Marian Baker

Marian Baker

An Environmental Pioneer

“I grew up walking the woods here in New Hampshire. It’s where my love of biology and botany began.”

Those experiences apparently put Marian on strong footing, because she is a powerhouse! She was educated at the only college that had environmental education as an offering at the time — the University of Michigan. When her college years drew to a close, Marian looked into what the Quakers were doing abroad. That led to a post teaching science in Kenya, where she would spend the next 10 years.

“I enjoyed it and started teaching environmental education there. I helped change the British curriculum by introducing environmental things, practical things. I started two girls’ high schools during my time there and trained Kenyans to take my place before I left to move back to the United States.”

“Can it ever rain frogs?”

Marian Baker in the classroom-photo by Meade Cadot

Marian Baker in the classroom. (photo © Meade Cadot)

Marian returned to the U.S. to teach at a school in Ohio when a New Hampshire friend contacted her about a job opening at the Harris Center. It was 1982. John Kulish had recently retired, and the Harris Center needed an environmental educator to take his place. Marian applied for the position and was called in for an interview with Meade Cadot.

Marian recalled that Meade asked her, “Can it ever rain frogs?”

Marian answered, “Yes, bromeliads grow on trees in the tropics; they form little cups that can collect water in which small frogs could lay their eggs.”

Meade quickly said, “You’re hired!”

And so began a two-decades-long relationship between the Harris Center and this tireless educator who was passionate about the environment and who had an unwavering commitment to teaching teenagers about real-world environmental issues. Marian worked diligently in ConVal, Conant, and Hillsboro-Deering high schools, developing a robust Harris Center environmental education high school program.

Inspiring Students to Make a Difference

Marian introduced air and water quality testing as primary focuses of her high school programming. She was the first one to bring computerized air quality testing equipment to the area. At first the students mostly tested outside air, but they soon found out that the poorest air quality was found indoors.

Marian Baker wetlands research photo by Meade Cadot

Marian doing wetlands research with students in Hillsboro. (photo © Meade Cadot)

“We did all kinds of tests in places, outside and in. The device, which was made by two MIT people, tested 14 parameters. One time we found high amounts of vehicle gases in a computer room. The gases came in at 11 every morning. So we looked into it and discovered that a truck came in at that time every day and idled right under the air intake vent to the school! That soon changed as a result of our work.”

Students learned not only how to test air quality using a sophisticated instrument, but what to do with that data and how to create change. Likewise, under Marian’s tutelage, high school students tested the water quality of local rivers. Marian’s students were also the first to map out vernal pools in many towns.

Data-Driven Change

Marian Baker

Marian and her students collecting field data. (photo © Meade Cadot)

After the data was collected, it was put to good use. Each year, students would convene and attend a water convention, making data-rich presentations to local officials. They also presented air quality data all over the state, interacting with town conservation commissions, school boards, and local citizens. They even became involved in a nuclear waste disposal issue.

In 1986, a nuclear waste dump was scheduled for burial in Hillsboro. One week prior to that announcement, Marian had engaged her ConVal classes in a role play about a hypothetical radioactive dump; when the news came out about the proposed Hillsboro dump, they had a real-life case to study! Marian pulled out all the stops, visiting many schools to educate students about the proposed dump and related waste disposal issues. Her students were among the 500 people who showed up to testify against the proposed site, and they were succesful.

“We managed to chase them away! And the Contoocook and North Branch rivers were protected as a result.”

The Environmental Protection Agency honored Marian with a special award in 1993 for her pioneering environmental work.

Worldwide Impact

Marian Baker in HC, circa 1980s

Marian discovered an old box of DDT in the Harris Center building in the 1980s, which she promptly delivered for disposal to a hazardous waste collection event!

Marian worked at the Harris Center for 20 years before she left to start a new chapter as a mail carrier for Hillsboro. She retired after 12 years, enabling her to again spend more time in Kenya. Before retirement, Marian traveled to Kenya for just a few weeks each year, but now she returns annually for three to six months. Marian instructs Kenyan women on topics varying from planting trees to organizational skills, which they then teach to other women in Tanzania and Uganda.

“Everyone’s dealing with climate change over there; they don’t question climate change. In East Africa, it’s become either drought or floods. When you’re living on the margin and only have seeds from last year to plant for this year’s crops, and then floods come and wipe them away, it can mean starvation.”

Marian plants her own organic garden when she’s back home in New Hampshire each year, and it’s bountiful enough to sustain her until her next trip to Kenya.

“I plant what I eat; that way I make less of a carbon footprint.”

Seeing the Value of Science

Of her two decades with the Harris Center Marian says:

“It was fun to be able to do what I loved: being outdoors and working with high school students. Lots of teens I knew went on to choose colleges because of the outdoor opportunities and environmental programs they had there. I see others all the time who tell me of the value of the things they learned, and I get joy out of seeing it made a difference in their lives. They saw that they could go into fields where they could use environmental studies. They saw what kinds of jobs could be available, and when they became citizens, they could see the value of science.”

What a gift Marian is, and has been, to all those fortunate enough to cross her path!

Contact Us

For more information on the Harris Center’s 50th anniversary celebrations, please contact Lisa Murray at (603) 525-3394 or by email.