Gail Swift was born in Connecticut, but her family moved to Maine and then New Hampshire when she was very young. “I came to love nature early in my life,” Gail explained. “Kids in New England are always outside, regardless of the weather and sometimes because of the weather.” As an adult, she had an eclectic career in the hotel business booking conventions. This involved a lot of travel, both domestic and abroad, and she acquired many skills that have made her an exceptional volunteer in both the Master Naturalist world and her home town of Washington, Virginia, where she has served as the town’s elected Treasurer since January 2019.
When and how did you become interested in nature and the natural world?
“While I was always interested in nature, it wasn’t until we moved to Rappahannock County that I had time to get involved,” Gail explained. While working in the hotel business, she was on the road so much that she basically just came home to do her laundry. Once she moved to Central Virginia, she was encouraged by Jenny Fitzhugh to become a Master Naturalist and was accepted into Class 7. It was there that she found her passion in macroinvertebrates. “Who would have thought that I of all people would love bugs in the water?” Gail exclaimed. She became a certified stream monitor and monitors Thornton River near her home. “I became fascinated by what the bugs told us about the water quality,” she said. “I get so excited when we find a waterpenny beetle - those beetles are so sensitive to pollution that you only find them in really uncontaminated water.”
Gail also appreciates being outside while working with her three dogs on agility training. She has two Cavachons and a Norfolk Terrier. Hamlet the Cavachon has participated in competitive trails throughout the state, and the new Norfolk Terrier is just beginning his training. “Agility training requires regular practice – usually 2-3 times a week – as well as competing every 2-3 weeks,” she explained, “so it is a big commitment in time to do it right.” This sport, like many others, has been suspended due to the pandemic; however, it is finally starting up again. But Gail and Lynne Leeper, a member of Class X, continue to work their dogs on a regular basis. “Dog agility trials have the owner literally running with the dogs,” she explains. “So it’s great exercise and you’re outside in nature. What’s not to like?”
Describe what you do on your property to support a healthy ecosystem.
“My husband and I moved to Washington, Virginia in 2012, where we bought a 100-year old house,” Gail noted. Then five years later they moved to another 100-year old house with two acres of land at the opposite end of town when it came on the market. “There were over 100 boxwoods on the property that had been decimated by the boxwood blight,” she said. “They were overgrown and blocked many of the windows of the house.” Gail consulted with Janet Davis, owner of Hill House Farm & Nursery in Castleton, who helped her develop a five-year plan to create a series of native plant areas on the property. First up was removal of the boxwoods. “We are now two years into the plan and the outline of the natural gardens is in place,” Gail reported with pride. “Everything we plant is native, including the outdoor living room and a large pollinator garden that attracts a multitude of insects.” Her garden of dozens of natives includes swamp milkweed, bottlebrush, buckeye, liatris, cardinal flower and monarda. Some of her plants are so prolific in her garden that she needs to find “new homes” for their offspring. One ongoing challenge is getting rid of the multitude of tiger lilies, replacing those with purple coneflower and Black-eyed Susans.
What ORMN projects have you enjoy the most?
Without hesitation Gail said stream monitoring was her favorite project. While it can be time-consuming, she truly enjoys the collegiality among the monitors. This project has been in hiatus during the pandemic and she is looking forward to getting back with her team to discover what bugs are in the river. She has also appreciated participating in the bee study conducted at the Piedmont Environmental Council’s property in Warrenton.
As immediate past President of ORMN, what would you say were its greatest achievements – and what are the challenges ahead?
During Gail’s tenure as ORMN President, the chapter undertook a major update of the organization. That included drafting by-laws and an operating handbook, and developing the website. “It was two years of insanity with a great team,” Gail said, noting that “some members took total responsibility for getting their particular area up-to-date.” She specifically recognized Connie Chamberlin, Dana Squire, the late Caroline Watts, and so many others, for their tireless work during this process. It was very demanding and “I became known as the Queen of Delegating”, she said. “But the entire board and many other members really stepped up to the challenge.”
“I am so proud of our chapter and the many members who committed their time to this effort,” Gail said. “They have taken us to the next level with their great ideas, their tireless efforts and their commitment to ORMN being the best it can be.”
Gail concluded by saying “Challenges moving forward for the chapter and VMN overall will be maneuvering our good work in this ‘new’ world we will be living in.”
Interviewed by Charlene Uhl, March 2021
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.