Nature Centers: Magical Outdoor Classrooms

| 3/12/2010 4:33:06 PM

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgOn a clear night with a star-filled sky, January’s Full Wolf Moon rose above the trees. Under the moonlight, and with flaming torches guiding them, skiers made their way along the woodland trails. Standing at the blazing bonfire set in a clearing, I remarked to my friend it felt as if we should be dancing around the fire, chanting in celebration of the full moon. She laughed, but in the firelight I caught a gleam in her eyes, and dragged her away before she took the suggestion to heart (psst … she can be a little bit wild, and I have no doubt she was contemplating how to dance wearing skis). We’d return back to the fire soon enough – a few more times, in fact; it was cold that night, with temperatures only in the single digits.

Full Moon by Susan Bachman

Venturing off the torch-lit trail, we found ourselves in a meadow – a prairie restoration project. Out of the darkness of the woods, with the moon and stars shining unobstructed by the trees, it wasn’t too difficult to see where we were going. We could faintly make out dark silhouettes of others who left the glow of the torches to ski out in the open under the moon too. Their laughter in the distance echoed eerily across the field. Occasionally, we’d suddenly come up on a group of them surprised at the encounter in the dark as we were. The whole experience had a surreal feel to it, which disappeared once we left the trails for the main building, its bright lights shining like a beacon of warmth.

Sitting in front of a roaring fire in the massive stone fireplace, we drank hot chocolate, and listened to others recall their adventures of the night. Groups came and went, following one of the naturalists out to the big observation deck overlooking a wooded ravine, as one-by-one he called to barred, screech, and great horned owls, and they called back in return. It was a night of wonder, and I couldn’t help but wish Shannon, my budding cross-country skier and one who always finds the magic in a full moon, could have experienced it with me.

Though the late hour and her novice skiing ability kept her home this trip, Shannon and I have not been strangers to Sarrett Nature Center this past year. Last spring, I was a chaperone for her class trip to learn about the center’s wetland and pond ecosystems. Everyone armed with tiny nets, we scooped tiny water creatures from the pond, and found the little white flowers hiding under the umbrellas of mayapples, spotted Jack in his pulpit, and smelled how skunk cabbage got its name. In the fall, I accompanied her class to the center, where we learned about the Native Americans of the area. We played some of the games Native American children played, tried (unsuccessfully) to make fire, and sat in a wigwam while listening to the naturalist explain how they lived, what they ate, and how important family was to them.

Sarrett’s takes its show on the road too. Winter brings the naturalists out to Shannon’s school for snow-shoeing treks through the school’s own nature center  – a three-acre or so wooded area that serves as a wonderful outdoor classroom. And just last week, some of the rescued wildlife that have become part of Sarrett’s family, made the trip to visit the school classrooms.

When Shannon told me she wanted to learn how to cross-country ski this winter, Sarrett’s was a natural choice; they offer ski and snow-shoe rental for a nominal fee – at $5.00 a day, it was far less expensive then buying skis for her on e-bay or Craig’s List and having her outgrow them before next winter. While she’s gotten pretty good at staying on her feet, she’s completely mastered the fine art of falling, and the even more difficult skill of getting up on her own ... only when she stops laughing long enough to do so.

Robyn Dolan
3/27/2010 10:21:10 AM

Cindy, what an inspiring post! We went to the arboretum in Flagstaff on a field trip a couple years ago and always meant to go back. Think I'll check out what they have going on. Also, the ranger station in Williams was offering some nature hikes every Saturday in March, but that involves driving to Parks, 40 miles away. Still, it would have been a great hike. Think I better get off my duff! I share your joy in teaching you daughter to ski, Jacob, too has mastered the art of getting back up.

Cindy Murphy
3/17/2010 7:37:36 AM

Thanks for stopping by, Oz Girl....and I hope you get a chance to stop by the nature center in your area too. I think you'll be right, and be pleasantly surprized by what you find there.

Oz Girl
3/16/2010 2:20:58 PM

Cindy, I really enjoyed this post. We have a nature center not too far from our house, halfway between here and the largest town. I've never turned on the road with the sign that indicates its 2 miles down, but many times I've been tempted to explore further... and now you've propelled me to make that turn the next time I pass that road. My curiosity has finally gotten the better of me, and hopefully I'll be pleasantly surprised at what I find! :-) Love that pic of your daughter, laughing in the snow... reminds me of a simpler time when I was a kid!

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