Turtle Guardian: Marie Windover

Written by Victoria Belbin, Turtle Guardian Assistant

On August 27th, I met with a local Turtle Guardian, Marie Windover. She is a farmer, a local historian, and a lover of the natural world. Almost immediately, you can see her passion and her dedication for the outdoors, as she keeps meticulous notes and logs about her encounters with a plethora of species. I asked Marie about how she got involved with turtles and conservation work first, and she would tell me all about how the 480 acre farm that she currently lives on, has a mix of arable land and wetlands, and so moving there in 1986, she would begin to learn about the hydrology of the area, and this is what would spark her interest in digging deeper into the local environment that was beneath her feet. Marie, speaking with conviction, is sure to tell all about the importance of wetland ecosystems, and why we need to make sure that whatever human impact we have on the landscape, we need to do our best when it comes to minimizing the often catastrophic impacts of wildlife displacement. She would tell me all about how her mind was blown when she discovered the Endangered Species Act, and how there was a shift in her thinking when it came to realizing that these species at risk were in her own backyard, metaphorically and literally. She had been aware of mass environmental campaigns before, such as the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) international campaigns to protect whales, seals, and bears, but there was something eye-opening about realizing that there are species here at home that were (and still are) in need the same attention and protection. She would tell me all about how native species have been threatened by the actions of humans encroaching on delicate habitats over the past few centuries, and how something must be going terribly wrong within human development, especially when we look at the rate in which we are losing native species. Her and I would continue to talk about the economic importance of the natural resources, especially in the Kawarthas (with logging and aggregates), and when it comes to the historical aspect of not only Ontario, but Canada in general, as we have thrived in what is known as a natural resource-based economy. Harold Innis places this concept best with his “Staples Theory”; the Staples Theory follows the [historic] Canadian economy primarily being dependant upon the Four F’s – fish, fur, farming, and forestry – in our pre-Confederation and post-Confederation years. Today, the argument can be made that we are still very much a natural resource-based economy, especially when it comes to our oil resources.

Marie would tell me about the intensive logging practices of the region, and how for the most part, there were many places that were able to make a comeback. They were able to grow and flourish, as she called them a “slow-growing cash crop”. Her mindset when it comes to environmentalism is fascinating, as recognizing that we have natural resources, and the importance of sustainably harvesting these resources is important. I would learn that Marie loves snakes (and I mean, who wouldn’t?)! She would start to work with the Eastern hog-nose snake, and she communicated that not too many folks were receptive to snakes, as they have this stigma and association with them. Then, she would come across Leora Berman, of The Land Between, who would begin crucial conversations about the importance of the five-lined skink (which is actually Ontario’s only native species of lizard) and about Ontario’s turtles, whose populations are in dire straits because of habitat destruction, collisions with motor vehicles, and poaching. When it comes to public awareness about these issues, it is great to note that most “everyone loves turtles”. Therefore many, people were receptive to the message of conservation and caring for the natural world around them, of appreciating the land in which they live and the species that they live amongst. Marie told me about the wealth of opportunity that she has to work with the natural world around her, and that as citizens, we should use every opportunity that we have to work WITH species, instead of AGAINST them. Marie stated that: “the species were here when we got here, and they should be here when we leave”, and this was powerful, as it served as a reminder that we need to be humble and step lightly, and change this mindset that humans are superior to the natural world—after all, we are doing them harm, which doesn’t seem superior. Marie has this ability to ground you in her words, and while talking with her, I was thinking about how we may start as visitors to the lands we occupy, and how overtime, we become one with them.

A question that Marie and I discussed was “what does wilderness mean to you”? I knew this question was going to be a difficult one to ponder, as everyone has a different definition of what wilderness is. Too there would be a plethora of perspectives for how individuals connect to the land and the species around them. Marie would respond: “[wilderness is] my backyard”, and she giggled lightly when she communicated this because it was such a natural response for her- she was so connected to the land around her. She would tell me about her adventures walking around her acreage, and how she would see the odd cougar or bear, or even moose, which I found surprising, as I had no idea that moose could be found as far South as the Kawarthas.

There is much to be said about the perception of the wilderness, especially when it comes to The Land Between region, and what we know as “cottage country”. Those who visit from urban areas may have very different perceptions of the wilderness found here to those who live amidst the bears and the loons year-round. In the city, a concrete jungle surrounds, with skyscrapers and parking lots taking the place of green space and habitats. The noises of the city would be of traffic and sirens, instead of nature’s symphony of songbirds and whistling leaves. The sight of the subtle hummingbird is all but a dream to those who hail from man-made “scapes” in grey.  The final point that Marie made when talking about wilderness and was, “this is not cottage country, this is home”.

More questions followed related to her self-driven works to challenge the destructive terra-forming that clatters more loudly each year around her, and Marie responds that she is self-proclaimed “b***h of the hill!” Marie is ready to go down swinging to help protect the natural world around her. I absolutely love her determined conviction.

Adjacent to Marie’s property is a quarry; a mass deposit of rock that is extracted for use, primarily, in the construction of roads or buildings. Quarries drastically change the landscape and remove habitats and they often use lots of water to wash the aggregate and prepare it for market. Despite the mass operations to harvest what Marie calls “the bones of the land”, she is cognizant of the fact that we must have these operations to some degree, as we need roads and other infrastructure, but she questions the scale of these operations as well as whether they adhere to necessary practices to sustain and rehabilitate the environment. She has seen the ongoing destruction of natural features and cultural heritage. Marie told me about the destruction of “local mountains”, and how these spaces were licensed pits that have left craters in the Earth. She compared these craters to craters in the moon because of the barren surface and because they now looked so unfamiliar and uninhabitable.

Marie and I talked about how operations are often harmful and disrespectful to our water; sediment and debris are washed into it rivers and streams. Marie and I would talk about how these local issues connect to international issues, as Canada has the most freshwater on the planet, and water is the most basic and most sacred resource on this planet; it is what gives life.
Marie would reinforce how everything in the natural world is connected, and how everything that we do, whether it be micro or macro, has an impact on the next generation, and not only on our species, but on the countless other species that exist.

Living in the Land Between, we live in a region that is so unique and sensitive that it is remarkable provincially but also nationally. There is a shift that occurs in the Land Between ecoregion from limestone to granite. Marie believes aggregate pit operators and permit agencies may not even notice these changes, and therefore the standards of care and accountability also don’t match the needs of the land.

“There are areas that are more than capable of healing themselves outside of the sensitive Land Between region and if the appropriate time and conditions are available for rehabilitation, but there is so much damage around here, that my farm has become a refuge for the species that have been displaced by the quarry next door”. Marie is a wildlife warrior, as she has spent countless hours fighting to ensure better accountability for these operations.

Marie has stated that no proper studies or understanding of the natural existing features of the land have been acknowledged, and this was seen with the instalment of a rock saw, which does exactly what you think it does; it cuts into the rock. In cutting, it creates sediment that spills over into neighbouring ecosystems and/or waterways. Marie actually got this saw removed from the quarry next door to her, as this rock dust was running into the wetlands on her property. On her property is a black spruce forest; a rare ecosystem in Southern Ontario. So rare and sensitive, in fact, that Marie is not allowed to have her cattle near the river by this forest, as they could impact the ecosystem. Additionally, Marie told me of four old springs that have been ‘there’ for as long as anyone can remember, that have dried up completely because of the altering of the water table and the prolonged impact of aggregate operations.

Aggregate operations can have a significant impact upon turtles by threatening or removing their habitats from water drawdowns or dirty water running into wetlands; from the loss of food and shelter, and even from the noise pollution.

Marie has stated that she wants to help encourage and teach others to be better stewards of the land, to leave the land in better condition than when they found it. She wants to start the Wild Oak Walks, where she would like to take people around to different trails on her property to help them understand the importance of stewardship and the land around them. She dreams of a place where turtles thrive and reproduce; where, chicken wire nesting cages can be placed to protect the nests and ensure the survival of hatchlings.

In my experience, environmentalism can be exhausting, and I am overjoyed to meet people like Marie, as she reminds me of the importance of keeping on.

The final question that I asked Marie was: “Why do you love turtles”? She joked and said that “[she] does not like the ones that you eat”, referring to the chocolate and pecan treats because she is not a fan of pecans. But in all seriousness, she told me that turtles, to her, represent one of the last symbols of prehistoric times. She expressed that they would be “bite- sized” for a dinosaur; they do not fit the standard “dinosaur look” and that in that sense they are not intimidating. Marie communicated that turtles forge one of the last connections that we have to the beginning of civilization and are our last connection to this era. Marie reaffirmed that “as long as we see them, we have that benchmark, and some degree of normalcy or health in the environment …”when there is no wildlife, nature cannot be here, and then, we, as humans, cannot be here”. Here once more, Marie solidified her earlier sentiments of the sacred bond that humans have to the natural world and the dependence that we have upon nature to ensure our survival. Marie believes that turtles hold hope for us and that as long as they are wandering the Earth, we still have a chance to save the planet. After all we live upon Turtle Island, and in Marie’s vision of the world, the turtle is the most spiritual and connected creature to us as humans, especially when it comes to human instinct an our collective history.

I have found that I am able to relate closely to Marie, as we both have that passion for human and environmental history, which often goes hand and hand when it comes to conservation work. It was an absolute joy to sit down and talk to Marie. She is passionate, spunky, and is incredibly awe-inspiring, with her continued work to help protect our oldest relatives. She is a natural story teller, and the tender love and care that she has for the turtles is infectious! She is tough as nails, but she has the kindest heart, and I would like to express my gratitude to her for being a Turtle Guardian and protector of the next generation (human and animal alike).