Gratitude Celebration 33: Naturalist Colleagues

My next Gratitude Post in my series of 60 essays for my 60th birthday, is dedicated to the first group of naturalists I worked with at Woodland Altars Outdoor Education Center.

“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” Well, really it sounded more like 8 hoots in the dark of night, but naturalists all say the Barred Owl asks that question about dinner!

My outdoor education group, timidly excited on their Thursday night hike, whispered, “There’s one” with eyes wide enough to be seen in the dark. I called back in my believably authentic owl call, honed and practiced during staff gatherings or doing dishes with the students.

A  matching answer broke the wooded silence. “It called back!” the ten night walkers breathed, standing still as statues, camouflaged against the trees. I let them believe the ruse, using the staged moment fill them with wonder, smiling inside with the delight of working with lighthearted colleagues. Later, after we had dismissed the children to their beds and dreams of owls in the night, the eight of us would laugh and figure out which of us heard the other from another trail in the deep forest.

I loved Thursday nights with my Outdoor Ed colleagues. On those nights we would all work together, first taking our groups out for a night hike, then gather back at the lodge for singing and stories. We got pretty good at our routine, and sometimes would just keep on singing while the kids went off to the bunkrooms with their chaperones. I didn’t want those song sessions to end because I felt a bond of joy with the other naturalists.

I almost think of that group as a unit, rather than individual people because we worked together so much! Jim and Judy, Karla and Larry, Nan, Mark, and Dave. We hosted groups of 60 or so in weekly programs on the 500-acre Nature preserve of Woodland Altars in southern Ohio. The kids would arrive around noon on Tuesday and stay until after lunch on Friday. We had a fairly regular schedule that included sessions when each of us took the same group of ten, afternoon sessions when we mixed everyone up for special interest activities, and evening programs when the whole group played games. The schedule provided a good mix of teaching solo and with various teams of the other naturalists. I liked them all!

We even had good times with each other on our weekends. Often on Fridays, after our post-group cleanup was all done, we’d pile into Dave’s big blue van and trundle over to the Dairy Queen in Locust Grove, 5 miles away. Or, we’d ride all the way into Peebles, the little town 9 miles away that had a bank.

Many weekends saw us visiting with Jim and Judy, the couple who were Director and Head Naturalist, in their house in Peebles.  We’d make Judy’s favorite polish dish, noodles and cabbage, whose Polish name I can’t remember. Jim loved fishing and would talk all about that!

Karla and Larry were a couple too. Larry shared his passion for music, and introduced me to Bruce Springstein, although I preferred going home with my roommate, Nan, and putting on my Joni Mitchell on the “sound system” that Jim had helped me pick out at the Radio Shack in the big town of Hillsboro soon after I had started working at the camp.

Dave was a wildflower expert and would make sure that we saw each spring ephemeral, urging us to get out right away and see new flowers as they popped up in the Spring. Thanks to Dave, I first saw Goldenseal in the wild, way back in the “Wilderness” area of the camp.

And Mark Van Oss, originally from Minster, OH, near my dad’s birthplace in Coldwater, was my favorite for encouraging us all to learn the calls of the spring warblers. In late winter, he studied the calls and would quiz us on them while we were setting up the lodge for our next group on Monday afternoons.

Outdoor Education was a job with long hours and few breaks while the students were there, but having colleagues with whom I could work so smoothly made the weeks go by much too fast! It was just one short school year that this particular group worked together, then all but Dave, Karla, and Mark stayed for the next year when I took over as Program Director. I learned so much from all of them about Natural History, Pioneer crafts, and teamwork, doing my best to continue the spirit of camaraderie we had with my new staff the next Fall.

But, there was a certain chemistry among us that just can never be repeated, and I remember fondly this group of Naturalists who gave me my start in my most favorite profession!

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