Leigh Hayes shows a bear skull to participants on a walk at Kezar River Reserve, part of the Greater Lovell Land Trust. Photo courtesy of Greater Lovell Land Trust.
Enjoying and understanding the natural world is the foundation for lasting environmental stewardship
By Joyce White
What is man without the beasts?… For whatever happens to the beasts Also happens to man. For all things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth Befalls the children of earth.
– Chief Sealth (Seattle) of the Dwamish Tribe
Soon after I moved to the Lovell area from northern Maine, I began attending guided nature hikes offered by the Greater Lovell Land Trust (GLLT). Kevin Harding, a retired teacher turned naturalist, led the walks on established trails, pointing out animal tracks or scat, showing and telling how voles create underground tunnels to avoid being eaten by hawks or owls.
Harding noted scrape marks left by moose feeding on the bark of striped and red maple trees. Because they lack upper front incisors, he explained, moose grip the tree with their lower incisors and scrape upward, leaving grooves in the trunk. He showed us moose scat, explaining that the separate, grape-size pellets were made after moose ate their winter diet of bark and branches. Their summer diet of more succulent plants, especially water plants, yields much different scat – softer, darker and more clumped together.
Walking the fields and woods in all seasons has been one of my favorite activities since my childhood in Canaan, Maine, and I’ve always felt quite at home in natural settings – far more than in “civilized” settings. Still, I learned from these guided walks how much I was oblivious to in my previous woods rambles. Understanding more about how nature fits together has added a dimension of satisfaction to my daily excursions.
Becoming a Docent
After participating in several walks on different trails and attending educational programs at the local library, I took the free docent class that required only that I help lead a guided walk each summer. Those outdoor classes were a challenging and valuable learning experience. I didn’t absorb it all – I’m still a failure at using a compass, still can’t identify many ferns, still am not sure whether a grey fox or a bobcat made the trail in the snow through the apple orchard. But the things I learned in the docent classes increased my reverence for the natural world.
I have continued to learn through evening programs and walks led by other docents, Harding and guest presenters, experiences that have continued to enrich my life. A better understanding of the history of the land and the influences of societal factors on land use and the effects on the natural world now inform my consciousness.
After Tom Wessels’s informational walk and evening presentation, stone walls and cellar holes found in now-wooded areas had more meaning for me. The first homesteads in this section of western Maine were carved out of forested land in the 1700s. Those hard-working settlers were mostly self-sufficient and produced few products to sell.
The 30-year “sheep fever,” 1810-1840, changed the landscape dramatically. Merino sheep were highly prized for their ample fleece, which produced quality wool. To satisfy demand for this wool, much of the forest was converted to pasture, denuding the stony land. Those exposed stones were used to build stone walls to keep sheep in.
Then during the Civil War, many men left the area to fight, and many didn’t return. They died from disease and war injuries, but many also discovered and began new lives in places that were much easier to farm, with deeper topsoil, fewer rocks and a longer growing season. So over time, the forest reclaimed the land, stone walls and all, beginning with plants such as yarrow and sheep sorrel.
Before participating in walks led by docents Bob and Susan Winship about the varied ways plants reproduce, I hadn’t connected those brown seed stalks of late fall and winter with the feathery ferns of summer. They look like an entirely different plant! Before Harding’s evening program, I hadn’t known that the craze for beaver hats contributed to the near extinction of the animal.
Understanding Creates Respect for the Land
Every July and August these walks and programs are offered free to the public, covering an amazing variety of topics through the years – animal tracking, plant identification, edible and medicinal plants, forest ecology, amphibians, birds, mushrooms, trees, deer, moose, bear, beaver and more. New educational director Bridie McGreavy, following Harding’s retirement, is adding new programs.
At its inception 24 years ago, Harding explains, GLLT focused on appreciating and preserving the world of nature – not on political issues or conservation easements. Howard Corwin, M.D., the first president, wanted Harding to lead the educational part of GLLT. From a couple of early meetings of a small education committee, two goals emerged: Attract a large number of people and don’t be controversial.
Underlying the idea that an educational arm of GLLT is necessary was the philosophy that if people learn to enjoy and understand the natural world, they’ll be more inclined to treat it with respect, less prone to turn valuable agricultural land into housing or commercial developments, less prone to allow clear cuts.
Harding began leading educational walks in GLLT’s second year. The docent program emerged as walk participants expressed interest and enthusiasm for learning more and he asked them to help with walks.
The docent program that has evolved gives interested people basic skills in understanding ecosystems, plant identification, animal tracking and behavior, land use history, the use of compass and GPS systems. Naturalist David Brown, a teacher by academic training, left that profession to devote all his energies to training himself as a naturalist and wildlife photographer. He taught the docent classes for several years, bringing his patient good humor and teaching skills along with his wealth of nature knowledge to the task of preparing interested people from a variety of backgrounds to lead nature walks. The walks, one or two a week during July and August, are mostly on GLLT trails, and new ones are added as new land is acquired. Some walks also go into the White Mountain National Forest, and some are on private land by invitation of the owners.
A Fruitful Library Connection
Brown, Harding and other presenters have offered weekly evening natural history programs at Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library in Lovell in the summer. These explore environmental issues in depth. Jim Wilfong talked about who owns Maine water, for example, and Jym St. Pierre discussed RESTORE the North Woods. Harding’s discussions of moose, beaver and how to stay found in the woods presented detailed knowledge that many of us previously lacked. And Brown’s discussions of bird migrations and the wildlife in Brownfield Bog, illustrated with his incomparable photography, were priceless additions to participants’ education.
A bequest left to the Nature Conservancy by a local resident helped fund the education program, but not without a lot of negotiation. Nature Conservancy people believed the bequest could be used to buy land anywhere in the state, but a local GLLT board member believed it should only be used locally. Through Corwin’s negotiations, $20,000 from the bequest was provided to GLLT for an education program, start-up money for Harding’s agenda.
The first few years, Harding says, he had to meet with Nature Conservancy representatives to report how the money was being used. Volunteers did much of the work, such as creating trails, so that $20,000 went a long way toward starting the program.
Most important, Harding says, was that the Nature Conservancy liked the idea that the money would be used for education, not just for buying land, and it stopped requiring a report after about three years. Also critical, he says, was the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library cooperation and involvement. “We worked with four or five librarians over the years and they all bought into the idea and never charged us for the use of the space.
“Maybe five or six years into the program, the GLLT board of directors wanted me to do more children’s programs, but the library was already doing several children’s programs,” says Harding, “and I didn’t want to compete. Instead, what we did was begin to donate money, about $600 a year, toward children’s programs. So the two nonprofits worked together to provide summer programs for kids.”
The GLLT education program also donated money to the library to buy books that help docents and other library patrons with nature education.
New Program Director: Cultivating a Language of Place
The 2011 GLLT season experienced a seemingly seamless transition as Bridie McGreavy began as education program director. Her main goal this first year, after touring all GLLT properties with Harding “as he passed on his deep, place-based knowledge to me,” says McGreavy in the winter 2011 GLLT Newsletter, “was to work with Tom and the docents to maintain the integrity of the program that Kevin built with such care and skill.” She refers to Tom Henderson, the present executive director, who has been with GLLT since its beginnings.
The land trust offered a full 2011 schedule, McGreavy says, and attendance at all programs was high, with an average of 37 at evening programs and 12 in each guided walk. “… more than 500 people joined us this summer out on the trail, investigating natural history and learning about land protection at the annual meeting.”
Growing up in western Maine, McGreavy says she was an outdoors kid “with sap sticky fingers and dirt stained feet in summer, frozen eyelashes and hat-matted hair in winter.” But “while I spent a lot of time in trees, building forts and ice skating on frozen wetlands, I graduated from high school completely lacking knowledge of the natural and cultural history of home.” An internship at Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany, N.H., changed that. She remembers going into the woods with a teacher/naturalist there and “standing in amazement at her ability to identify fox by scent and her attunement to the subtle differences between hemlock and balsam fir. I had a connection to place born from my time spent in nature but no language to express my experience of the natural world,” she comments. She now sees environmental education as cultivating a language of place.
“Through experience we come to love, and through language we form community around that shared affinity. Our connection to place and attendant community is the foundation for lasting environmental stewardship,” McGreavy believes.
Her favorite aspect of the environmental education program Harding shepherded is that, “in addition to the environmental literacy threaded throughout the natural history programs and guided walks, Kevin created a program that also builds community.”
For example, a grandfather attended the first program in the natural history series in July; the next week, he brought his teenage granddaughter, telling McGreavy that she was a nature kid and that he wanted to encourage that interest. Later in the summer, he signed her up for the natural history course that McGreavy taught. The granddaughter learned the history of glaciers and stonewalls, names of common trees, and the difference between summer and winter moose scat.
The evening natural history series created an intergenerational experience between grandfather and granddaughter, and the guided walks and natural history course allowed the couple’s connection to extend to a group of individuals who come together around a shared interest. Like our docents, McGreavy says, this girl may one day find herself teaching others about nature in a dynamic process of learning that grows much as individual seeds become plants in a field with a shared root system. Environmental education is the water, the sun and the soil that nurtures the process.
Before coming to GLLT, McGreavy served for 10 years as conservation and education director at Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton. There she created education programming for people of all ages, including year-round natural history presentations, a summer nature camp for kids, after school nature clubs and a yearlong ecosystem field study program for middle school students. She also runs an environmental education consulting business, Samara Environmental Education Consulting (SEEC; http://bmcgreavy.wordpress.com).
McGreavy is working on an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in communication and sustainability science at the University of Maine, Orono. She has a teaching fellowship in the Department of Communication and Journalism plus a research fellowship with the Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI; www.umaine.edu/sustainabilitysolutions) – a statewide initiative to connect knowledge with action in ways that promote strong economies, vibrant communities and healthy ecosystems in Maine and beyond.
Bridie McGreavy, firstname.lastname@example.org
David Brown, www.dbwildlife.com
Tom Henderson, Greater Lovell Land Trust, 207-925-1056
Greater Lovell Land Trust, www.gllt.org
Holland, Nancy. Naturally Curious: A Photographic Field Guide and Month-by-Month Journey through the Fields, Woods and Marshes of New England. Trafalgar Square Books, 2010.
Rezendez, Paul. Tracking & the Art of Seeing: How To Read Animal Tracks and Sign. HarperCollins, 1999.
Wessels, Tom. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. The Countryman Press, 1999.