Man Leaves Footprints for Change on Natick Trails
Pat Conaway has organized volunteers to clear broken glass, illegally dumped furniture and trash from Natick's trails, making them beautiful for all to enjoy.
After retiring from 40 years of teaching special education in Wayland and other towns, long-time Natick resident Pat Conaway found more time for doing things for himself, like enjoying the area’s many walking trails. But as his love for nature and wildlife grew, his concern over Natick’s neglected natural space grew with it.
Over the years, the dozen or so walking paths around Natick collected broken glass, couches and even club houses from partying teenagers, cans, mattresses, and sleeping bags left behind by the homeless. Conaway, who had spent much of his time volunteering to take his students on hiking trips and nature walks, decided he had to do something.
“I saw a couple of these little party areas and I thought, there’s something wrong here. We can take these spaces back and make them nice for everybody—seniors, young people with families, school groups,” he said. “It really got me fired up about getting these places back in shape so more people can use them and benefit from them.”
Conaway, 65, founded an organization know as Big Heart Little Feet, Inc., which gathers volunteers to help clear these trails in Natick and neighboring towns. Through Conaway’s guidance, varying groups of families, kids, church groups, scouts and town officials have helped remove broken glass, clear intrusive vegetation and prevent erosion. They have lugged generators, shop vacuums, rakes and other tools all along the paths and have crawled on their hands and knees in the dirt to pick up the scattered bottle shards. Two times a week, the Trail Buddies he helps organize, work to maintain their progress. Conaway has also worked with the Framingham High School Environmental Club to remove bikes, televisions, shopping carts, washing machines and a whole host of other illegally dumped materials from the Beaver Dam Brook, which runs into Natick.
Coolidge Hill, located off Jefferson Street a fraction of a mile from Natick's town center, has been one of the most neglected, yet most beautiful sites in town. Over the past 12 months, volunteers have done three different sweeps of the hill and will do a fourth cleanup on Nov. 19.
Conaway, a member of the town’s Trail Maintenance Committee, also encouraged the town to place what he calls “buddy bins” around “litter hot spots” and trail heads so that residents can throw out their trash and recycle their bottles as opposed to tossing them back into the woods they just cleared.
“You’ve got to give people the opportunity to do the right thing,” he said. Currently, the town takes care of about 100 buddy bins and Conaway himself maintains 40 in Natick alone, in addition to some in Wayland and Framingham.
In recent years, Conaway said he has seen progress. The town now has a Trail Maintenance Committee, a Town Forest Committee and a Cochituate Aqueduct Trail Study Committee to help maintain Natick’s natural beauty. And, he says, people’s awareness seems to be growing in the community, although there is a long way to go.
“The saddest thing is, I would say, that in a town of 33,000, maybe fewer than 300 or 400 people know about the trails,” he said. “It’s amazing what a secret they are and it shouldn’t be that way.”
His goal is to continue to increase awareness, especially in the younger age group, so that as many people as possible can share his love of the trails and nature.
“I think we have failed to maybe realize that these things are sacred and they’re very important and the whole challenge that we face is how do we live on this Earth in balance with all the natural things…we can do a much better job.”
If you are interested in helping with the Nov. 19 Coolidge Hill cleanup, email Pat Conaway at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 508-740-9949 .