For many years, Athen MacDonald used her passion for helping and healing, along with her skills as a medical professional, to improve the lives of generations of children in the Kingston area as a well-respected pediatrician.
Upon retirement, she took that same desire to help and heal, to see living things grow and thrive and began volunteering with the Friends of Lemoine Point, spending many a Wednesday morning alongside other dedicated volunteers working on various tasks at the Native Plant Nursery. The nursery is one of the most significant, and most visible projects undertaken by the Friends over the last quarter century, and as more and more people are becoming educated as to the importance of planting trees, particularly native species (the specialty of the Nursery) those countless volunteer hours become more and more crucial.
While still working at the Kingston Health Sciences Centre, MacDonald was already aware of the importance of planting trees as a way of making the local ecosystem more sustainable and the air healthier for us all.
“Back in 2002 I bought a piece of land on Bear Creek Road which was old farmland that hadn’t been farmed in many years and was reverting back to its natural state. It was mostly just a lot of bushes and tall grasses and lots of interesting plants. So, I started planting trees to fill it in, and I would say I planted an average of 500 trees every year since then. And I would usually plant them all over a long weekend,” she said, adding that right from the start, she reached out to Cataraqui Conservation’s Forestry Coordinator Rick Knapton for advice and to source out trees for the project.
“I would contact Rick every year to find out what species he had, and I would choose the best one for my property. He has always been easy to get along with and is good at recommending the species he thought would do well, and he was generally right, so I respected his advice and always took that advice.”
Three years ago, the now-retired MacDonald realized that she was itching to do something to help fill her days, now that she had a lot more time on her hands compared to that of a very busy medical specialist.
“I always had clinic on Wednesdays, and I had to do the clinic work. But now I had free time, so on Wednesdays when the Friends had their volunteer time at the Nursery, I could join them. So, I did, and I really enjoyed it from the beginning. It’s been great fun for me. I wanted to get to know the people and get involved with the plantings and the sales and all the kinds of things that the Friends do. And one of the nice things was what you can learn from a group like that. For instance, I had never potted [trees] before. I would just get the bare rooted trees and put them in the soil as best I could. So, the idea of putting a tree in a pot and letting it replenish itself was something I had never had any experience with until I joined the Friends,” she explained, adding that it’s been the interaction with the other volunteers, not only for the exchange of knowledge but the camaraderie and friendship, that has been the most rewarding aspect of being a member of the Friends of Lemoine Point.
“I really enjoy the chance to talk to the other volunteers. And we do a variety of things. We pot plants and we do a lot of weeding and cleaning up, but the best thing is just meeting all the other people who have similar interests. When you think about it there’s not that many people who are involved in tree planting or spending so much time around plants, so it’s just great to be amongst people who like some of the same things that you do.”
Besides helping to grow native plants to be used as part of Cataraqui Conservation’s various Forestry programs, as well as the annual plant sale, the Nursery itself has become a beacon of information for members of the public, many of whom are regular users of the trails at Lemoine Point Conservation Area. On those Wednesday mornings, folks can see the work of the volunteers and be inspired to join, or to do some planting on their own properties. And they get to pick the brains of experienced tree planting experts.
“People drop by, and they may have some issues with their properties. They have lost a lot of trees and want to replace them, or like me they have some property that they want to fill in with trees, so people come to the Nursery to chat, and we can make suggestions. They can bounce their ideas off people who are relatively knowledgeable and can say things like, ‘I think you have chosen a nice tree, and it is nice, but you realize it’s going to be a 50-foot-high tree with a huge root system so maybe try this other species which doesn’t grow so voraciously,’” MacDonald said.
“I think the opportunity to interact with the public is important and to let them know about what the Nursery has to offer, and it’s usually a lot better of a deal than if they went to a box store. If there was more awareness that you can just trot along on Wednesday mornings and there is this group of people ready to be a resource, you would see a lot more people coming. Having the information available like that, where you can advise people on so many different aspects of planting is really nice.”
She also talked about the importance of ensuring that native species are the types being planted if one is choosing to add to the natural landscape of their properties.
“Choosing native trees is important because ultimately, they do so much better than non-native trees. So, if you buy a white pine, you’ve got about a 90 per cent chance that it’s going to work out. Whereas if you get a non-native pine, it may not. I have my own experience with Scotch pine, and they all developed this canker and look pretty awful. When you buy native species, you know that the tree you’re buying is actually going to thrive here; it likes the climate, it likes the soil, it doesn’t mind the cold, and is resistant to many diseases.”
As for the Lemoine Point Conservation Area itself, MacDonald believes that the residents of Kingston should count themselves fortunate to have such a natural oasis and place of reflection, relaxation, and activation so close to downtown.
“It is easily accessible and available to most people. You don’t have to drive far or drive at all to get there. Lemoine Point is so close to the centre of the city, which is nice. We’re really lucky – I am not sure we always realize how lucky we are to have a place like this,” she said.
To learn more about the Friends of Lemoine Point please visit https://cataraquiconservation.ca/pages/friends-lemoine-point