Hometown Hero

Observe the generosity of the gentle side of nature, how a fruit tree gives freely to everyone and anyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done, it offers its fruit to everyone.

Cary Peterson, the Hometown Hero for August, tries to model her life after nature’s generous spirit. And at all times, she tries to remain as close to nature as possible.

Recently, while sitting on the ground in the forest at the Whidbey Institute in Clinton, she demonstrated how she slept on the ground for three years in her rustic wooden cabin, a structure only big enough for sleeping.

“Look around, listen, we are born as part of nature,” Peterson said. “We live in an abundant world that offers us so much. I don’t ever want to take this for granted. All of this causes me to want to return the favor and give back more than I receive, and keep the giving going.”

Peterson remarks that from her earliest recollection she has always felt at home with nature.

“My mom would take us on hiking and camping trips,” she said. “And every summer we got to go to our friends’ summer camp for two months.”

At the thought of this memory, she grinned and stared into the forest as if she was reliving those summers in her mind.

“Those summers are the only thing that got me through the school years,” she said. “I never felt like I belonged in the New Jersey suburbs where we lived, and certainly not in a classroom. I never fit in. I loved riding my bicycle to school, but that wasn’t a cool thing to do where I lived. So kids would tease me, throw rocks at me, and let the air out of my bike tires during recess. I would slog through the school year, counting the days until summer.”

“I was miserable, but I decided it was better to be miserable and be myself, than try to fit in and be miserable trying to be someone I wasn’t.”

This is a quality those who know Peterson appreciate. Friend and fellow volunteer Nancy Waddell recently put this into words while writing about Peterson.

“Cary blew into South Whidbey 15 years ago, like a breath of fresh air. And she has been giving to the people, and the land, here ever since. Those of us that met her early on wondered who was this person with a recumbent bicycle and ready laugh. We soon found out. Her gardening business has been an economic development strategy that provided a boost to many who needed a good paying job, while enhancing the environment too.”

Waddell said Peterson brought a new focus to the Langley Woodmen Cemetery, and drawing people to volunteer to care for the place. It was Peterson who started an annual tradition of celebrating All Souls Day at the cemetery, Waddell said.

“Cary has been so generous with her time and advice,” she said. “She helped me when I wanted to do the same thing for the Bayview cemetery.”

Peterson says each of us has a special gift to give, but that we can never discover these gifts if we aren’t completely and 100 percent ourselves.

“Once you figure out what your natural gift is, then offer it to the world.”

Peterson says some of our gifts are visible and tangible, like the fruit from a tree. Others are less noticeable but no less important.

Peterson recently traveled to Tibet with her 76-year-old mother, Meg. She said she was deeply moved and impressed by the devotion of the Tibetan pilgrims, and by how the land is considered to be as sacred as the teachings of their deity.

“Despite the Chinese occupation and ongoing desecration of their culture, they continue to travel their ancient pilgrimage routes, whether through remote areas or urban Lhasa.”

Most moving for Peterson was the pilgrims’ act of prostrating. In the forest at the Whidbey Institute, she demonstrated this practice. She stood on the pine needled ground, then got down on her knees and laid down face to the ground. After a minute, she got up and did it all over again. In the modern world, Tibetan pilgrims not only have to prostrate in the dirt of the countryside, but on the hot asphalt and bustling streets of cities.

Peterson and her mother travelled for three days at one point to complete a 32-mile circuit around Mount Kailash. They went to the highest pass of the mountain, at 18,600 feet. It was here the two remembered Peterson’s brother, Christopher, who died from AIDS-related complications at age 46 in 2001. They released some of Christopher’s ashes at this sacred place.

Peterson says she keeps the Tibetan pilgrims in her heart and mind, as a reminder to do everything with love. She said it reminds her to keep her heart open, so she can be of the most service to the world.

“If we harden our hearts to ward off our own pain, we won’t feel others’ pain anymore either,” she said. “I always go back to nature, for my inspiration. Nature also reels me in, otherwise I tend to get all wound up and excited, and can start to almost lift off the ground.”

With that, she laughed and whirled her arms in the forest like a helicopter.

“But these tall trees remind me to get rooted. What nature gives us is pretty remarkable, sitting here under these trees, watching the sunlight shine through that spider web over there, the smells, the feel of these sword ferns. How can our hearts not sing?”

Later, while walking in the Woodmen Cemetery, the love Peterson has of caring for the land is ever evident. As she walked and talked, she unconsciously stooped to pull a small weed, then pruned a branch, and checked a tree’s trunk.

“I want to see the sacred everyday, never lose sight of our interconnectness, and respond to the needs of the land for the benefit of people of today and future generations,” she said.

Patricia Powell, executive director of Whidbey Camano Land Trust, tells how Peterson spearheaded — and physically has done much of the work — during the native plant restoration in the Saratoga Woods, and at the land trust’s Maxwelton Wetland Preserve.

“She displayed incredible leadership in moving the land trust from all volunteer to a staffed organization,” she said of Peterson, formerly the trust’s president.

“Cary has volunteered thousands of hours, including writing successful grants, and heading up an effort to protect a heron rookery,” she said. “The reason so many of us have nominated Cary for a Hometown Hero is because she exemplifies stewardship of place.”

Peterson is serious about caring for the land and serving people. However, she has a humorous side. Take the back bumper of her pickup truck, for instance.

“Her blue truck is well-recognized because of the flower boxes decorating the back bumper, where the plants and flowers are changed for the different seasons, or special occasions,” Powell observed.

Getting in the last words about Peterson is South Whidbey author Ann Linnea.

“Cary is absolutely dedicated to caring for people and the land. She is tireless, sensitive and an extremely thoughtful human being. Her physical strength is legendary. However the real strength of Cary lies in the goodness and tenderness of her giving heart.”

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