Stewarding Nature in the Hunnewell Town Forest

Amy Mevorach
Issue Date: 
July, 2018
Article Body: 

Bounded by Oak Street, Bacon Street, and Route 9, the Hunnewell Town Forest abounds with life most Natick residents never see. Francine Gay, a member of the Hunnewell Town Forest Committee, nurtures growth of many species and lends two helping hands to the balance of nature.
The most notorious creature of the woods is, of course, the coyote, who has a reputation for preying on domesticated cats and dogs. Gay cautions residents to supervise their pets in the yard. As forest breadth has significantly shrunk, hungry coyotes seek nourishment near homes at the edge of the forest. “Dusk and dawn are not the only times they come out. Be aware and prepared all the time.” This spring, during mating season, several coyote attacks on pets prompted vigilance, but after the crisis fades, people tend to become complacent, Gay described. “This is not a world where you can let your cat go free. It’s not just the coyotes, but the cars.”
Yet coyotes are integral to the balance of species. “Coyotes eat a lot of small stuff that hibernates in the winter – chipmunks, frogs, toads, salamanders.” Now that foxes are gone from the area, coyotes are the only large predators besides humans, and it all comes down to competition for land. New housing developments that show up on Zillow or Redfin may delight a family looking for good schools, while most life forms inhabiting that land are exterminated. “The more we inject ourselves into these natural areas, the more problems we have. The answer is not to kill the wildlife.”
Gay’s answer comes through gentle attentiveness and respect. She often, almost daily, treks through the Hunnewell woods to remove downed trees or limbs, tires, and other trash, some of which impedes the flow of water. In the forest there is a marsh and Jennings Pond, which flows under Oak Street to Little Jennings Pond. Many species inhabit these waterways and banks. “We have at least two types of frogs and turtles, toads, salamanders, swans, transient geese and ducks, and a heron stops in from time to time. We’ve had otters and musk rats and the usual woodland creatures also stop by to drink – cottontails, squirrels, chipmunks, and coyotes.  There are a wide variety of trees and plants, including a rhodadendron and some apple trees. Also various types of birds, including red winged black birds and woodpeckers.”  
On the banks of the pond, buckthorn, an invasive species, protects runoff. “Sometimes nature puts stuff where it belongs,” Gay said. Speaking on the balance of letting nature run its course versus intervening with helpful intentions, Gay remarked, “I personally feel that nature can use our help from time to time, because intentionally or not we do things that cause problems, like introducing invasive species. We were meant to be stewards of the planet, not lords. Invasive species may provide an unwitting benefit, [but] don’t have natural predators to keep their numbers in balance with the rest of the system.”  
One aspect of Gay’s stewardship is attending to the waterways, to relieve stagnation and improve flow. “All living things depend on clean water. I think most people enjoy other aspects of water as well, the sight, sound, even feel of it, and the creatures that are drawn to it add yet another dimension to the experience of being near it.”
Stepping into the Hunnewell Town Forest is a vastly different experience than driving along its periphery. The more observant and patient the visitor, the more nature will reveal. Francine Gay witnesses tenacious endeavors of many species to survive. She sees turtles migrate across Oak Street toward Little Jennings Pond only to be blocked by a curb they cannot surmount. She stacks branches and brush at the edge of the curb to ramp them up and over, so they are not killed by the cars. “Humans tend to forget that life is interconnected and dependent upon each other and on the ecosystem in which it lives.”
The website for the Town Forest is