Her voice drowned by the sound of the crashing waves below, Ney Collier darts across the grass on Palisades Road, east of Lake Drive in Whitefish Bay, to the thicket of growth on the bluff. She spots a prickly nuisance called burdock, thrusts the sharp tip of her shovel into the ground and digs out the plant, the dangling roots raining dirt on her sandals.
Sparked by the zeal of her friend, the late conservationist Lorrie Otto, Collier spends many afternoons removing non-native plants – “death traps,” she calls them, for insects and soil – from spaces like Big Bay and Doctors Park in Fox Point. Clearing out garlic mustard, chicory and others gives native plants the chance to repopulate.
The Zimbabwe-born Collier talks about her mission to those who ask, but otherwise leads a quiet crusade. “If we could get people familiar with just one invasive” plant, that would be a start toward eradicating them, she says. Her message spreads slowly, one curious bystander to another, but spread it has. The rows of native iris and sweet-smelling goldenrod framing the path from Big Bay Park down to the beach were largely the result of Collier’s efforts. Her North Shore cottage reflects the all-encompassing nature of her other ambition – painting. Oils on canvas representing native plants, ceramic tiles with a botanical motif, and her latest project, watercolors.
But resurrecting native landscapes takes much of her attention. It’s a life’s calling that, she believes, leads to “a kind of transcendence.”