On Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist

naturalist blog logoChapter Five—How to Share the Passion

Convening once again at the lovely Pickering Creek Audubon Center near Easton, MD, our group of two dozen naturalists-in-training settled onto our metal folding chairs on a brisk January Wednesday to tackle this month’s two topics: Interpretation and Man’s Impact and Restoration. As these topics sounded a bit heavy and ponderous, imagine my delight when the whole focus of the day turned out to be learning ways to share our love of nature and the outdoors—to connect our passion with practical strategies to make a difference.

Our morning session was led by Angela Yau from Stepping Stone Museum, a private, not-for-profit museum that preserves and demonstrates the rural arts and crafts of the 1880-1920 period in Harford County. Before she even started, I already loved her presentation when I saw the small library of books and pamphlets she brought and spread on the front table (I’m a librarian—it’s a character flaw!). Angela helped us learn about interpreting nature and, specifically, about providing context for the visitors at a particular nature-related site. We parsed the official definition,

 Interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional
and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and
the meanings inherent to the resource,

peeling apart the layers of this definition to gain a better understanding of how we, as naturalists, could help others understand “why it matters.”

As we began to hear about leaders in the field, I was amazed to learn that there IS such a thing as a field of interpreting, with a National Association for Interpretation (NAI) founded on the work of groundbreaking naturalist/interpreters such as Freeman Tilden, who said, “passion is the key ingredient.” Passion has always been my keystone in choosing educational opportunities, in playing music, in evaluating the amount of energy I would expend on something—how amazed I was to find that “interpreting” had basis that spoke so directly to my own value system.

Pickering Creek barn

Barn at Pickering Creek Audubon Center


In addition to this conceptual basis, we also explored many practical strategies to use in our interpreting, such as active listening and probing to understand the interests and perspectives of the audience, the use of living history and the role of storytelling, remembering the joys of Mother Nature (such as when a hawk soaring overhead interrupts your carefully planned program), how to include activities that target the senses (sight, sound, smell, touch), Maslow’s hierarchy (you can’t learn about insects if you have to go to the bathroom), and the impact of different stages of child development (to preschoolers, fantasy IS reality; high schoolers want to know how and where they fit into the whole).

Ms. Yau encouraged us to provoke our audiences, to be provocative, to emphasize what we can offer that Google cannot! But she also cautioned that the interpreter must not be more interesting than the resource, so any accouterments—such as costumes, sounds, the language used—must all be carefully evaluated to see if they support the objectives of the program.

She concluded by reiterating the importance of identifying a theme for any program and offered up some suggestions for further reading from her lovely mobile library: Sharing Nature with Children by Joseph Cornell, Interpreting Our Heritage by Freeman Tilden, and Meaningful Interpretation by David Larsen.


The afternoon session for this month featured Dr Wayne Bell, a Senior Associate at the Center for Environment & Society at Washington College, although Dr. Bell was instantly upstaged by Cinder, his friendly, all-black Australian shepherd who made herself at home happily vacuuming up crumbs in a room full of people finishing up their bag lunches. Dr. Bell wove a captivating tale of history, especially that of the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, which starts all the way up near Cooperstown, NY, and which H.L. Mencken called “a vast protein factory.”


Dr. Wayne Bell

We learned about the Native American populations; the work of 17th century naturalist William Wood (the use of fire to control understory); researcher/historian Sam Droege; the development of high agriculture and its impact on the watershed; the geography of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, whose area/volume ratio results in land activities having a strong impact on the entire ecology of the Bay; paleoecologist Grace Brush at Johns Hopkins and her work on pollen in sediment cores; the economic and ecological impact of the Erie Canal, AKA “Clinton’s Ditch”; drainage projects in Maryland, including Long Marsh (1789), Broadway Ditch in Caroline County (dug by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s), the Pocomoke Drainage Project (1946), and the Marshy Hope Creek Project in Caroline County (1977); the role of canneries and local brands of fruits and seafood; the history of Delaware as the “peach state” in the late 1800s; the stages of ecological succession; and the locavore movement (eating locally grown food). Whew! Fascinating, complex, disheartening, encouraging, stunning. A wealth of information and all of it connecting to the interplay of humans and the land around them.

After a brief discussion about nature education and how to get people, especially children, outdoors and interacting with nature, Dr. Bell offered to lead us on a short nature/birding walk on this cold, blustery afternoon. Bundled up, we headed outdoors for more learning about local bike trails, the problems of the northern bobwhite, and Pickering Walk w Wayne Bellsummer outdoor educational opportunities.

Some resources recommended by Dr. Bell include Changes in the Land by William Cronon; Discovering the Chesapeake: The History of an Ecosystem by Philip D. Curtin and Grace S. Brush; Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education by David Sobel; and the No Child Left Inside Coalition (a program of environmental education).

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a report from our next session (INSECTS!!) in the Becoming a Maryland Master Naturalist series. As always, you can leave comments here or email me at BethLLawton@gmail.com. Stay warm and go outdoors!

by Beth Lawton
Maryland Master Naturalist-in-Training






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