Suzanne Rent continues her series of profiles of women over 50 who, in their own often quiet ways, make significant contributions to our society outside of the corporate world.
Nina Newington’s work to protect Nova Scotia’s forests started one day when she was watching the barn swallows that nest in the old barn on her property on the North Mountain in the Annapolis Valley.
Each May 1, Newington, who’s 64, removes the small square window at the top corner of the barn so the swallows can get in to build a nest. Barn swallows are an endangered species in Nova Scotia; their usual habitats, such as old sheds, houses, and barns like the one on Newington’s property, are disappearing. In Canada, the population of barn swallows has declined by about 76% in the last 40 years. The population decline is especially severe in the Maritimes.
In late August, Newington puts the window back in when the swallows head south thousands of kilometres to Central or South America. But over the spring and summer months, Newington gets to watch the birds, including the youngest in the nest, fly in and out of the barn window she leaves open for them, hunting for insects while in flight.
“It’s incredibly wonderful to watch them fledge and fly,” Newington said. “That experience of flying for the first time when you’ve been in this crowded nest and watching them figure out how to do it.”
That same year, Newington had turned 60 and both of her parents died. Watching the barn swallows, Newington felt a sense of connectedness, but also a profound sense of grief.
“I was watching them and realized I had this incredibly familiar mix of just joy in watching them and then anxiety and sorrow and guilt combined. I had this point where I looked at them and said, ‘I’ll do what I can,'” she recalled saying out loud.
“It was one of those things where you think it and say it and go, ‘Oh, I really meant that.’”
Before moving to Canada in 2006, Newington lived in the US undocumented for 22 years before finally leaving. She’s writing a memoir, Undocumented: A Different Story, about that experience.
Newington earned a masters at Cambridge University before heading to the US in 1981 to attend Harvard on a graduate scholarship. She decided against being an academic, choosing instead to be a writer because academics “didn’t work well with her imagination.”
To support her writing, she worked in New York as a carpenter. She also got a gig as a writer in residence and wrote a draft of her first novel, Where Bones Dance, while in New York.
When she had enough of New York, she moved to Massachusetts where she made her living designing and planting gardens. That sense of being connected to nature, too, stayed with her over the years. She remembers going to mountains above the tree line and enjoying the wildflowers and the “sense of the big wild.”
“I began to realize this is not a big wild that’s untouched by us,” she said. “We’re beginning to have an effect.”
While living in the US, she met Alexa Jaffurs. When same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004, the couple decided to get married. But the federal government still didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, so even though she was now married to an American citizen, she wasn’t able to get legal status.
Later in 2004, George W. Bush won a second term as president. Newington said things were heating up and she and Jaffurs didn’t want to stay in a country that didn’t give them civil rights. And living undocumented caught up with her when she got a letter saying her driver’s licence wouldn’t be renewed because her last name didn’t match her social security number.
Moving to North Mountain
They decided to move to Canada, even though Newington had not even visited before. The couple looked at a map of horticultural zones in Canada and narrowed it down to BC, southern Ontario, or Nova Scotia. They ruled out southern Ontario because the summers are too hot and humid. Plus, Newington prefers to live on the edges of places.
As the situation heated up in the US, they eventually decided they’d go wherever Jaffurs could find a job. That turned out to be Edmonton.
Newington spent much of the two years in Alberta looking for their next move. BC, she and Jaffurs decided, was too expensive, so they started researching Nova Scotia. After years in Massachusetts, they figured they were more East Coast types than West Coast types.
Newington talked with other folks asking them where a “couple of lesbian artists who are interested in sustainable agriculture might live.”
And, Newington recalled, every single person told them they should live on the North Mountain, not the South Mountain, somewhere between Annapolis Royal and Wolfville.
“I think they were right,” Newington said. “It’s an area that’s had influxes over the years of the draft dodgers and the back-to-the-landers. And it still kind of has an intact rural community. And that actually makes a really beautiful mix. Plus, the land is pretty good in places.”
They bought a house on the North Mountain and drove across Canada with their three dogs, three cats, and several musical instruments in tow. They eventually moved to another spot on the North Mountain with 125 acres of land, two streams running through it, and a view of the Bay of Fundy. They live in a ramshackle farmhouse that’s in a constant state of renovation. She and Jaffurs grow their own food and raise sheep for meat and milk. Newington writes her books and Jaffurs works as a blacksmith. The two got permanent residence status in 11 months. They became Canadian citizens in 2013.
“I’m really, really happy we moved to Nova Scotia. I love living here,” she said. “I don’t love what’s happening to the forests.”
Extinction Rebellion and setting up camp
The clear cutting was one of the first things Newington noticed when she moved to Nova Scotia. She first saw the cuts when driving to the South Shore.
After that day of watching the barn swallows, Newington decided she would learn more about what’s happening to Nova Scotia’s forests. With her experience as a gardener, it seemed like a logical place to help.
At first, she decided she would read and learn all she could, but she quickly figured out the best route was to just jump in and help. A forester friend suggested she connect with Donna Crossland, a forest ecologist with Parks Canada at Kejimkujik National Park, who often found herself the only woman at local meetings on forestry issues.
Then one day, Newington saw a photo on Facebook that caught her attention. The picture showed a group of people standing across a logging road on the South Shore somewhere, holding a banner that said Extinction Rebellion.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, people are doing something,'” she said.
She learned that Extinction Rebellion was holding a talk at the library in Bridgetown. From there, they got a local chapter started and started to figure out what they’d do next.
The chapter would soon find itself with something to do.
Logging of old forests was set to take place between Corbett Lake and Dalhousie Lake in Annapolis County. A group of about 50 people showed up on logging road near the site on a Sunday morning. Some of them decided to stay and set up camp. More people started to join in.
“Five days later, the logging was called off,” Newington said. “We never managed to have anything happen that quickly since then, but it was kind of an amazing experience to go and get in the way.”
There’d be more opportunities for blockades and camps.
In November 2021, Extinction Rebellion and other groups set up a blockade in New France, Digby County where the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables had approved a clear cut. Nine protestors, including Newington, were arrested.
In December 2021 at Beal Brooks in Annapolis County, the group, which called itself Last Hope, was asking the province to halt a planned cut, saying the area was a wildlife corridor and a cut would threaten the biodiversity in the area.
Newington, who was at the camp from day 1, spoke with Ethan Lycan-Lang in early December:
“This [cutting] can’t just go on and on until it’s all gone,” Nina Newington told the Examiner Friday. “It’s what all of us have been afraid of, feeling so frustrated that, you know, some of us have been willing to camp in the winter and get arrested and not get to live our regular lives. Because somebody needs to get in the way of this.”
In June 2022, after 202 days, Last Hope wrapped up its time at Beals Brook declaring that 60% of the proposed cutblock was now off limits to logging, thanks to the 15 Species at Risk lichens citizen scientists had identified there. DNRR issued a statement agreeing that 14 of the 24 hectares would no longer be available for harvesting.
More recently, the citizen scientists discovered 16 at-risk lichens at Goldsmith Lake. A cut planned for that area was put on hold on March 1.
‘I bring this for you’
Newington said she could feel the connection when she was in those camps. She recalled waking up at dawn, making coffee, and hearing the birds as they were ready to feast on blackflies.
“I had never been anywhere with that level of birdsong,” Newington said.
Or she’d head down to the waters of Beals Brook with a message.
“I bring this for you because I am a part of you, because this is us that we need to protect. It’s not the idea that we need to protect nature,” she said. “I am part of this. It was really wonderful.”
Newington said at those camps, everyone did their part, from the citizen scientists looking for the tiniest of lichens in the nooks and crannies of old trees to the people who brought food to the others at the camp. She encourages people to help by doing what they enjoy.
“If that’s baking or playing music or doing art, whatever it is, let’s bring that in and put that together and have our voices say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this as part of our campaign,’” she said.
“Everybody is experiencing the grief and the guilt I was experiencing. You have to be in a box to not.”
Tale of a blockade
Newington is now combining her writing with her work to protect Nova Scotia’s forest. Her book Moose Country Doggerel, a Dr. Seuss-style story inspired by posts Newington wrote about the blockade in Digby she shared first on Facebook, will be published later this year.
She said the book was also inspired by a line Justice Christa Brothers wrote in a 58-page decision from 2019 ordering the province to better protect endangered species. In that decision, Brothers quotes from Seuss’s book The Lorax: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
“I read it to people at camp and I read it to people who had been in the trenches for a very long time and it made them laugh and it made them happy,” she said. “It allows you to poke fun at stuff. It was really fun to do. And hearing them laugh was so nice. I thought what the hell, I will try to get this out.”
She sent the manuscript off to a local publisher, Moose House Publications, and signed a contract four days later. The book, which will be illustrated by Rebekah Wetmore, will be published later this year.
“I am kind of completely excited about this,” Newington said.
Doing something together
As for her own grief, Newington said it’s still there, but it’s much better.
“The optimistic part of me says, well, here’s this crisis and if we’re going to come through it at all, we’re going to come through it in good directions. What scares me and pulls me down is, if we don’t, then we’re going to be in a world of climate migrants and hostility and blame and incredible ugliness.”
Newington said she’d like to see the government work to treat the protection of forests like how the federal government rolled out supports for Canadians during the COVID lockdowns. Newington points to the establishment of CERB as proof of what governments can do in emergencies.
“If we can bring that to the climate and biodiversity crisis, we’ll be way more effective. We might have a chance in acting in time, and we’d all feel much better,” she said. “I guess it’s the nature of the beast that a disease is easier to deal with and believe than what’s happening in a diffuse way around us.”
There are all sorts of ways people can get involved in protecting the forests, Newington said. They can be citizen scientists searching for those species at risk, but they also need people to measure trees, which doesn’t require any particular knowledge. People can help sort and organize the data the citizen scientists collect.
People can bring food or firewood when forest protectors set up camp somewhere. They can join the Save Our Old Forests campaign. And in May and June, they can attend For the Love of Lichens and Old Forest, an art show that will bring together local citizen scientists and artists. Learn about forests, pay attention, and find other people where you live who are interested in what’s happening, she said.
Nova Scotia has a goal to protect 20% of its land by 2030, so Newington also recommends contacting your MLA, and ask them to stick to that goal, but to also stop cutting down forests that should be protected now. That’s a “simple direct ask,” she said.
“The feeling of doing something productively together and bringing in what you love to do, that’s what we need to do,” Newington said. “As the west coast salmon protector Alexandra Morton says, ‘If you can do it peacefully, and honorably, there’s nothing more powerful than getting in the way of what damages the earth.'”
“And it works.”