Feature Article - October 2003
Find a printable version here

Call of the Wild

From beautiful blossoms to bugs and guts, nature programs are growing as people return to their roots

By Margaret Ahrweiler


The education vs. entertainment ratio, along with the label attached to nature programming, can vary in different parts of the country according to the political climate. Custer State Park's Block says that the phrase "environmental education" doesn't get much play in his area since it could be taken as a more liberal philosophy than intended in a place where people earn their living in logging and mining. Emphasis on conservation also can vary depending on staff philosophy, local leanings and audience, Block notes. His approach is more straightforward. He explains the resources, the natural environment, the cultural activities and the stories that relate to it, leaving guests to draw their own conclusions.


At Sebastian Inlet State Park, however, rangers can emphasize conservation during their presentations, Perry says, due in part to their audience. Residents of that area take pride in their stewardship of the land, he explains, and feel strongly about maintaining the habitats of their beloved turtles and manatees.

The split between education and entertainment also colors how nature professionals approach their jobs, and even what they call them. In recent years, a debate has arisen over the difference between naturalists and interpreters or interpretative naturalists. Traditionally, the term "naturalist" has meant someone who knows the names of all that grows and moves.

"You found them a leaf, and they could name the tree," Block says. "You played them a bird song, and they could name the bird."

But with the increase in an entertainment mindset, parks have been emphasizing interpretive skills, with thematic presentations, storytelling and strong communication skills, where guides can help participants forge both emotional and intellectual connections, Merriman says.

Block, who oversees a staff of about nine, along with 15 to 25 volunteers, advises that while you can teach staff the natural history or cultural facts of a program, it's difficult to teach interpersonal and communication skills. In part because of this, interpreters and naturalists can come from a variety of academic backgrounds, ranging from earth sciences to entomology.

Nature programs are popular for all seasons, like the winter hayrides at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

But however they label themselves or view their jobs, the professionals staffing nature programs share a common characteristic: passion for their environment and a passion for sharing that love that precedes their career paths.

Many of today's naturalists and interpreters caught the nature bug by volunteering or bided their time in other careers until job growth accommodated their true calling. For example, Willowbrook's Fejt began volunteering at the facility 13 years ago while working in commercial real estate. Eventually she realized she could make a career of it and went back to school to earn a degree in geology. Lincoln Marsh's Joslin, meanwhile, couldn't find a use for her degree in marine biology in Chicago's suburbs and worked in banking until, after volunteering there for a year, was hired by the Wheaton Park District in 1995.

Passion for the outdoors—without exception (or coaching) this phrase surfaces again and again. Those who turn nature into fun and games have it and want to share it, and that passion may be fueling the growth of their field.

"I once led a canoe trip down the West Fork of the Des Moines River in Iowa," Block recalls. "It was for students from an alternative high school—troubled kids. We were teaching them how to fish, too. I'll never forget one young man. You could see the light bulb go on. He looked at me and said, 'You get paid to go canoeing and fishing and that kind of stuff? You're like a teacher, only your classroom is the outdoors?' I said, 'yes.' I always wondered what happened to that kid."

Could be, he's got a job like Block these days, fueling another round of passion for the outdoors.