around the world, and David was traveling the other, and we ended up in the same café," she said.

When she and her husband, a chef in Cambridge, lived in Boston, they spent all their time driving out of the city to the lakes and woods of the suburbs.

"We thought, 'This is crazy, let's just go live there,' " she said.

They and their two teenage sons moved to Shirley five years ago.

Bigelbach still maintains the butterfly garden she started with local children at Hazen Memorial Library two years ago, and said that she is thinking of starting another in a different location.

"I literally have a bee in my bonnet about another garden. Our native bees are dying at an alarming rate and a lot of people don't realize it because they don't make hives -- some are ground-nesting and some lay their eggs in hollow stalks from last year's stalks. So if you cut your stalks then you are cutting where they lay their eggs.

She said that she is working with young people in Lancaster to start a pollinator garden. "It's going to be at their community center on the common. The garden is going to come from the community, so it will come from people's transplants and they will see plants from their gardens with other people's plants, and they are all pollinator-friendly."

Some of the flowers they will plant include purple coneflower, columbine, sages, hyssop, and lavender bergamot.

"There is a possibility of putting one in at Longley Acres," she added. "I would also love to put in a beautiful English-cottage garden there."

Another project Bigelbach is tackling is vernal-pool monitoring in Devens and at Robbs Hill. She said it is important because she is doing it for the Harvard Forest Schoolyard program, and they ask people to continually send data on the vernal pool throughout its lifespan.

"There is not enough data about the fluctuations in water levels and when it dries up," she said. "People are always interested in the wildlife, but they want more information on how the water fluctuates so they can learn more about how that affects the ecology of the vernal pool."

A Shirley Tradition

E. Benton MacKaye, (1879 - 1975) of Shirley Center, was the father of the 2,140-mile-long Appalachian Trail, the 14-state ridgeline greenway and footpath that parallels the Atlantic Ocean from central Maine to northern Georgia.

A Harvard-educated forester who served in the early U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Labor Department, he proposed the Appalachian Trail in a 1921 article, "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning," in the "Journal of the American Institute of Architects."

In the mid-1930s, he, Aldo Leopold, and a handful of other conservationists founded The Wilderness Society. MacKaye later served as its president.

"Mulpus Road is where a young Benton MacKaye thought up the idea for the Appalachian Trail. That is exactly why I am doing this, because it is those early life experiences that influence the people they will become," Bigelbach said of today's youth.

"'To walk. To see. To see what you see,' " she said, quoting MacKaye's stated purpose for building long-distance trails. "Not to just blaze through everything, but to actually see what is around you and how it interacts and how we interact with it is absolutely key."

"I work with people from K to age 24, so if anyone has a service-learning project they are interested in starting, they should contact me. They can call me at NRWA, 978-448-0299, or email me at gaynorb@nashuariverwatershed.org."