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Warren Paton removing purple loose-
strife from his marsh and sanctuary

Courtesy of W. Paton

Editor's Notes                                             Printer friendly format

The toymaker and his marsh

"Throw your heart into the picture, then jump in after it,” Howard Pyle, the 19th century children’s book illustrator and educator used to tell his students. The words kept replaying in my head as I drove off from a recent visit with Warren Paton. By all accounts, the toymaker, storyteller and marshlands preservationist has made the phrase his own. His lively shop, Return of the Toymaker, graces the Digby, Nova Scotia waterfront from a rambling yellow house that dates back to 1790. Inside classical music box tunes dance in the air. Porcelain dolls lean against “deep forest” doll houses, nearby hand-crafted Christmas ornaments, wooden boats and wharfs. Center stage is a century old hand-cranked drill press that children who visit his shop use to make miniature sailboats. Paton supplies the waterproof glue so the boats can sail in the tub.

At 63 years old, his sparkling eyes, lighthearted laugh and sense of wonder personify the Old World toymaker.

“The best way to find out your destiny is to follow that love of what you do and I did.” Paton says. “I had to follow my spiritual destiny and that was to be a toymaker. Once you commit yourself to doing what you want to do, then the universe gets very friendly.”

Paton’s friendly universe extends well beyond the toy shop. A passionate and lifelong conservationist and devotee of wildlife, he decided seven years ago to acquire wetlands with the sole purpose to preserve them. To that end, he placed an ad in a local paper looking for “marshlands, beaver ponds, swamplands.” Weeks later the phone rang and someone offered him four and a half acres on historic St. Mary’s Bay marsh. Eventually, other parcels contiguous to the property became available and Paton’s marshland sanctuary grew.

Today the Toymaker’s Marsh Wildlife Area comprises 65 acres. The old agricultural lands were once used to harvest salt hay for winter cattle feed. Dyked, dammed and ditched over the centuries, they remain resilient and alive with countless species, Paton says. Despite the human destruction, he marvels at how the marsh, “continues to do its thing.”

A former college professor who moved to Nova Scotia 17 years ago, Paton welcomes everyone from school children to the mere curious to visit the marsh. That is, just so they “take their footprints with them.”

His whimsical but informative columns in the local paper—written in a style that’s part Wind in the Willows, part “Zippity Do Dah”—cover the year-round comings and goings on and surrounding the landscape, brooks and bay. Recent entries include the eating habits of voles (they consume 65 percent of their weight in grass each day) and the ingenious architecture of muskrat and beaver dwellings. Muskrats have a knack for piling sticks, mud and other debris near or over the water so they can swim to their houses from below. Locally “they are called ‘pop-ups,’” Paton writes, adding, “I’ve seen them two feet high and four feet in diameter around the Wildlife Area.” As for beavers, snug in their winter lodges, “They live peacefully together and maintain an immaculate home, replenishing the bedding each day.”

Money and time permitting, he would like to see the sanctuary evolve into a hemi marsh, a highly productive condition with a 50/50 mix of vegetation and open water that attracts an abundance and diversity of wildlife. Bit by bit he’s making improvements.

He has built and put up 20 bird boxes and hauled away nearly 400 pounds of blossoms from the invasive purple loosestrife before they’ve gone to seed. That way, Paton says, they cannot regenerate. More than anything else, he wants to educate the public about the marsh’s extraordinary productivity and importance and make certain it remains protected long after he is gone.

“I’m just in awe of this place the more I know it,” he says. “But a lot of my motive is that I really like biodiversity and seeing a lot of animals.”

During our visit, Paton referred to the marsh as a good friend. He later wrote to me to elaborate. In his youth he hunted in wetlands, mostly in northern Ohio. Not only did he come to know the movements and behaviors of wildlife in such environments, he became convinced that wildlife can sense the hunter’s gun. “I’m sure that animals know our intentions,” he writes. “Ask any hunter who has given up his gun for a camera…”

As someone who has done just that, Paton says that it took him a while to wear down the wariness of marsh inhabitants. “At first, it would take two to three hours of sitting quietly, before things would return to normal.” Now there is very little stirring or skittishness, “and my presence does not cause any alarm calls or disruptions.”
He continues, “I’ve had beaver come within three feet, a muskrat walk over my foot and countless birds come within arm’s length.

“When I go to the marsh now I feel an acceptance that is at the heart of friendship. They freely accept me into their daily lives and I feel close to them and their homeland and waters.”

Paton is at work writing a children’s book about the Toymaker’s Marsh Wildlife Area. Half fiction, half fact, the setting will be inhabited by gnomes and marsh fairies. The project seems like the perfect blend for his two distinct lives. “Being a toymaker and a marsh saver come from a love of life,” he says. “I just love being both.”

–Andi Rierden

 © 2005 The Gulf of Maine Times