Naturalist Shares Passion for Environment at the Berkeley Marina

Photo: Patricia Donald poses with her dog, Tigger, at Shorebird Nature Park. She has worked in and around the marina in many ways, including teaching children and organizing cleanups.
Summer Dunsmore/Staff
Patricia Donald poses with her dog, Tigger, at Shorebird Nature Park. She has worked in and around the marina in many ways, including teaching children and organizing cleanups.

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It is easy to imagine that Patricia Donald is an organic element of the Berkeley Marina. The salty air and the wide expanse of sea and sunlight seem to have worked their way far below her skin, burrowing themselves bone-deep and structuring the course of her life in a fundamental way.

During Donald's childhood, the marina was "halfway not there," but, as she grew, it did too. As a young girl, she watched as it was transformed from landfill into land through her home's big bay windows during coveted two-minute telephone conversations with friends - a time limit set by her father, a physician, in case of hospital emergencies.

Poring over countless issues of National Geographic Magazine, Donald studied the impacts of water pollution and environmental degradation.

"When I was 10 and 11, teachers didn't talk about things like that," she explained.

Over time, Donald has honed a savage sense of stewardship over the environment, covertly collecting snails from her yard and hiding them to prevent her pest-conscious mother from crushing them. She discovered herself in the wild on family trips to the redwood forest in Santa Cruz and sculpted nature paths in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during high school.

Until she entered college, toxic runoff from neighboring industries and urban centers constantly churned into the San Francisco Bay. Chemicals like DDT still linger in its sediments today.

While pesticide pollution has decreased, Donald is quick to point out that vast volumes of plastic litter and oil waste now seep into the bay.

As Coordinator of Berkeley's Shorebird Park Nature Center at the marina, Donald organizes activities such as beach cleanups and collects data for proposals like that to establish a plastic bag ban in Berkeley, but her true role involves investing in future generations.

"I'm not really preserving (the marina habitat) per se," she said. "I'm pointing it out, saying ... look at all these things."

Retired Tilden Regional Park naturalist Tim Gordon, who was a mentor to Donald, remembers her as a frequenter of the park.

"You'd be talking to a group of kids and there she would be," he said.

Donald said she always knew she would become an interpretive naturalist and share the simultaneous sense of self-discovery and wonder about the world that she found in nature and that naturalists like Gordon shared with her.

"I found a whole new world and that personal discovery that I had was just like" - she paused to find the right word - "rockets. I had to try to figure out a way to make that contagious for other people. The trick is to find the magic words to entrance people and make them aware of nature and their place in it."

Donald began working for the city full-time in 1981, travelling to classrooms like a "kind of a bag lady" with a projector to teach students about wildlife and conservation and inviting them to learn hands-on at the marina.

Although marina staff, accustomed to interacting with boaters, were initially resistant to the constant presence of youngsters, they were eased into it, Donald said. She has been teaching programs there ever since, and now has a facility where kids come to her.

"Patty really dug in down there at the marina and really made it hers," Gordon said.

Donald possesses an easy grace and power, quietly drawing an excitement about marine ecology that mimics her own from kids who may have arrived at the marina clinging to iPods. She teaches deftly, letting children and adults alike think critically about the natural world without realizing they are doing so, the way waders can be shifted down the shoreline by waves without exerting any effort.

"(Teaching children) is important for the longevity of the marina, to show the people living nearby that it wasn't just an area for rich folks," she said. "It's an environment, a habitat, a creature - a niche that's right in front of you."


Noor Al-Samarrai covers Berkeley communities. Contact her at [email protected]

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