Wild growth

Profile: Kate MacQuarrie by Julie Bull

Kate MacQuarrie [photo: Buzz]
Kate MacQuarrie [photo: Buzz]

Kate MacQuarrie was born and raised in and around Charlottetown and continues to live on the Island. She started her undergraduate degree in physics but quickly switched to biology to follow her passion. “Botany was my love!” She completed both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Prince Edward Island and has been sharing her love of biology ever since.

Both of Kate’s parents worked in different roles at the Confederation Centre of the Arts so she recalls essentially growing up backstage. When I asked if those early influences sparked her inner artist, she immediately and confidently replied, “No, I’m whatever you call an anti-artist!”

Perhaps not an artist in a conventional sense, Kate certainly uses curiosity and creativity in how she engages with the natural world. “I enjoy making delicious salads and other meals with the plants that I forage. When in doubt, sauté them with some bacon because bacon makes everything better!” 

Though Kate didn’t have the opportunity to meet her grandfather, she has heard stories of how he loved mushrooms and spent time foraging in the woods. Perhaps the love of foraging skipped a generation, but clearly Kate has picked up that passion. “We all come from foragers.” 

Kate has cultivated a life where she lives her passion every day, in both her professional and personal life. She is the Director of Forests, Fish and Wildlife with the PEI Government Environment, Energy and Climate Action and she’s the human behind PEI Untamed and Women Shooters of PEI. Though Kate’s specialty is plant identification, she’s also an experienced trapper, fur handler, recreational hunter, and angler, and she has been foraging local plants for more than three decades. “Once a plant nerd, always a plant nerd!”

“I approach my time in nature with enthusiasm, respect, and curiosity. I am particularly drawn to and enjoy the juxtaposition of things like seeing desert near rainforest, or old-growth forest amongst farms and beaches.”

I asked Kate what it’s been like to see some of the destruction from post-tropical storm Fiona and I think many of us share the same sentiment, “I’m personally heartbroken but ecologically it’s part of the lifecycle.” It can be hard for us to grasp the cycles and rhythms of the natural world for many reasons, not the least of which is our understanding of time. “For us humans, a generation is about 30 years. For trees, it’s hundreds of years. If we look at geological time, it’s millions of years.” The perspective that we can learn from nature is invaluable and infinite. 

Like most scientists, Kate enthusiastically shared that one of her favourite things is when she or someone else finds rare and otherwise unknown local wild growth. “Many of the best new finds come from amateurs who would not consider themselves scientists; however, this is citizen science and it’s an invaluable part of how we understand the world around us.” Citizen science allows all of us regular folk to participate in and influence scientific development. “Since COVID, many people are having a visceral desire to reconnect with the land.”

“Often, we just need to overcome our fear of not being able to do something. We can all learn more about the natural world around us, simply by paying attention to it.”  One of the ways that Kate practices this attentive engagement is by walking every day and paying attention to what looks different today than it did yesterday. 

“There is wild food everywhere you go on PEI. Some of the current wild foods that are available are dandelion, watercress and fiddleheads.”

Kate brings her wealth of knowledge and keen curiosity for the environment around us to her workshops and education outreach. “I love helping people connect with the food that is right in their backyards.” People living in urban settings like Charlottetown may think that there aren’t wild plants for us to forage but Kate assured me that we can also find lots of natural goodies, literally in our backyards. Kate’s workshops provide information to all Islanders who are curious to learn more about the edible (and non-edible) plants around us. While some are tasty, some are toxic so it’s important to have a basic understanding of the difference. “Awareness of the plant life around us can really help us pay attention to the environment around us.”

For fellow botany enthusiasts, Kate says, “you can make a living on plants! Use your passions and let it grow.” For those of us who are curious without the technical expertise, we can learn the basics and be creative in how we use them. In either case, Kate supports our learning by “interpreting the stories that the land tells about itself.”

Julie Bull, an Inuk (NunatuKavut) researcher and educator, has extensive experience in community-based participatory action research, emphasizing Indigenous perspectives. A champion of social justice, Julie envisions collaborative efforts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities worldwide. With a focus on research governance and ethics, her work with NunatuKavut has yielded notable publications and presentations.