Ask local Carrie Blair – a trip to the Trillium Trail changed her life.
Story and photography by Pam Owen
A passion for horses brought Carrie Blair to Virginia decades ago, but it was an encounter with some amazing wildflowers that sparked a new passion—for plants.
Carrie and I have crossed paths many times because of our respective conservation work, and she’s helped me identify plants on numerous occasions. But it wasn’t until recently that I sat down with her to discuss her interest in plants.
Although she had grown up in a family that enjoyed being out in nature, she says she never paid much attention to plants. Then, in the spring of 1993, a friend took her to the G. R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area, near Linden, to see masses of trillium and other native wildflowers blooming.
“I was so blown away that nature could do that,” she says. “I just didn’t appreciate what natural habitats were like.”
She started dedicating much of her free time to educating herself and spreading the word about the rich diversity and value of Virginia’s native plants and the necessity of protecting them. She joined the Piedmont chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society (VNPS), which has similar goals, serving on its board as often as the chapter’s rules allow, and twice as president. Carrie says she found her “affinity group” among chapter members: “They recycle, they care about nature, they’re gentle to animals.”
Over the years, Carrie expanded her plant knowledge by attending countless walks and field trips led by “smart people.” She then trained to become a master gardener and master naturalist, taking college courses, and attending conferences. But she learned much of what she knows, she says, “just by buying books and keeping them open every night until midnight,” and going out in the field.
Over time, she found she could identify “almost all the herbaceous plants,” but is “strongest on trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers, less so on grasses, ferns, and herbs.” Even in winter, she can identify the species of a bare deciduous tree by the scars its leaves left behind when they fell off.
“I’m a bit of a fanatic,” she admits. “I go totally overboard. . . . Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve made a tree list. . . . Other people have different passions; this is mine.”
Carrie has served as a docent at the State Arboretum of Virginia, adding to the teaching chops she had built up from instructing Tai Chi and riding, and leading horse-farm tours. She has also led numerous nature walks, encouraging participants “to step out of their comfort zone—to go out, even if they don’t know anything, ask questions, take pictures, bring a [reference] book, bring binoculars, and start learning.”
Recently, she started scaling back her business and moving into teaching nature courses. Her first course was a five-week primer on trees at Earth Village Education (EVE), a nonprofit just a few miles away from her home in Marshall. For this class, she donated her time and the registration fees back to the nonprofit. She held some of the sessions in a bright, airy building on her property, turning it it into a wonderfully cluttered (yet organized) classroom filled with photos, posters, charts, books, handouts, plant lists, and specimens.
This indoor classroom looks out on the five lovely acres that serve as an outdoor classroom and laboratory. Her property, which contains more than 100 mostly native plant species in a varied habitat, serves as an example of how even small properties can be managed to support biodiversity, Carrie says.
Among those who attended the sold-out course were the founders of EVE, Kevin McDonald and his wife, McNeill Mann. “Before Carrie’s class,” Kevin wrote in a recent email, “I thought I knew a lot about trees. But within the first half-hour of the first session, I realized that I had barely scratched the surface. I was amazed at Carrie’s encyclopedic knowledge of the woods.”
In May, Carrie taught another course at EVE, this one on Virginia’s “amazing spring flora,” and she plans to repeat the tree course later this year. But you don’t necessarily have to take one of her courses to benefit from her extensive knowledge. Carrie wants to help anyone who is interested in learning about plants, from landowners who are curious about the plants on their property to someone who sends her a photo of “a mystery plant” to identify. Just contact her and she’ll be glad to welcome you into her world of plants and help you with anything you need.
Petite, wiry, and weathered from her time outdoors, Carrie is now a “young 69,” as she puts it. She’s still hard to keep up with, whether scrambling up forested hills in search of ephemeral spring wildflowers or explaining the intricacies of plant identification.
“As long as I can, I’ll be out there,” she says.
Links of interest:
Contact Carrie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-364-1232