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Finding the way in Mashomack: Alex Novarro, living the natural life

Charity Robey sent us a note before the upcoming publication of her latest profile:

A lot has happened since Alex Novarro and I met for an (in person) interview in March, so I checked in with him to see how he is doing. He wrote back:

“Sarah and I are both working from home and only going out when absolutely necessary,” he wrote. “ I’ve been trying to get back into a routine, Zooming into workout classes offered by my gym, staying in touch with friends and family, and trying to hike as often as possible while keeping my distance from others. We’re very fortunate to live in Mashomack Preserve right now. I can still wave to hikers across my front lawn which makes things feel less isolating.

“My greatest source of stress right now is worrying about my family members who have already been laid off and those who are at-risk of losing their livelihood because their businesses are closed. Still, I know we’re all in this together and will make it through!”

Here is what Ms. Robey filed from what seems like years ago — two and a 1/2 weeks:

Alex Novarro’s work at the Mashomack Preserve involves looking for animals in the woods. But growing up in Centereach, Long Island, he was not a kid who brought slimy things into the house.

By the time he was six years old, the woods around his family’s home had been lost to the relentless development that changed the environment of Long Island from forests and fields to houses.

“I have some memory of box turtles near my house, but not after all the trees were removed,” he said. “It was not until college that I realized that going out in the woods was a thing people can do.”

Now he’s Mashomack’s conservation and outreach manager, working to study and preserve 2,000 acres of woods, ponds and wetlands, and helping other people experience and appreciate the complex web of life there; an ecosystem that humans have influenced for centuries, for better and worse.

Alex attended elementary and high school in Centereach, and went to SUNY Brockport with a plan to become a high school biology teacher. He was drawn to wildlife as soon as he started getting outdoors in college.

“I remember going camping in the Adirondacks, seeing newts, and I could not get over it,” he said. “You can imagine how I felt when I found out I could do that for a job.”

He switched from biology to environmental science when he realized he hated the lab work in his cell and microbiology courses. Discovering conservation biology, he found his calling, and after graduating, followed that calling to Disneyworld.

Alex did a professional internship at the aquarium in EPCOT, studying bottle nose dolphins and saltwater fish and working with a veterinarian biologist. He also got to do conservation work. “I really wanted my boss’s job,” Alex said. “But I knew I had to go to grad school.”

He got a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Maryland, exploring the effects of climate change on amphibians. Landing a two-year position as a visiting professor at Swarthmore, he switched from amphibians to studying the effects of climate change on beetles, specifically the forked fungus beetle, a horned beetle that barely moves, and looks like a raisin.

During his first year he saw an ad for a job on Shelter Island, a place he’d heard of, but never visited. He drove from Swarthmore, Pa. in a snowstorm to Mashomack for the interview.

“I arrived late at night on the South Ferry, thinking this is not Long Island anymore,” he remembered.

He’d been warned to expect a long, unpaved drive to the Manor House, but didn’t believe it. “How long a dirt road could it be? I didn’t know anything about the Manor House,” he said. “I was picturing a rundown field station, and had packed a sleeping bag. To see that I had a nicely made bed and some towels — I was blown away.”

Alex had met Sarah Bailey, a herpetologist with a special interest in snakes, at the Salt Pond Field Station in Virginia, and they were planning to marry. When he returned from the interview at Mashomack, he told her he thought the job was a good fit.

Sarah had gone to the University of Virginia; her only experience of Long Island was visiting Alex’s family in Centereach. She was not convinced that moving to Long Island made sense for two professional environmental biologists interested in conservation. When the offer came, showing Sarah that Shelter Island is not as developed as the rest of Long Island was a major test of Alex’s educational skills.

On the drive to Shelter Island, Alex watched to see what she thought when they got as far as Riverhead. “Isn’t it different?” he asked.

“It doesn’t look that different yet,” she said.

By the time they got to the North Ferry, she said, “OK, I see it’s very different here.”

Coffee at STARs, and a visit to Reel Point followed. “She was happily looking for shells on the beach and you could tell she was loving it,” Alex said.

“OK,” she said. “If my life can be walking on the beach every day, then I can live here.”

Sarah was also pleasantly surprised at the number of environmental agencies based on the East End, and wasted no time finding a job as an environmental educator in Southampton.

In August, a few months after they moved to a house in the middle of Mashomack Preserve, they married in a wedding held at the base of Salt Pond Mountain in Virginia.

The day held many surprises, (for the bride and groom) including the gift of a fire-dance from a groomsperson who changed from a dress to a leotard and performed a fire-spinning dance with flaming ropes. And a five-foot black racer snake that showed up at the ceremony without an invitation, and was scooped up by Sarah as she and Alex walked to the reception.

The resulting wedding pictures featuring the bride in white and snake in black were striking.

The bride wore snake. (Credit: Courtesy Photo)

For someone so besotted with woods and wildlife, Alex has spent a lot of time living in cities. “People think where I am now is isolating, but being in cities was way more isolating. You can’t be invisible on Shelter Island. You bump into people. It forces you into a community, which has been really nice. We feel part of a community without even trying. We are looking to meet people,” Alex said. “I like to hang out with people who like to go outside.”

Lightning Round — Alex Novarro

What do you always have with you? My fitbit.

When was the last time you were elated? Our wedding.

What exasperates you? Bureaucracy. Being ready to do something and thinking that I am going to make a difference and then getting caught up in paperwork.

When was the last time you were afraid? A night when the smoke alarm was triggered in the Manor House. I was the only one on site at the time, and Jeremy and the Fire Department got there very quickly.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? My first weekend on Shelter Island was the 10K and I ran it. It’s a stunning course.

Favorite book? “Elantris” by Brandon Sanderson

Favorite food? I’m a big fan of cheese.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Priya Nanjappa, she officiated at our wedding and is my mentor in conservation.