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Mill River's Keeper

Long-time resident and environmentalist Joy Shaw on Fairfield's Mill River

Mill River Photographs: Amber Schiavi

Joy Shaw, the noble and kindred-spirit, is the keeper of Fairfield's Mill River in many ways. A stalwart environmentalist and long-time town resident, Shaw has been a steadfast and outspoken practitioner of maintaining Fairfield’s precious land and waters, and founded the Mill River Wetland Committee in 1966 and a hands-on environmental science educational course that teaches Fairfield’s elementary students about the Mill River, its environmental importance, its tributaries and life that resides in and around it. Known to many as just ‘River Lab,’ the program was first named Mill River Outdoor Laboratory Program when it began, and its present name came a short time later.

The program has been a mainstay in school curriculum throughout Fairfield since its inception, and scores of volunteers and guides help continue the program and on-site teaching to hundreds of students annually, and it has helped shape the mind of generations and generations of students.

Over the years, the Mill River Wetland Committee grew with a steady stream of directors, volunteers, trainers, and school captains who are the life blood of the organization, yet has maintained its grassroots heritage. Membership dues, grants and fundraising helps fund the program and meet its needs such a trail equipment, an office manager’s salary and other expenses, and it continues to flourish in 2014.

Contributed photo

‘Concerned Citizens’ an environmental group that served as a sort of watch dog of conservation/wetland issues pertaining to the Fairfield Metro Center. Fairfield Residents: Kathy Braun, Les Schaffer, Jane Talamini, Alexis Harrison, Ed Bateson, George Bisacca (seated), Amy Mezoff, Joy Shaw and Pam Ritter

River Lab was founded decades ago, and it has stayed strong for well over 40 years – why did you feel environmental science education was important to teach students in Fairfield?

I started the program to get adults involved in learning about the importance of keeping the river’s flood plain in a natural state by preparing parents to teach their children in a school program. I was moved to do this as result of the unfortunate bulldozing of Mill Hollow in May of 1966 and discovering that a local civic group did not have any sense of what had been lost.

What was the metamorphization of River Lab? How did it begin, and was it an instant success?

Because of the educational emphasis at that time on inter-disciplinary curriculum development, the combination of land use history (social studies) with natural science and geological history, (science) seemed compelling and very relevant package of learning for elementary grades. This relevancy and the appeal of the subject area became increasingly apparent as I studied the natural history and ecology of the Perry’s Mill Pond in preparation to submit a report to the Natural Conservancy for consideration of a protective purchase.

This idea became irrelevant when the Town of Fairfield bought the Perry lands as part of their Open Space plan in the winter of 1967. Then, Mill Hill School Principal Vincent Antezzo was approached and heartily agreed on the need for environmental education the schools and the pilot project took off in the fall of 1967, once the trails I had broken out along the river were approved by fourth grade teacher Elizabeth Modrall. Wildflower enthusiasts from local garden clubs came up to the river to be trained as guides.

Every Mill Hill class, grades first through sixth, was given a study trip to the Perry’s Mill Pond Open Space in that pilot year, which enabled us to see that the program was best, suited for grades three through sixth. The Town’s need to promote community support for Open Space purchasing along the river and Fairfield Public School’s interest in getting parents involved with their children’s school made both of them very receptive to making the program available town-wide in 1968.

Who are your environmental mentors and idols? How did you develop a passion and commitment for the environment, the Mill River and River Basin Systems?

Mill River Project

An English major and Art Minor, I was avid leader in all three river program subject areas because of a deep childhood connection with natural environment and with the Mill River, which I had lived on with my family since 1956. I would have never felt qualified to start a pure science program. My environmental learnings owes a great deal to my Vassar College advisor, Barbara Swain’s course in poetry.

Once involved with Fairfield’s Mill River, I was much encouraged by Ian McHarg (Design with Nature) and other authors in the environmental field, and greatly helped by the local nature centers in Fairfield and Westport, as well as patient advisors such as Russ Brennerman, a Glastonbury attorney, Bill Biering of Connecticut College and any pertinent lectures I could grab especially at Yale.

As I continued studying especially with starting a summer program, Mill River Rangers from 1969 to 1977, I learned how rivers have developed as the mainstreams or tributaries of watershed systems. An extraordinary boon for River-Lab was the arrival in 1971, of Fairfield’s deeply dedicated and knowledgeable Conservation Department Director, Tom Steinke. Tom provided indispensable guidance in developing river estuarine study-trips with extensive coastal land use history and biological information.

Where do you hope the program will be in another 20 years?

I hope that over the coming years mean will be found to provide opportunities for River-Lab guides and their families to be involved in further related activities on or around the river, both for deeper appreciation and enjoyment of the Mill River, as well as for the benefit of the Mill River system. For example, there is a crying present need for a program to remove invasives and reclaim the floodplain’s capacity to produce a variety of delightful wildflowers. This cannot be done beneficially with herbicides – especially along a river. I also hope that means will be found to creatively disseminate River-Lab, providing guidance for other school communities in similar use of their available natural resources.

You’ve lived on the River for many years, what’s your favorite memory of it?

I have many treasured memories of experiences on the Mill River, but one that stands out is a trip I gave some stalwart members of the Sasqua Garden Club at some point in the 1970s, shortly after they had launched the Mill River Ranger Program. Using the four Ranger Program boats, I led them off downstream from the foot of the Samp Mortar Dam. We went over a couple of rapids and even portaged over the Sasco Mill dam in Southport, ending up in the Southport Marina with smiles and delighted expressions of appreciation in every boat. The sense of a real breakthrough for that group of deserving ladies ranks high in the many satisfactions I have enjoyed on this good river.

Mill River Lab

476 Old Mill Rd, Fairfield, 203-259-1847



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