Much like language interpreters, nature interpreters translate for the benefit of others. Though the language they translate is that of nature.
One part poet and one part scientist, effective interpreters can stimulate an emotional and intellectual response in others. Park interpreters can help visitors connect to the deeper truth of a park, serving as the storyteller of the park. My preferred definition of an interpreter is one who helps others fall in love with a resource. I know this to be true personally. Because I fell in love with a slug three years ago.
I was volunteering with the Children & Nature Network’s Natural Leaders Network to help conduct a Natural Leaders Legacy Camp training for a diverse group of young environmental leaders from across the country. Big, slimy, yellow Banana Slugs dotted the beautiful Islandwood campus where we stayed outside of Seattle. And I wanted nothing to do with these ever-present mascots.
On our second day of the leadership training, a fellow instructor brought our group together for a brief interpretive experience. She broke us into small groups and asked that we each find a natural object near us.
Against my gentle protests, my group selected a Banana Slug. On hands and knees, we moved to eye level with this wet, slithering thing.
“Okay. Round one. Spend two minutes noticing as many different things about your object as you can,” our trainer instructed the six different groups. We started. I noticed the slime trail behind it…gross. I noticed the yellow of its skin…gross. I noticed that the texture on its back changed from rough up front, to smooth behind…okay, that’s kind of interesting. I noticed its medium size compared to its peers around us. My friends noticed more details about its length, movements, and every other tangible feature we could observe.
“Now spend two minutes wondering as much as you can about your object,” directed our trainer. Round two was underway. “I wonder how old it is.” “I wonder where it woke up this morning.” “I wonder if it’s a boy or a girl.” “I wonder if it notices us.” “Do you think it has ever fallen in love?” We all laugh at that. Despite my every instinct, I was beginning to care about this stupid, little slug.
“Final round! You have two minutes to list all of the things that your object reminds you of,” yelled our instructor. This would be easy. A snail— the smaller gray slugs we have back home. Its textured back reminded me of a rhino. The slime trail looks like the contrails of a jet. I’m reminded of the slow, deliberate movements of a turtle. As I examined our slug, I remembered that time I accidentally poured rock salt on a slug as a child— and the guilt that followed that little “experiment.”
“That’s it,” directed our instructor, “everyone circle up and we’ll discuss!” Without much thought, I picked up our new friend. I had never touched a slug, nevermind held one. And yet, here I was, cradling a Banana Slug in the palm of my hand—and only mildly freaking out.
This memory has stuck with me for years. In six minutes, the provocation of this informal interpreter created an emotional tie between me and something I had no interest in—something I actively disliked. Through careful observation, deliberate inquiry, and making connections to my life, I had fallen in love with a Banana Slug.
As the Director of Interpretation for Texas State Parks, I have the privilege of working with the best interpreters in the country. Today I use this activity during presentations and interpretive programs to help the people around me become more connected to the outdoors. I love this activity. It’s so simple. It takes no planning. And it effectively creates connections. I use it during new employee orientations, staff trainings and during leadership trainings for young adult outreach volunteers. I once led this activity in a stand of old-growth trees outside of Houston.
Afterwards, I asked the group who would be sad to see these trees disappear to make way for a parking lot. Every hand in the group shot into the air. Any other day, this group may have walked by these trees without thinking twice. But on this day, they stopped—and made a connection. They fell in love with a tree.
And this is what the Natural Leaders Network Legacy Camp is all about—bringing the next generation of environmental leaders together to learn the tools they need to help their communities fall in love with nature.
Additional Reading & Resources from C&NN
CONNECTING WITH NATURE & OURSELVES: Reflections from Colorado Legacy Camp
MAKING FRESH TRACKS: Natural Leaders from the Arctic Circle and Urban Los Angeles Partner Up
NATURAL LEADERS LEGACY CAMP: One Young Man Decides to Give Back the Way His Father Did
BEYOND LEGACY CAMP: What C&NN’s Natural Leaders Do When They Get Home
WE’RE READY! C&NN’S Natural Leaders Pledge to Support National “Every Kid in a Park” Initiative
THE LIGHT OF NATURAL LEADERS: Young People Move the New Nature Movement
Additional Reading & Resources
Learn more about the interpretive, educational, and outreach programs provided by Texas State Parks
Natural Leaders Initiative
Natural Leaders Network Facebook Page
Every Kid in a Park Initiative
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