CAMDEN, Maine — In the summertime, driving on U.S. Route 1 on the Maine coast can be a hectic, frustrating experience, as increased traffic causes slowdowns and headaches on the road.
Just minutes from the busy coastal thoroughfare, though, there’s a peaceful haven: the Merryspring Nature Center, on 66 acres that includes gardens, four miles of hiking trails, a 10-acre arboretum and more. And even though it is in the heart of well-heeled Camden, it’s not a fancy place. There’s free admission and much of the work to keep it going is done by dedicated volunteers. The center has an endowment, but strives to pay its bills just with donations and income from membership dues, admissions from classes, workshops and lectures and funds generated by private events held there such as weddings.
“It’s kind of an oasis in the busy Camden-Rockport area,” said Toni Goodridge, who has worked at the center for about 20 years. “I love that it’s so easy to come to and so quiet and peaceful. I love my job because it’s in a quiet, peaceful place.”
Merryspring was founded 43 years ago by local horticulturist Mary Ellen Ross, who had achieved national recognition through Merry Gardens, her mail order plant business. According to Goodridge, Ross, who has since passed away, wanted to preserve the land. Before it became Merryspring, the acres had been used as a lumber yard, and Ross envisioned creating a horticulture sanctuary there.
She succeeded. These days, thousands of people a year come to Merryspring in all seasons to birdwatch, hike, snowshoe, eat lunch and learn about horticulture and ecology. Because the center’s mission includes practicing, teaching and advocating sound principles of ecology, conservation and horticulture, it is important to the board of trustees that manages Merryspring that the lectures, workshops and other educational programs be affordable. Not everyone knows that, though, Goodridge said, even in nearby communities.
“Some people think it’s a private club,” she said, adding that they’re very surprised when they learn otherwise.
A gaggle of folks who knew better than to think the center is a private club braved Tuesday’s heat and humidity to attend a presentation on “Bitter Friends,” or medicinal herbs, given by garden manager Denise DeSpirito. As she moved through some of the beds of herbs and flowers, explaining ways that bitter plants can support health, she seemed absolutely at home in the peaceful gardens. But it wasn’t all that long ago that the herbalist, 35, had an entirely different kind of life.
The Long Island, New York native moved to New York City for college and stayed there, working for an arts non-profit and being surrounded by tall buildings instead of tall trees. She didn’t start out on her road to Maine until she got sick, she said, and began to think about her food and her surroundings in a different way. DeSpirito joined a CSA in the city, and then wanted to know where her vegetables had come from. Because of her newfound curiosity, she learned about United Plant Savers, a non-profit organization based in Ohio that works to protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitat.
“I went there for six weeks, and went back to New York,” she said, then realized the city life wasn’t a fit for her anymore. “No. I can’t do this.”
DeSpirito made her way to midcoast Maine, where she worked for a time at the Avena Botanicals gardens in Rockport.
“When I came to Maine, I got Lyme,” she said, adding that her diagnosis with the pervasive tick-born disease really ignited her passion for herbal medicine.
She treated herself holistically, she said, using herbs and homeopathic medicine, which did work well, if slowly. It took nearly a year before she felt energetic and like herself again. After her recovery, she was hired to work at Merryspring during the growing season, work that she supplements in the winter with other jobs “like everyone in Maine,” she said. Still, it is worth it to her to live here — and definitely worth it to work at the nature center.
“Maine is so beautiful and the plant life here is amazing,” she said.
Upcoming events at Merryspring Nature Center include a presentation on tending the perennial garden at noon on Tuesday, June 20, and a summer fern identification walk on Friday, June 23, at 10 a.m. For more information about the center, which is located at 30 Conway Road in Camden, please call 236-2239 or visit the center’s website, merryspring.org.