Laura White has taken care of the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve for so long that the birds have learned to expect her each morning.
Preserve staff members bring the bird feeders inside the nature center each night to protect them from hungry raccoons and possums.
And in the mornings, when it’s time to re-hang the feeders in the main courtyard, Goldfinches, Carolina Chickadees and Cardinals often await White and her staff.
“They’re in the trees tweeting at us, like, ‘Put the seed out,’ ” White said Tuesday.
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But White no longer will be there to open the preserve gates, greet the birds, teach classes or protect the preserve’s rare stock of Hemlock trees.
The 50-year-old retired Tuesday after working as the park’s lead caretaker for more than 22 years.
White’s coworkers say she deserves praise for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, they say, she protected the 140-acre preserve amid two decades of unprecedented growth.
Cary’s reputation of having great amenities is credited with helping the town’s population more than double to nearly 150,000 from 1992 to 2014.
More than 100,000 people visit the park each year.
“It’s like a mall some weekends,” White said.
White met the demand by expanding educational programs from 12 to about 70 each year.
The preserve teaches everything from basic gardening to the egg-hatching process of local salamanders.
She also acquired equipment and added exhibits at the Stevens Nature Center by partnering with corporate sponsors, recruiting volunteers and working closely with the Friends of Hemlock Bluffs group, which gained momentum shortly after White was hired.
For example, Friends of Hemlock Bluffs recently donated $9,200 for a new indoor exhibit with sleek information panels and lifelike animal displays.
Outdoor apparel company REI has donated $55,000 to the nature center over the past six years.
And volunteers recently replaced the decking on the preserve’s boardwalk at almost no cost to the town.
“She’s been good at finding people that share her vision to make (the preserve) better,” said Beth Wilson, the preserve’s volunteer coordinator. “We’re the spokes, and she’s the hub.”
Dwayne Jones, Cary’s recreation manager and White’s former supervisor, estimated that she saved the town “between $20,000 and $25,000 a year” by finding volunteers to donate their time and money.
“It’s been her baby,” Jones said. “We’re gonna miss her hard work, dedication and vision for how things need to go forward at the site.”
White constantly tried to think of new ways to improve the site, said Steve White, her husband.
She even used her home in Fuquay-Varina to propagate native plant species for the preserve and nurse some of its sick plants back to health.
“A lot of the plants in the garden at Hemlock were plants that she grew at home,” Steve White said. “Hemlock Bluffs has been her passion.”
A love of nature
White discovered her love of nature after her father took the family on a “Chevy Chase-style” roadtrip across the American west when she was 12 years old.
“Seeing the Grand Tetons (National Park in Wyoming) was like a religious experience for me,” she said. “I knew right then and there I wanted to be a park ranger.”
She laughed thinking about how her father, a conservative oil man, turned out to be her biggest influence and supporter.
“I still find it funny that my dad, a Rush Limbaugh fan who shipped oil from Saudi Arabia ... could raise a daughter who turned out to more like the Lorax,” she said, referring to the tree-loving Dr. Seuss character.
At times, shes had to protect the preserve like the Lorax did.
The preserve’s rare stock of eastern Hemlock trees came under attack by harmful insects in 2010 and again this July.
The town has been able to drive out the harmful bugs – woolly adelgids – each time by using insecticide that was harmless to trees and humans.
On Tuesday, several Cary employees in the Public Works department stopped by the Nature Center to bid White farewell.
After exchanging hugs, White pondered which part of her job she’ll miss the most.
She loved working with teenage volunteers who wanted to become environmentalists.
She got a kick out of residents who would bring her live snakes in jars, wanting to know if they were poisonous.
And she found it “so gratifying” when her gardening students emailed her photos of their gardens.
“Most of all, I’m fortunate that my vocation could be my avocation,” she said. “I got to do what I loved.”
The Nature Center just lost its longest-serving supervisor. But it likely just gained a very willing and capable volunteer.
“I’ll be back before too long,” she said. “You couldn’t keep me away from here.”