Saturday, April 9, 2016

Journey of a Siskiyou Naturalist

My journey to becoming a naturalist begins long before this spring, but only now am I at a point where I can finally combine all of the tricks of the trade that I have picked up along the way. On a daily basis, I put my experience and environmental education theories into practice by creating my very own Outdoor School for All. When I landed here at the Siskiyou Field Institute, a lot of odds were against me. No one had been in my role for about 5 months. Teachers had registered for field trips, yet no one was there to coordinate or instruct their outings for them. Needless to say, I hit the ground running with hope in my heart and a lot of support behind me to uphold the reputation of the organization while providing an outlet for students to immerse themselves in nature.

The Siskiyou Field Institute is a very special place. It has a lot to offer in terms of natural resources with creeks, serpentine soils, mixed woodlands, and endemic plant species growing right on site. The teaching moments are infinite playing off of the natural bounty that exists here. Additionally, we offer a unique experience for groups to put their team building, communication, and confidence skills to the test by completing our challenge courses. 

One of the most popular field trips we offer for middle – high school students is an investigation of our watershed called “From Mountain Top to Valley Floor.” In this program, students assess the overall health of the watershed by testing the water quality of Deer Creek, Squaw Creek, and the reservoir, which is the source of our drinking water at the Siskiyou Field Institute. Students measure pH, water and air temperature, and record their observations of the weather, water clarity, vegetation covering the stream bank, and collect and identify macroinverteberates.

In order for students to be prepared to use a dichotomous key in the field to identify macroinvertebrates, I created a lesson that I introduce to the students during a classroom visit prior to their field trip. I enlarged drawings of macros for students to observe and have them work in small groups using their key to lead them to identify the species depicted in the illustrations.

The first field trip I coordinated occurred only two weeks after I started the job. Luckily, I had previously led field trips at the Siskiyou Field Institute during graduate school with my cohort from Southern Oregon University. This familiarity with the site and its resources has been crucial to my success as Youth Education Programs Coordinator. Seventy 6th grade students from the Valley Charter School came out from Medford for a watershed investigation day program. Unfortunately, their time got cut short due to miscommunication with the teachers about bus arrival and departure, lesson learned and regardless, the students spent a beautiful day in the outdoors.

A major goal of mine with the watersheds program is to take the data students are collecting onsite and upload their findings into a citizen science database such as Oregon State University’s “Stream Webs” or the Isaac Walton League’s “Creek Freaks.” I begin each program by telling students that they are all playing the role of aquatic ecologists during their field trip and their data will help us monitor the water quality of the creeks and how they fluctuate throughout the year.

The second field trip I coordinated was for the Applegate School 6th – 8th grade classes, 37 students total. By this time, I was able to hire Brod, a veteran SFI YEP instructor. I also gained inspiration for the field trip after attending level-one challenge course facilitation training at EarthTeach hosted by Synergo. This training taught me to incorporate metaphors into our challenge course among many other essential facilitating techniques.

The Applegate School students investigated the unique serpentine geology and resulting rare plant life. During their classroom presentation, I had the students act out plate tectonic movements using yoga poses and Oreos to represent the movement of the layers of the earth. This gave students the background knowledge they needed to understand how the ocean floor was uplifted onto the earth’s crust forming the ultra mafic (heavy metal) serpentine soils at the Siskiyou Field Institute. Plants adapted to these conditions have evolved to grow in this harsh environment in a variety of ways.

The most unique adaptation of the serpentine endemic plants is that of the Cobra Lily or Darlingtonia Californica. This plant grows in serpentine fens, which are wetlands with running water fed by springs coming off of 8-dollar Mountain. Cobra lilies have adapted to this environment by growing leaves that attract insects with a sweet smelling scent and trap them inside of their hollowed out tube of a leaf. Once the insects fall to the bottom of the plant, they are broken down by microorganisms living in the soil. These tiny creatures digest the insects to provide nutrients for the plant at its roots.

To help students understand these remarkable plants, we dissected a cobra lily together and observed the insects inside. I also used the metaphor of students pretending to be insects trapped inside of a cobra lily while completing the challenge course. I used this technique once again for a group of 12 high school students from Golden Eagle Charter School who visited us from Yreka, California.

These high schoolers were my guinea pigs for the first overnight program I coordinated at the Siskiyou Field Institute. Since the group was so small, it was easy to create an intimate, customized field trip where we investigated the watershed, learned about beetles from an entomologist leading a course for adults on site, made a campfire using a flint and magnesium technique, went on a night hike in total darkness, completed the challenge course as a team and investigated the unique adaptations of serpentine plants.

The overnight program was a huge success. At the end of their field trip, I facilitated a gratitude and sharing circle for the students and their teachers which produced some heartfelt appreciation for one another including a few tears shed for the bonds that were built during those two days. Brod and I felt very accomplished and our hearts were glad as we waved goodbye to a dozen teenagers who left with a deeper understanding and love for themselves, one another, and the natural world.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Happy Trails

Phew, there's a lot to catch up on! Work with the trail crew this summer had its ups and downs. To make a long story short, I became a certified Class A sawyer, worked with a great crew on trails all over the southwest corner of Oregon, and ended the season with a lot of hardware in my left ankle after suffering a bad break from taking a fall on Bolt Mt.

I broke my ankle just after I began the MS in environmental education program at Southern Oregon University. It was tough making it through that first term of my grad program on one leg and pain pills.

Before I broke my ankle and started school, I took a break from the trail crew and went on a road trip with my sister. The day she flew into Medford, we set off for Crater Lake. On our way there, we picked up some used wet suits (just in case we decided to hop in the Pacific later) that we squeezed into at a consignment shop called Get-N-Gear in Ashland. If you've ever tried on wet suits, it's not the easiest endeavor, especially not when you're in a tiny dressing room in an attic in July with no AC.

Our first pit stop on our journey were the Mill and Barr Creek Falls outside of Prospect, OR. We were taking the same trip I went on when I first moved here, but in reverse. We stopped at Becky's for some pie in Union Creek and checked out the Rogue River Gorge. The first time I visited this area, the snow on the sides of the road towered above my car. I actually camped in the snow behind the cabins at the Union Creek Resort back in March. I wasn't prepared for the drastic change in weather that came along with traversing into higher elevations.

After feasting our faces on pie and feasting our eyes on the deep blue depths of the Crater Lake, we headed for the North Umpqua hot springs, stopping to check out a few more falls along the way. The first time I tried to reach these hot springs, I couldn't find my way through the snow. By the time my sister and I arrived at our campsite along the North Umpqua River, it was getting dark. All we had for guidance on our hike up to the hot springs were two tiny flashlights. The little light we had didn't help much when we had no idea where we were going. After wandering around in the dark for awhile, we found our way up the steep trail and made it to the hot springs. Our efforts were rewarded with steaming pools cascading down a cliff under a brilliant night sky and the Umpqua River trickling by below.

After soaking in the springs and sleeping under a starlit sky, we awoke the next morning to make our way towards the coast. But first, we had to check out some more waterfalls...

We wove our way through the mountains to the coastal town of Bandon and decided to forgo camping for the night due to the chilly weather. Instead, we got a honeymoon suite with a beach view at the Table Rock Motel. We made up for it the next night though, camping on the beach in Casper, California.

The Sandman somehow brought us sleep that night during our sandy slumber and we awoke the next morning to waves crashing and gulls calling. We groggily jumped back in the car and wound our way down Hwy. 1 that day visiting the redwoods and the Anderson Valley until finally arriving in San Fransisco.

The adventure continued to unfold there when we met a friendly guy named Ben at a local club. He offered us a tour of the city the next day and we fell in love with the Bay area, especially my sister who now lives in Oakland...with Ben!

After that adventure, I plowed through my first term of school while recovering from my ankle injury and then flew back to Missouri for a little while. My mom was able to fly back with me to Oregon to help me recoup. We made yet another trip to Crater Lake while she was here and went wine tasting all over the Rogue Valley.

Shortly after she left, I began working at McGregor Park on the Rogue River near Lost Creek Lake. Right about that time, the salmon were returning to their spawning grounds in the Rogue River after spending several years down in the ocean to get big and fat. I was just as astonished at the sight of salmon as the kids I guided through the park. I had never seen them in the wild before and I was blown away by their massiveness and determination.

To introduce children to the salmon life cycle, we began many of our field trips by playing a game called hooks and ladders. The activity is an obstacle course that simulates the life cycle of a salmon. Students begin as eggs and play rock, paper, scissors to move through the salmon life cycle. Once they reach their adult stage, we send them through the obstacle course. First, they have to pass through a twirling jump rope that represents a turbine inside a dam generating hydroelectricity. If they hit the rope, they die and stand in a line with the other ill-fated salmon who become part of a fish ladder. If they make it past the jump rope turbine, the salmon kids continue down the river trying not to get tagged by their predator classmates until they pass through the estuary and enter the ocean.

Salmon spend about 3-7 years of their life in the ocean. Before they enter the ocean they undergo a process called smoltification that enables them to survive in a salt water habitat. The ocean provides salmon with adequate space and food to allow them to grow large. Once they are fully developed, they return to the exact same spot in the river where they were born relying only on their keen sense of smell.

In the hooks and ladders obstacle course, kids have to collect tokens on either side of the playing field and dodge ocean predators along the way. Once they have gathered enough tokens they have to climb the "fish ladder" of "dead salmon" and hop over a jump rope waterfall. The kids, just like salmon, don't get a running start, because they are moving against the current. Salmon can "leap" up to six feet to cross obstacles like waterfalls when returning to their spawning grounds.

Very few of the kids survive the course which they learn is also true for salmon. Only one out of one-thousand eggs laid by a female salmon survives to complete its entire life journey. Their only mission when they return to the river in which they were born is to spawn and die. Salmon don't eat at all in the river when returning to their spawning grounds. Male salmon develop hook jaws to fight for females and to defend nests called redds. These nests are constructed by female salmon who swish their tail to clear off a gravel bed where they lay their eggs.

During their journey up river, salmons' bodies begin decaying due to their weak immune system that results from not eating. About two weeks after spawning, both male and female salmon die and their carcasses become food for aquatic macroogranisms (insects), newly hatched salmon called fry, and bears who carry salmon carcasses into the woods and spread their nutrients in the forest.

Now, the salmon have all spawned and died and our field trips at McGregor Park are over. The fall quarter for this school year is also coming to a close, but I will be keeping plenty busy. I have almost fully recovered from my broken ankle and I will be working with the trail crew again this winter. Even though I was injured on the job, I loved every minute of my trail crew experience. I feel so privileged to be able to explore and help others enjoy this amazingly beautiful part of the world. I'm looking forward to continuing to blaze new trails and clear off old beaten paths so that others can spend more time in nature and soak in the spectacular views that I have been so lucky to see.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sharing Adventures in Conservation Research and My Personal Adventures

Check out this link. It gives a good summary of the Table Rocks where I have been leading hikes for the past 3 months.... Adventures in Conservation Research: Threat Assessment for Limnanthes floccosa ssp. pum...: Lower Table Rock and the Rogue Valley The second week of the field season (late April) took us to Southern Oregon’s Table Rocks to monit...

The Table Rocks are an amazing geologic feature and provide great habitat for a myriad of plants and wildlife. The Dwarf Wooly Meadowfoam only grows on top of the Table Rocks and nowhere else in the world! That's always a shock factor for the kids (and me!). I feel so privileged to lead kids on hikes on these unique outdoor wonders here in southern Oregon. This part of the country has so many beautiful places to offer and I've been lucky enough to explore many of them in my short time here. In fact, I've been so busy exploring, I haven't had any time to blog!

There are a few new adventures that I will be embarking on this summer. After next week, my work with the Table Rocks Environmental Education Program will be done for the season and I will begin work with a trail crew maintaing trails throughout the BLM's Medford District. I will also be starting a masters program this summer in environmental education at Southern Oregon University. This will require me to move once again, but only a few towns away. I am looking forward to it and hopefully I will start doing a better job of sharing my experiences once I finally stop going a million miles a minute...whenever that times comes...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Oregon Trail

My journey up country has took yet another turn, this time due west...

I had much to be thankful for when my internship in Maryland came to an end a few days before Thanksgiving. I was thankful for being able to spend some time at one of the most ground breaking wildlife research facilities in the world; thankful for all of the remarkable people I was able to meet; and thankful for getting to see parts of the country I hadn't spent a great deal of time in, if any, including our nation's capital, the breathtaking Chesapeake Bay area, the Appalachian Mountains, and NYC, the city that never sleeps.

Back in Missouri, I had even more to be thankful for. I was returning to my home state to spend the holidays with my friends and family after being gone most of the summer and fall. I also had another assignment to report to upon my return. Temporarily, I worked for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources as an interpretive resource specialist for Katy Trail State Park. Under this position, I was able to travel back in time to the days when the "iron horse" was running wild through our country.

A bit of background information for those that may be confused as to what I'm referencing -- The Katy Trail is a rail-to-trail. It was converted to a pedestrian trail after the decline of the once prominent and heavily relied upon Missouri, Kansas, Texas Railroad (MKT or "Katy"). A section of this railroad ran along the north side of the Missouri River. My assignment was to research, write and design interpretive panels/signs to be posted at the info depot trail heads. This signage celebrates the days of the railroad and provides onlookers with a glimpse of what life was like for early settlers of Missouri.

Not unlike many of the early settlers, I wasn't ready to hang my hat in the Midwest. I had an itching to get on the Oregon trail and see what the future had in store for me in unexplored territories. Luckily, the West answered my call and gave me an opportunity to continue my trek up country.

Thanks to a recommendation from my previous supervisor at the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, I got in touch with the Bureau of Land Management in Medford, OR. They had a position open in their Table Rocks Environmental Education Program for a hike leader, and I seemed to fit the bill.That's all it took, and I was off, full speed ahead to my new life in Oregon.

My parents joined me on the Oregon trail following Route 66 almost the entire way. This was unexplored territory for them as well and they were just as eager as I was to see this part of the world. The beauty of the West began to unfold at one of our first stops in New Mexico to catch up with my parents' old college buddy. From there, the scenery grew steadily more striking until climaxing at perhaps the most wondrous of all the wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon.

As we pulled into the park, snow was falling silently all around. The air was cold and brisk. A dense fog was rolling in and the sun was setting as the opening of the canyon came into view. This geologic wonder stretching out as far as the eye could see in vast arrays of colors, layers and depths was enough to make my heart skip a beat at the magnificent sight standing before me. Each view of the canyon that evening and the following day seemed to be more beautiful than the last. Unfortunately, our pit stop there had to come to an end and we piled back into the car heading west again through mountains, desert, and farmland until finally reaching the coast.

Waiting for us on large, dark rocks jutting out of the Pacific Ocean was a plethora of plump sea lions basking in the sun. What first appeared to be hundreds of small dark birds floating on the water, a closer look through my binoculars unveiled the heads of sea lions poking out of the waves. They were definitely a sight to sea ;-) But the grand finale of our journey to the coast was waiting for us a few miles north, the giant redwood forests.

Standing among these mighty, prehistoric giants made me feel so minuscule yet part of something larger than life at the same time. I practically fell over backwards peering up into the canopies of these enchanted trees that had out survived the dinosaurs. The entire experience was mind blowing and deeply moving, bringing me to tears at one point as I stood surrounded by a cathedral of trees and birds calling back in forth in a mesmerizing melody.

Winding back east through the forests and mountains, we snuck into Medford under the star filled, moonlit sky. That following morning, I woke up in my new home to see the sun rising out my window over the peak of the Roxy Anne mountain. I walked out my door to find that I was surrounded by mountains on all sides, with the Cascades to the east and the Siskiyou Mountains to the west. Perhaps the most spectacular of all in view from Medford is Mt. McLoughlin, a snow capped volcano in the Cascade Range.

My parents and I climbed the Upper Table Rock that day, the first of many hikes I will be leading on the Table Rocks. Upper Table Rock lies up river on the Rogue from Lower Table Rock. These two flat-topped formations are capped by impermeable andesite lava rock that once flowed through the Rogue valley after erupting from Mt. Olson, a shield volcano to the northeast that has since been almost entirely eroded away. The Table Rocks and their neighboring Castle Rock are some of the last traces of this eruption that occurred 7 million years ago, much later in history than the formation of the Cascade Range mountains also volcanic in origin. The Table Rocks are roughly 2,000 feet above the valley and represent the original elevation of the ancient Rogue River valley before erosion took its toll on the underlying sandstone of the Payne Cliff formation.

The impermeable andesite lava caps on top of the Table Rocks create a unique mounded prairie/vernal pool environment. This sensitive environment is home to the federally threatened Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp. This macroinvertebrate lays cysts in the pools that can survive extreme conditions until they are able to hatch when the vernal pools are filled with rainwater. The Table Rocks are also the only place in the world where the Dwarf-Woolly Meadowfawn grows. The seeds of this plant can also survive extreme conditions and produce an oil that has similar lubricating qualities as sperm whale oil which NASA uses on probes sent into outer space!!!

These are some of the many cool facts I will be explaining to children on hikes up the Table Rocks this spring along with the fun-filled BLM crew that I have joined. For now, I am continuing to explore all of the wonders that southern Oregon has to offer as I chase after rivers and waterfalls, and traverse high into mountain tops to feast my eyes upon such glorious sights as the crystal clear depths of Crater Lake.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Blazing Trails in Conservation

Roughly 75 years ago, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, U.S. citizens realized that changes to the current system needed to be made -- big changes. One major reawakening that people across the nation had at this time was that our resources are finite. In order for these resources to be around for generations to come, the stage had to be set on how to correctly manage and protect our environmental heritage.

Probably the greatest mover and shaker at this time was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who enacted his New Deal program and with it the Civilian Conservation Corps. to provide jobs and help rebuild our broken country. A lot of the work done by the CCP dealt with the restoration and beautification of America's public lands including State and National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and National Forests. FDR knew that in order to establish fundamental standards of healthy habitat management and conservation in America, research must first be done to answer the question as to how to do so.

That brings us to present day here at the Patuxent Research Refuge, the first and only Refuge established for research out of the over 550 National Wildlife Refuges across the country. Last week, this trail blazing refuge celebrated its 75th anniversary as did many other ground breaking conservation organizations right around this time such as the National Wildlife Federation, Missouri's Conservation Federation, and Virginia's State Park system, among many others. As said in Missouri a quarter of a century ago, wildlife were on the decline and it was time to "Bring 'em Back." And so began the hard work of scientists and conservationists who have played such a crucial role in reestablishing our nation's wildlife and habitat.

During Patuxent's 75th anniversary celebration, I had the honor of hearing personal recollections told by some of these trail blazers in conservation. Chandler Robbins, was one of them. Chan's career with Patuxent has lasted 68 years and counting. He has taken part in everything since the development of bird banding, to the establishment of North American flyways (migration routes), and the composition of some of the first field guides that included bird calls, to studies on Albatross at Midway Atoll, to revealing findings on DDT, you name it!

Little do people know, but many of the habitat management techniques utilized across the globe, as well as ground breaking research on pesticides such as DDT - started here at Patuxent. Rachel Carson may have woke up the world to the impacts of DDT, but the research that proved the harmful effects of the pesticide was done here, by using some of the least expected guinea pigs - earthworms.

Patuxent scientists were able to prove the biomagnification effect of DDT by depositing the pesticide in plots of soil where colonies of earthworms were inserted and removed periodically. The result - amounts of DDT origially deposited in the soil were several times less than traces of DDT accumulated in the earthworms and this only magnifies more as it continues to go up the food chain. Some of the most well known impacts of DDT were observed by our national symbol - the Bald Eagle.

As DDT worked it's way up the food chain, it impacted eagles and other birds of prey by causing their eggshells to thin an ultimately not hatch. This sent the Bald Eagle on a steady decline, but with the help of Patuxent scientists and the publishing of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", DDT was outlawed and action was set in motion to restore Bald Eagle populations in the U.S. As a result, Bald Eagles have been removed from the endangered species list demonstrating our nation's evolution in conservation.

This is just one example of the remarkable impacts Patuxent scientists have had on the field of conservation. Other success stories include reestablishment of wild populations of the endangered Whooping Cranes and the use of ultralight planes to guide the birds on migration routes. Establishing power line right of ways that reduce forest fragmentation and provide habitat and foraging opportunities for wildlife. Developing telemetry studies to track populations of grey wolves and their predator/prey relationship with white-tailed deer in northern Minnesota. Determing the impact of lead poisoning on waterfowl, California Condors and a variety of other species from toxic shot, lures, and other deposits in our waterways. The list goes on and on and more research continues to be carried out to reveal discoveries and find solutions to the perplexing enviromental issues of today.

I feel so lucky to be at a Refuge with such a rich history and hearing about all of these profound careers that started at Patuxent makes me feel even more confident about the direction I'm heading in. I am currently blazing my own trails, not so much through reasearch, but by molding the bright minds of youngsters who may one day grow up to be the researchers and conservationists of tomorrow.

As the Baba Dioum quote on a wall in the National Wildlife Visitor Center reads:

In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we've been taught.

Teaching kids to wander into the woods and develop their sense of place in the natural world through keeping a nature journal or by participating in the Junior Duck Stamp program may be the first steps on their path to discovering solutions to evironmental issues currently affecting our planet. Perhaps one of our young visitors at Patuxent will go on to find a way to control the effects of acid rain on brooke trout species living in Appalachian Mountain streams - a place where thousands have blazed trails instilling in themselves a love and respect for nature. While I may not be able to conquer such a feat, I continue to blaze my own trail each day discovering new biking and hiking paths, freeing my mind to the constraints of society, and determining which path to take next as I continue on my journey.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Miss Mandy! Miss Mandy! Look what we found!"

This past month, joyful cries of children have been ringing in my ears. Here at Patuxent, children in nature is a top priority and that is what I devote the majority of my time and energy to. From Nature Tots to Eagle Scouts, we cater to them all.

My experiences here have ranged from puppet shows, to Girl Scout birding workshops and Boy Scout forestry workshops, to flipping over logs in search for bugs with 5-7 year-olds, to creating honey bee crafts for hundreds, just to name a few. Although it may sound like all play and no work, teaching children to get dirty can be tricky at times.

Unlike school teachers who are assigned a single grade, Patuxent is a "one room schoolhouse." Our students vary from toddlers to old timers, but no matter what their age, they all come here hoping to learn something new. As interpreters and naturalists, we must learn how to ensure that our visitors have the best experience possible and come back yearning for more.

To complicate this equation, wildlife do not always cooperate with the interpretive programs we have in mind for our visitors. For example, rarely does a day go by on the Refuge that you do not see a Canada Goose, but for my coworker's "Silly Goose" program, the resident geese decided that they would indeed be silly and not show up at all. So what do you do when the wildlife you plan on observing is nowhere to be found? You look for evidence, in this case, scat (the technical term for goose droppings).

How about when your local bright eyed and bushy tailed squirrel residents on the refuge decide not to appear for their debut when any other day they are constantly scampering about. You look under an oak tree and search for their food source, acorns. For younger children, scat and acorns are just as exciting as the animals they are associated with, but older generations are not as easily impressed.

So, how do you keep pre-teen and teenage Girl Scouts awake on a Sunday morning for birding lectures when they'd rather be sleeping in 'til noon? If all else fails, make a fool out of yourself. Run across the room with mounted birds pretending they are swooping through the air in search for a bite to eat and you are guaranteed to get their attention or at least crack a smile.  

As the Scout motto says, "be prepared." Cram your brain with as much random and interesting facts as possible, because you never know when that knowledge may come in handy. This is especially true as a tram tour interpreter. Unlike a zoo, wildilfe on the Refuge are not kept in cages. They are in their natural habitat and appear at random. Also, unlike your average guided tour, there are no specific stops along the way during a Patuxent Research Refuge tram tour. You have to make due with what comes along and sometimes that isn't much. That's when creativity is key.

These are skills that come with patience and practice which is exactly what I am working towards. I've rambled through the Wildlife Refuge System both on foot and on wheels. I've crawled through crevices in the Devil's Ice Box Cave at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park as a volunteer interpreter. I've grasped the attention of young and old and have been stumped by those half my age and those double my age more than a time or two. No matter how many times I travel the same path, I learn a new lesson with each hike I lead.

Nothing beats seeing the faces of children light up when they've cornered a frog, captured a flying insect in a net, gazed at bald eagle soaring above through binoculars for the first time, or opened their eyes to the mushrooms covering the forest floor. No matter how old you are the wonders of wildlife never cease to amaze us and I am fortunate enough to get the chance to help people discover the beauty of nature each and every day.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sketching the Seasons

"Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend stretches of time just searching and dreaming." - Edward O.Wilson, Naturalist
During one of my last days at Minnesota Valley, I was helping my supervisor, Judy, sort through some new shipments that came in of books and videos to add to the resource library. While doing so, I stumbled across this book called "Keeping a Nature Journal" by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth. I started flipping through the pages and found myself unable to put the book down. Lucky for me, a copy of the book was available in the Blufftop Bookshop.

Ever since I can remember, I've always kept a journal, but no one had really ever gave me any guidance as to how to use it. Like a typical child, I spilled out my feelings then ripped out the pages when I thought my mom had read them from time to time. I regret that I didn't keep all of them together so I could refer back to them later. I've gotten better as I've gotten older, but how I wish that someone would have told me when I was a little girl off exploring in the woods and climbing trees that there was a way for me to capture all of those precious moments in a book that I could keep with me always.

Unlike my recently passed grandmother who held dearly to all of her written memories from childhood to adulthood which are now compiled in her book "From Georgia Peach, To Missouri Mule," my memoirs are scattered about here and there or worse, forgotten all together. Luckily, there's still time for me to get my act together and keep it all in one central location, a nature journal.

The summer after my junior year in high school, I was accepted into a weeklong Conservation Honors Program at the University of Missouri in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Conservation. This program first introduced me to nature journaling and was one of the biggest turning points in my life, ultimately leading me down the path of becoming the naturalist I was born to be.

My dad has fond memories of me as a child packing up my bookbag and heading out into the woods, not to return until hours later. We lived in a fairly rural area so I didn't have the luxury of neighborhood kids to play with and my sister, 3 and a half years older than I, had a lot of other things on her plate like sports, gymnastics, and dance. The woods and fields behind our house was my playground and the neighborhood dogs and cats and eventually my 4-H bunnies were my friends. I remember doing a lot of writing and drawing, but where all of those ammature sketches ended up is a mystery.

The Conservation Honors Program was the first time I was formally introduced to nature journaling. We were each given a small, unlined, spiral bound notebook called "Nature Notes" produced by MDC. We were responsible for recording all of our field observations in the notebook, just like real biologists, and were also given journal assignments each night reflecting our readings from Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac." I still have the notebook today, but haven't done much with it since, because I didn't fully understand the concept of nature journaling until now.

Nature journals are not meant to be formal as ours were during Conservation Honors Program. They are also not meant to be kept like a personal diary. Nature journals are a tool for channeling your interpretation of the natural world around you and developing your sense of place in that environment. There is no structure that you must follow, no critiquing by others, no grades. They are for your own personal use, to help enhance the view of your everyday surroundings and intensify the beauty of the simplest to the most beautiful places and life on earth.

As I explore this new concept, I am also exploring a new place. A week ago, I set out on yet another journey to my next assignment as an environmental education/interpretation intern at the Patuxent Research Refuge National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel, MD. They call this area the golden triangle, because it sits smack dab in the middle of Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Annapolis. And boy, has it been a trip so far.

My dad is originally from Alexandria, VA, right outside of D.C. so he joined me on my relocation back to his roots. We were delayed at first by both an earthquake and hurricane Irene that hit the east coast, but we finally made it, safe and sound -- despite the current monsoon-like rain I'm currently experiencing. Unlike Minnesota, I have family close by that I never get to see and am finally able to spend some time with. So far I've gotten to see both my uncle David, who is my dad's identical twin, and my cousin Kristy, one of my uncle's daughters. I've experienced traffic, the metro, and the solitude of the Refuge in the heart of it all.

Patuxent is different from other refuges due to the fact that it has "research" in its title. It was established in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and is the only research refuge in the entire refuge system. Important findings on DDT were discovered here, dwindling populations of whooping cranes were brought back from extinction, and much, much more! The visitor center is also different from other refuges because it is a National Wildlife Visitor Center. So instead of just local environmental issues and happenings, exhibits in the NWVC feature both nation wide and world wide concerns and habitats. Also, like Minnesota Valley, Patuxent is one of the few urban refuges within the Refuge System which means tons of visitors, events, and school groups are constantly coming and going.

Interns are heavily relied on in the visitor services program and I was put right to work as soon as I arrived. By the end of my second day, I had already put on two puppet shows with another intern about a migrating Ruby Throated Hummingbird and the animals she meets on her journey south for the winter. Both my coworker and I are responsible for putting on two programs each month, opening and closing the VC, registering visitors for all programs, helping out at events like Honey Harvest Festival and our 5k coming up next weekend. We also host scout groups and fill in wherever else we are needed. Eventually, we'll even be responsible for giving tours on the all electric tram that rides through the Refuge.

Thanks to my new found hobby of nature journaling, I will be putting on a program in October called "Sketching the Seasons" for 8-10-year-old children. It's all been very exciting so far and I am looking forward to the upcoming events. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, I keep my nature notes by my side to remind me that no matter what, there is always time to sit down and sketch the seasons.