Pioneer

Story by Montana Jones/photos by Graham Davies—originally published in Watershed Magazine

A striking sunset-coloured butterfly flits by, and Audrey’s eyes follow. Her backyard is a virtual wildlife sanctuary by a ravine at the north end of Cobourg, each shrub bursting with ripe berries as the birds hop from branch to bough.

“I think they’ll move out tonight, there’s a real cold front moving in,” she says. “I was at Lucas Point with the dogs and the goldenrods have pretty well had it, but the New England asters are just peak, and there were at least twelve Monarchs on every last one of them.”

Audrey Wilson knows butterflies. Her interest was kindled early, growing up on her folk’s Grafton area farm where family time was spent bird watching and observing nature. Her father John attended Guelph University; he kept dairy cattle and ran the nearby farm implement store. The other farmers would come after milking on summer nights and congregate, leaning against the whitewashed limestone walls of the Holstein-filled dairy barn. “The bright lights attracted these lovely big butterflies and moths. They would land and I’d collect them,” she remembers. “Dad taught me how to press them.”

Those young days launched a lifetime immersion in nature for this pioneer of outdoor education. When she was fresh out of Grade 13, she took 6-weeks of summer school that landed her a job teaching twelve students in a little rural one-room schoolhouse near Centreton.

By the late 60s Audrey taught at Burnham Public School. Her urge to get the kids outside more led to her habit of using the new Rotary Park as a science classroom, although the busy road, lack of facilities and shelter were far from ideal. Rotary president and surgeon Laurie Lawson was a well-respected environmentalist who didn’t want to see her program end. He offered Audrey the use of his 100 acres on Telephone Road in Hamilton Township.

“So I pitched a big tent, and that was the beginning. I went from four schools to twenty-three so the tent was no longer any good. Ken Halligan and his Grade 12 boys made the building that is now the Laurie Lawson Outdoor Education Centre. It’s had 4,000 kids through it every year,” she says proudly.

Audrey has been the maker of endless memories for kids over the years. In addition to her canine sidekick Casey, the centre was home to her furry family who became willing teaching assistants. They included Susie the Coon, Spike the Blue Heron and Teddy the Porcupine, who preferred a filing cabinet drawer for his nest. Wee Willy, the resident saw-whet owl and Ruby the hummingbird will also likely hold places in more than one youthful recollection.

The recognition and numerous awards Audrey has received over the years are just windfalls compared to the rewards she reaps from the natural world around her.

One of the highest tributes she has received is The Federation of Ontario Naturalists Nature Achievement Award, honouring her life’s work in Outdoor Education; in recognition of her book, Studying Birds and for her Monarch butterfly studies.

Audrey also holds an enduring, affirmative spirit, which no doubt has helped her overcome a few recent health challenges. Now she’s sprung back as vibrant, enthusiastic and colourful as the world she has watched for so long.

The butterfly love continues…over the years in Presqu’ile Provincial Park near Brighton, Audrey has banded thousands of delicate orange wings in a program charting the southbound migration routes of Monarch butterflies. She has a special relationship with the park, and has worked to raise funds and replace the old decayed boardwalk with a new one. The new walkway includes three spacious teaching pods descending to the water’s edge, one of which has been christened “Audrey’s Place”.

It is indeed Audrey’s place, though it seems no matter where this eternal explorer goes, the natural world already belongs to her.