You seem like you have the dream job, as a naturalist at the Harris Nature Center in Okemos, Michigan. How did you get here?
When I went to school it was in the 70s and we had just had the first Earth Day and I was very moved by that. I was ripe to join something. And you know, when you're that age, 16 17 18 19 20, you really want to do something for the world. So for me, it became the environment. I had grown up nurturing this love of nature and then here was my opportunity.
I got a college degree in a program called "interpretation" which is another word we use for naturalist. It's, you know, interpreting nature, all the interactions and those kinds of things, for the general population.
I've been at this a long time. I started in 1979 at a nature center in Ohio. I had this opportunity to teach people, inspire them, and that really spoke to me. I thought, if you loved it, why wouldn't you want to protect it? It's such a blessing in my life, because now for all these years I've been able to work a job that also feeds my soul. It's what I feel I was meant to do, so it's very fulfilling.
You say you grew up nurturing a love of nature. What kinds of experiences do you remember out in nature as a child?
Like so many people that end up in this kind of work I grew up having access to woods and meadows. My family went to the UP for vacation to the same location near Munising, and there were some log cabins where we went fishing on the lakes. We'd be catching the perch: you got the worm, you put it on your own hook and you had to take the fish off yourself, clean it, you had to learn how to do it by yourself. And then my dad would show us the egg sacks, and my mom actually cooked the fish eggs. That's a thing, people actually think that's a delicacy!
There were all these groundhogs and groundhog babies up there. And my mom always made puffed wheat cereal and we'd have these half gallon milk cartons. My siblings and I used to open them up and put the puffed wheat in there and lay them on their sides. And the baby groundhogs would go in there and go get it and then their little legs would be -- (gestures kicking, laughs) We're so lucky we didn't get bit!
I wouldn't let my kid do that anymore, times have changed! But my mom was just glad we were out of the house and exploring.
What have you learned about nature and yourself from your own children?
I remember this one time with my son, he was listening to this bird. And he's like, What bird is that? I couldn't see it and I'm really bad at bird calls and I didn't want to tell him wrong. So I was just quiet...and I was listening to it...and he got so angry with me for not answering his question. So I just said, I think that's a cardinal. And then he was okay with it. But I just realized that A: Already, through himself or his experiences, he already wanted to know more and he was looking to me for the answers, and that B: I didn't want to be wrong, but that it's okay to be wrong. To say, this is what I know, and then the next step is okay how do we find out more? That it's okay not to always have the answers. Especially with kids, we always think we have to give them the answers. Instead, we should be giving them the tools to figure things out for themselves.
That's a great lesson learned. Any other favorite kid memories?
My daughter, my middle child, her big goal was to touch a bird. I know, isn't that funny? That's what she wanted! And she would stalk the birds. I'd be doing the dishes, looking out in the backyard, and there she is. And finally she did! One poor robin had its back to her for too long or she got quiet enough and she touched it on its tail and it flew away.
(Wiping away tears of laughter) What kinds of things have the children from Donley Elementary School been up to this week as they're participating in Annie's BIG Nature Lesson at Harris?
Well, I'm starting to think that Donley School is the school of Imagination. Today, I was showing Kelsie Rourke and Julie Maloney's 2nd graders the horse tails (snake grass). It's a plant that doesn't have leaves, it just has a stalk. And I ask the kids, What would you call it? And a kid says, I'd call it alien grass, because it looks like aliens! I thought, Oh my gosh I've never heard that before! I've heard a lot of answers but I've never heard that before. This class, they were so good and interested. We were watching this red-breasted nut hatch and it was banging on the tree and the kids just got really quiet and it was so cool.
Then, I start talking about woodpeckers and this little boy just asks me the best question: he asks, Is that nut hatch bird and the woodpecker...are they in the same group or family or something? And I'm just like DING! He's seeing that they're the same, that you could put them in a group together. The grouping was designed differently, but what if the grouping was designed about how they got their food? He's taking information from here, and taking it from there, and putting it together.
That's what we want, we want people to see the connections and interrelatedness of it. Because tomorrow we talk about man, the biggest predator of them all. Now how does that change the story?
Speaking of stories, where does the story of Annie's BIG Nature Lesson begin for you?
I remember when Margaret started this whole thing. We were within that first group of nature centers, and having her come in here and she was just talking about it and I was thinking what a wonderful idea. The BIG Lesson, that idea of being immersed for five days, that this, all of this is their school. I thought that was the greatest thing I've ever heard.