The birds and the bees (and fish, too): Meet Heather Van Duuren

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A picture is worth a thousand words.

Heather Van Duuren was around six years old at the time that it was taken. Perched atop her head is a monarch butterfly. She has that look of innocence, only seen in children who haven’t yet been tainted by the stresses of growing up and becoming an adult. If you look closely at her beautiful brown eyes, you can just tell she’s intrigued that this magnificent little creature found the perfect spot to rest its wings. She was captivated by nature then, and now, at 33, that wonder and enthrallment hasn’t lost its momentum.

Heather’s love for all creatures big and small began at an early age. (Photo courtesy of Heather Van Duuren)

Really, Heather hasn’t changed a bit, except now she’s a whole lot smarter and more aware of what’s going on. She knows nature is struggling. Every day precious ecosystems are destroyed, and that inevitably leads to the destruction of habitats for the birds and the bees and all creatures great and small. Whether they are furry and four-legged or winged and bug-eyed with antennas, it doesn’t matter to Heather. She has an affinity for animals. And when it comes to her love for the planet, she hopes that by doing what she loves to do and sharing it with people, it will have a positive impact even if it’s a small one. That matters to her greatly. And the only thing she can do to ensure her seven-year-old son does the same, and grows up with the same morals and respect for the environment she did (and does!), is to lead by example. Heather says he’s already a nature nut, just like his mom.

Heather says there’s a reason there’s a small stool to sit on beside the aquarium. She finds looking at the swimming fish to be peaceful and seeing all the thriving green growth can actually give her a bit of a boost during the dreary winter months.

She’s a wealth of information when it comes to anything she’s passionate about. Birds, horses, what kind of native plants and shrubs you should plant on your property if you want to attract an abundance of wildlife, including insects that aren’t as pesky as they are beneficial. If she wants to know about something, then she follows through with research, and that, in turn, ignites a desire to want to share that knowledge. Her Facebook posts are all relevant: David Suzuki’s message that Canada must ban the use of neonicotinoids, four things you can do to save the monarch butterflies, tips on perennial garden must-haves, and a wonderful message for humanity from Dr. Jane Goodall. And then there’s this eye-opening article on the horror native pollinators are facing with loss of habitat and what we can do to help save them. Heather actually wrote it. She believes we need to be doing a lot more to protect the thousands of dwindling species we are carelessly killing every single day. But the difference between Heather and so many people is that she is trying her best to do something about it.

“If every homeowner made an effort to plant a patch of native perennials or even one native flowering shrub, together we could change this fragmented landscape into one large connected garden. A paradise for life to feed on,” she wrote in her story. Which, by the way, is to-the-point and bang on when it comes to not only insect extinction but our own demise if “we don’t wake up and care for the only complex ecosystem that we have. We are not the only creatures that need space and sustenance on this planet and its high time we stop treating it as if we are.”

Heather has turned her beautiful Huntsville property into a little piece of paradise. She’s planted all the right native shrubs and trees and wildflowers for wildlife to thrive on. It’s two-fold: she gets the chance to see the animals come back year after year and the animals and insects will actually stand a chance of surviving. She knows about the negative effects deer feeding is having on the ecology of our local forests. Cedar trees aren’t regenerating anymore; as soon as a seedling starts to grow deer will eat it. Unless dogwood trees are above reachable height, the deer are going to eat that, too. And dogwood is essential to many of the pollinators. She doesn’t agree with feeding the deer. It’s not healthy for them and it’s destroying habitat for countless other species as well.

And then there’s the aquariums, which is a whole other story. First, it begins with Heather always loving fish. Not to eat, necessarily, or to catch but to place in a bowl and watch swim around. Fish have always fascinated her, but like with so many people the poor finned creatures end up dying before the realization sinks in that you probably weren’t taking care of them properly in the first place.

I don’t think people intentionally kill fish, I just think there’s so much lack of information and they don’t know better.

For years, she struggled to create the perfect setup for her fish until one day she decided to get serious and try something new. She started researching and came across the Walstad method, which is a low-tech and effective way to make a natural planted aquarium. It starts with a soil base, which is then capped with gravel and plants are placed in it. Seven years ago she made her first one and “it was rocking.” And then she made another, and that one did well, too. Before Heather knew it she had a new-found passion. She has five aquariums in her home, including a 20-gallon planted tank with shrimp and guppies, a 10-gallon with guppies, and a 300-gallon tank downstairs (which someone could easily mistake for a hot tub or small swimming pool). Just recently she finished creating her newest planted tank, which will be the home for dozens of blue dream shrimp. She’s also got an amazingly colourful Betta fish who is absolutely thriving (has been for years!) in his planted bowl. She’s become a guru at making mesmerizing planted aquariums and may even take a stab at aquaponics in the future.

“They’re really awesome. They basically become an ecosystem in an aquarium. They eliminate the need for frequent water changes, and if you have a lot of fish you’re going to have to do a lot of water changes to keep them healthy. The plants take out the excess nutrients and help them grow and fish waste feeds the plants… it’s the whole cycle. Plus, I love being able to see all the green growth inside the tanks especially at this time of year when outside looks a little bleak.”

A few years ago, Heather built a 400-gallon pond (complete with native plants and even water lilies) outside, which was going to be for her goldfish. Instead, it became a spawning ground for yellow-spotted salamanders, grey tree frogs, spring peepers and American Toads. Backyard ponds will attract all kinds of wildlife, says Heather. Come the summer, she will have more than 30 frogs in hers. And not just that but they’re aesthetically pleasing.

“I really encourage people, it doesn’t have to be big to make a difference,” she says.

Every week, I profile an extraordinary human being who lives in our community. If you know someone who is doing something interesting with their life, I want to hear about it. Send me an email at laura.maclean@doppleronline.ca.

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5 Comments

    • Thank you so much, Heather! I’m so grateful that you shared your story with me… I’m totally inspired! Keep being awesome.

  1. Hi Heather (and Laura), this really was a great read. What are some simple things that we can all do to make a difference? I do know now that leaving your garden stand over the winter is important, what else, what plants are local to Muskoka? …. I can see what some of them are, that are in the pictures. What about your tanks, do you sell the tanks, if so, would you set them up ? The fish, what about them, do you sell them, you seem to have a lot going on there? Very enjoyable, thank you ! Lori W.

  2. Christie Knight on

    Awesome story again Laura. Heather is such an amazing person. I met her many years ago and she always amazed me with her knowledge.

  3. Great story about an amazing woman! Heather has helped me to start a more natural garden and environment at my cottage on Lake Waseosa and I’ve learned a lot from her. I’ve been working on growing milkweed to help the monarchs which Heather has kindly helped with. Heather is so knowledgeable about nature and our native plants in Muskoka. She is a gem!

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