Highlighting Inspiring Women: She shares a love of nature

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Driftless Area Wetlands Centre Director Alicia Mullarkey

Throughout March, which is Women’s History Month, the North Iowa Times is again publishing a series of articles highlighting local women. Whether it’s through their careers, hobbies, volunteer efforts or unique personalities, these women have become an inspiration to others.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

“I don’t know many people who have had a connection with nature who say, ‘I wish I hadn’t had that.’”

As director of Marquette’s Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, Alicia Mullarkey is working to instill that love for the outdoors in the area’s younger generations, just as it was nurtured in her as a child.

A south-central Iowa native, Mullarkey said she benefitted from a rural upbringing. 

“My parents lived on my grandpa’s old farm and two of my uncles lived next to us, so we had over 100 acres to just roam. And my parents, back in those days, were a little more free with what kids could do,” she recalled. “Early on, it just came about roaming through the woods with my cousins, climbing the oak trees, finding spring wildflowers, building forts, playing in the pond and catching animals. My grandpa and my uncle were both very into nature and exploring, so they would take me on adventures.”

In high school, Mullarkey’s interest in science—particularly biology—grew. She headed off to the University of Iowa with an “in-the-box” plan to become a physicians assistant. Her love of plants, animals and ecology soon won out, though. By the end of her freshman year, she’d switched her major to environmental science. In that field of study, she encountered professors who further inspired that love.

“I started learning about prairies and our woodlands and how threatened they are. It really gave me a sense that we can do something about this,” she shared.

Looking back, she said with a laugh, “I had the professors in the woods who were like, ‘I found it!’ That’s totally me now.”

 Mullarkey was also shaped by her time in AmeriCorps, working on trails in Iowa’s state parks.

“We got to really see the diversity in the state,” she said. “It was so cool to do projects that felt like they were important, that there was meaning behind. I learned a lot of new skills and got connected with the conservation scene.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Mullarkey went to graduate school in Illinois, where she focused on plants. It was there, she remarked, that she “learned how to science,” doing a research project, developing questions and an experiment and carrying it through.

“You learn about science as a process rather than a bunch of facts,” she said.

Mullarkey’s first full-time job was at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, as a land manager for the school’s prairie preserves. She also helped with research and environmental education, mainly with college-age students. There, she began to realize the importance—and joy—in connecting with people.

“I like the connection with nature and the science of it, but I also like the connection with people and helping them make those connections,” she said. “That’s my best fit personality wise.”

After seven years there, Mullarkey and her husband, Ben, along with their two young sons, moved to northeast Iowa to be closer to family. She was admittedly nervous, leaving a career she loved and heading to an area where a similar job wasn’t assured. But around six months after settling in Marquette, she accepted the position at the Wetlands Centre. That was four years ago.

“For me,” said Mullarkey, “it’s been the best thing.”

She’s enjoyed feeling a sense of community and getting to know people, many of whom have a wide range of expertise in outdoor and scientific fields.

“I think I learn most from the trappers who come in here, the people who’ve been living here a long time,” Mullarkey said. “They see changes, and I respect listening to them more than a scientific paper when they say the water quality is changing.”

She’s also relished working with volunteers and learning more about local government. Most of all, though, working with young kids through the Wetlands Centre’s events, programming and outdoor education has been her favorite part. She’s a big proponent of unstructured play, whether it’s dipping for tadpoles in the wetland, inspecting insects in the prairie plantings or building a fort out of sticks.

“It awakened something in me I didn’t realize I was missing,” Mullarkey said. “They’re just so curious and have this innate send of wonder. I feel like how I am now is how they are. I can relate to them pretty well.”

Kids, added Mullarkey, are natural born scientists. Adults sometimes have a tendency to get in the way of that. They also put unnecessary pressure on kids to solve the world’s problems before they even understand the world. 

“We’re like, ‘You need to fix the invasive species problems,’ but they don’t even know the native species or haven’t experienced them. And that can turn them off, to some degree. Focus on helping them to love it and connect with it, and they will want to protect it later,” Mullarkey shared.

Let kids follow their interests, she added, because “the experience is just so much better for them. They make those connections better because it’s something they found or they observed.”

Helping kids connect with nature in the Driftless Area is easy, said Mullarkey. Between the Mississippi River, bluffs and goat prairies on top of the bluffs to the woodlands, trout streams and wetlands, there’s so much diversity—so much to do.

“Then there’s the animals and plants,” she noted. “And everything is connected, and you can see those connections. People here just have a sense of belonging with the land.”

Once that bond with nature is forged, it can never be taken away. 

“There’s always been a sense of adventure and curiosity for me, where you can find new things all the time, but it is also spiritually and psychologically calming too. I’ve found [the outdoors] to be a place where I could go to soothe my soul,” Mullarkey reflected. “I guess that’s why I do what I do now, because I see that connection has benefitted me and so many people throughout their lives. Once you have that attachment and connection to the land, it carries with you.”

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