Born in a hospital in the District of Columbia when her parents lived in Alexandria, VA, Mary Frances LeMat (Mary Fran) continues to claims the city as her birthplace, and returned to live in DC during her adult working life. Her father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He moved the family to a farm in upper Montgomery County, Maryland, where they lived during her childhood. She enjoyed being outside as a child and that continued into her adulthood. As she and her siblings left home as young adults, her father bought a farm in Highland County Virginia, to serve as a place for the family to gather, which they have been doing for the past 50-plus years.
After graduating from college as a math major, Mary Fran started a computer programming company with two friends. They soon secured a number of government contracts and grew to employing over 200 staff. Mary Fran served as CEO of the company until 2006 when she and her husband Harold decided to retire. They had enjoyed living in DC but wanted to retire in a more rural environment. They chose to build on land in Rappahannock County that Harold had previously purchased. They also continued to make regular trips to Mary Fran’s family farm in Highland County, where they are working hard to keep the invasive plants on this farm at bay.
When and and how did you become interested in nature and the natural world?
“I grew up visiting our family’s farm and was always looking for secret places to go”’ Mary Fran recalled. “I never had any formal training in nature but learned to watch and observe the birds and the animals that were on our land.” When she retired, she wanted to learn to identify trees and birds. “It helps to have a focus and makes you more aware of everything around you.” She saw an ad in a local newspaper offering training to become a Master Naturalist. She applied and was accepted into the second class offered by the Old Rag Master Naturalist chapter. She found her class experience eye-opening. “I was a total neophyte with no scientific knowledge,” she explained, “And I was enthralled by the different presentations we got from experts, who stressed the impact our actions have on nature.” It made her recall remarks her father made, based on his work at USDA, about how simple changes like contour farming could have an enormous impact on the ecosystem. “One statement in a book by Douglas Tallamy has remained with me after all these years. He said that next to concrete, lawns are the most debilitating surface to the health of the Earth.” Mary Fran truly appreciates the role to which Master Naturalists aspire – to be conservators of our natural world.
Describe what you do on your property to support a healthy ecosystem.
The 400-acre family farm in Highland County is a major focus of Mary Fran’s and her husband’s efforts. Local hunters are allowed to use the land for hunting, in order to control the deer population. About 120 acres are used by a local farmer for grazing cattle. The remaining land is steep and rocky in places and has become overrun with invasive plants, including Japanese barberry and autumn olive – some reaching up to 10 feet in height. “Beginning in April or May and throughout the summer, my husband and I go to the farm to spray these invasive plants,” she said. “While I no longer can hike up these steep hills, I can spray these plants from my [Kawasaki] Mule. I have a great seat belt and a roll bar and I am tireless in my pursuit.”
What is the most amazing thing you have experienced in nature?
Mary Fran described the geology on their Highland County farm as the first thing that came to mind. “The geology is amazing in this area of western Virginia,” she noted. “We have found so many fossils and underground karst areas. It is just fascinating.”
What ORMN approved projects have you enjoyed the most?
Mary Fran has been active in many volunteer efforts, all of which she thoroughly enjoyed, such as the annual Butterfly Count. She most wanted to emphasize, particularly to new Master Naturalists, the value and importance of volunteering for administrative service. She served two terms as ORMN Secretary and just retired from serving as Vice President. She found her administrative experiences interesting, challenging and demanding – and very glad she served in this capacity. “We tend to deceive ourselves when we think our organization doesn’t need us to volunteer for administrative positions,” she said. “You have to remember: it won’t run by itself.”
Mary Fran has experienced a number of physical challenges over the last few years, including knee replacements in 2007 and 2018, and a stroke in 2019. She was recently diagnosed with a degenerative disorder which has begun to compromise her balance. She uses two walking sticks, which means binoculars are impossible to use. But she has sought out volunteer opportunities that she can do, given her physical limitations, including bluebird box monitoring, data submissions of the Annual Butterfly count, Feeder Watch and Spotted Lanternfly monitoring. She is project manager of the Virginia Bird and Wildlife Trails Monitoring Project (VBWT) for ORMN, under which ten small teams each make quarterly hikes on one of the VBWT on the Skyline Drive. With her own small team, Mary Fran monitors the Timberlost Trail, which is handicap-accessible. She is quick to point out that her physical challenges have not stopped her from having adventures. She and her husband are taking an eight-day “one day, one country” cruise at the end of August in the Balkan Sea. “We’ll just figure it out as we go along,” she said with a smile.
As a member of the Recruitment Committee, Mary Fran knows there are folks with physical challenges who are interested in becoming a Master Naturalist. “My experiences have made me much more aware of the importance that we find ways to connect people who have physical challenges with experiences in nature,” she said. “It would be great to have a place on our website that could feature accessible programs, volunteer activities and the like.” She knows there is an audience out there for these opportunities - because she is one of them.
Interviewed by Charlene Uhl, July 2021
Photographs courtesy of Mary Fran
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