Thousands have learned about the Mill River thanks to this Fairfielder

Photo of Josh LaBella

FAIRFIELD — More than 50 years ago, a Fairfield woman stood in front of heavy machinery in an effort to stop the destruction of trees near the Mill River. It started a lifelong mission that resulted in the education of thousands concerning the importance of wetlands and watersheds.

On Sunday, Joy Shaw, now 91, was honored for her work with the dedication of an oak tree planted in Mill Hollows park — where it all started.

Shaw, founder of the Mill River Wetland Committee, said the story has grown every year but she did indeed stop a man with some sort of heavy machinery from finishing his job removing trees in the area. She said Fairfield’s public works department was supposed to thin out the trees to help local wildlife, but ended up clear cutting much of the area because of a miscommunication.

“It was gone by the time I got there. It was pretty well done,” she said. “But I went and stood in front of the machine to stop it and tried to tell the driver that it was a mistake. I stayed there until he finally, in a huff, stopped his machine, got out and walked away.”

Shaw said that incident, as well as hearing that some in town wanted to turn the area into a park with statues, were the impetus which drove her to start the MRWC and it’s educational program, the River Lab. She said she wanted to educate people on the importance of a flood plain to the river and the ecosystem around it.

Mary Hogue, a member of the committee’s executive board, said approximately 50 people showed up to honor Shaw on Sunday, where several people spoke about the contributions of the honoree. She said the organization is still going strong with its mission of advocacy and education, adding Shaw still acts as an adviser to the committee.

“It focuses on watershed quality and helping to advocate for making sure we understand what a watershed is and how it works so that we can make sure it stays healthy,” Hogue said. “A watershed’s health means that we keep our health.”

Hogue said the group advocates for the protection of the area both through tracking to zoning and regulatory changes in town, but also through its River Lab program — which Shaw founded in 1968.

“We have curriculum used within the Fairfield parochial and public schools, and we work with the teachers and they use our curriculum,” she said. “We train volunteers guides — hundreds every years — and thousands of school kids every year use the river as a lab.”

Shaw’s decision to jump in front of heavy machinery to stop the removal of trees resulted in the education of thousands of people over the course of decades, Hogue said. It is an honor to plant a tree in her honor, she said.

“It’s an oak tree, and we’re pretty big on the pollinator pathway here in Fairfield,” she said. “An oak tree feeds 534 species of caterpillars, so it’s a very productive tree. It’s a great way to honor such a wonderful person.”

Thinking of all the things trees do for humans and the world — from the way they hold soil and precipitations to help prevent flooding, to their use as a resource, to their beauty as they change throughout the seasons — Shaw appreciate having one planted for her.

“When you think of all the things a tree does, it’s pretty humbling to have one planted in one’s honor,” Shaw said.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com