Marblehead woman’s new job is for the birds (and more)

By her own admission, Marblehead’s Carole McCauley stumbled backwards into her environmental career.

A newly minted Peace Corps volunteer, McCauley was dispatched to the eastern Caribbean for what was supposed to be an assignment performing adult literacy work. But upon her arrival, she discovered that her job opportunity had fallen through.

At that point, McCauley was given a choice: Go home, or accept a hastily conceived substitute assignment with an environmental nonprofit that had a staff of one. McCauley would be employee number two.

Pressed to decide, McCauley said her mind traveled back to her days as a camper at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm wildlife sanctuary in Lincoln.

“Literally, the credential that came to my mind was, ‘I went to Audubon day camp; I can do this,’” McCauley said.

Carole McCauley of Marblehead is Mass Audubon’s new North Shore regional director, responsible for the statewide conservation organization’s wildlife sanctuaries from Newburyport to Nahant. COURTESY PHOTO

McCauley can laugh now about how much she did not know. She followed up that Peace Corps stint by going back to school to study environmental science and fill in the gaps in her knowledge.

But now, things have come full circle for McCauley. She is back with Mass Audubon — not as a camper but as its North Shore regional director, responsible for the statewide conservation organization’s wildlife sanctuaries from Newburyport to Nahant, including the one on Marblehead Neck.

McCauley has joined Mass Audubon after serving as engagement manager at the Crane Estate in Ipswich for The Trustees since 2018.

Prior to that, McCauley had been the outreach program coordinator at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant from 2010 to 2018.

She is also a current member of the Marblehead Conservation Commission and is on the board of Salem Sound Coastwatch.

McCauley said Audubon’s “action agenda” — its strategic plan — is what drew her to her new role. Specifically, McCauley liked that it succinctly outlined three goals. 

“I went to turn the page, and there wasn’t another page,” she said.

The first of those goals is to make the land Audubon owns resilient, and not just to climate change but to other threats, like the one posed by invasive species.

Audubon’s second goal is to make nature accessible to more people.

“That goes for both socioeconomic variables and accessibility and just making people feel like they are welcome and belong in natural places,” she explained.

The third and perhaps most important goal for McCauley is Audubon’s broader focus on climate change, which McCauley calls “the most pressing issue facing our society.”

Despite already seeing harbingers of the significant changes coming to society, development continues in flood-prone areas, and lots of money is being spent on “solutions” that are not permanent ones, she noted. 

“I’m really interested in how we communicate with the public about climate change and what we’re doing as a model as a landowner and what folks can do themselves, either in their homes, in their communities” or beyond, McCauley said.

Say “Audubon” to your average Massachusetts residents, and their thoughts likely turn first to birds. Audubon has remained true to its roots, having been founded in 1896 by two women, Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, who were dismayed by the use of exotic bird feathers in women’s clothing and hats, McCauley said.

The commitment to birds continues to this day, in part due to state and federal mandates and the organization’s own interest in tracking certain species that are endangered or whose habitat is threatened.

But the organization has “spread its wings” — McCauley cannot resist the pun — in the decades since to encompass the conservation of land and natural resources more generally.

“You can’t protect birds without protecting the whole ecosystem and the landscape in general,” McCauley said. “Everything gets to benefit — not just the birds — by protecting vulnerable habitats and doing all that we can to keep them resilient.”

One of those habitats is the Audubon’s sanctuary on Marblehead Neck, which McCauley calls a “real gem.”

Many may not know about the “significant piece of conservation land smack in the middle of Marblehead Neck,” in part because its access points are not off the main roads, she said. But the neighbors who walk through the sanctuary regularly surely appreciate it, as does the birding community, given its status as a “stopover point” for many species of migrating birds, McCauley noted.

McCauley calls Mass Audubon’s sanctuary on Marblehead Neck, a ‘stopover point’ for many species of migrating birds, a ‘real gem.’ COURTESY PHOTO

There is a certain synergy to McCauley’s roles as Audubon regional director, Marblehead Conservation Commission member and Salem Sound Coastwatch board member.

For one thing, as a volunteer herself, McCauley is sensitized to the need to engage meaningfully with those who offer up some of their free time to advance Audubon’s mission.

“It’s not just creating experiences for them to do work that helps us save labor hours but also building a community where we learn things together and we network together socially,” she said. “It’s really an honor that they want to come in the first place. How we nurture them and encourage them and impart skills and learn together is important to me.”

McCauley said she is also pleased that she can continue to draw upon the relationships she has forged with school districts, nonprofit partners and local, state and federal entities during nearly 15 years living and working in and around the North Shore.

“It’s really comfortable to slide into a glove and already know who’s in the Rolodex,” she said.

McCauley will also continue to draw inspiration from those bygone days at Drumlin Farm. McCauley said one of her most profound experiences as an Audubon camper was in a summer program in which she and her fellow participants were instructed to look at the land through the eyes of indigenous people.

“We cut down some small saplings, for example, and asked for the ancestors’ blessing and explained that it was important for us because we were going to build a structure that was important to our community,” she said.

No part of the tree was wasted. Its pulpy interior was pounded and woven and dipped into wax to create string to bind a structure that would later serve as a sweat lodge.

“I’m sure we wouldn’t be letting kids into a sweat lodge with fiery rocks these days,” she said with a laugh.

But the experience continues to offer lasting lessons.

“I think a very logical way for people to think about their experience in nature is to imagine what it would be like to live in harmony with the land, in terms of what it gives you and what you give back to the land to keep it sustainable for future generations,” she said.

Another summer, the region was contending with a gypsy moth invasion. Campers went around with cans of gasoline, scraping larvae into the cans to try to address an invasive species, an example of Audubon being earlier to acknowledge an environmental concern that has since come further to the fore. 

McCauley walks around Marblehead’s open spaces almost every day and credits her experience as an Audubon camper for laying the groundwork for her connection to and comfort in nature. 

Now, through her new position, she hopes to foster that same appreciation in others. 

“We’re very lucky to live in a place where there is so much protected open space, and that we value and commit resources to caring for it,” she said.

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