Taking Root: A naturalist grows beyond the Nature Center

– by Susan Snyder

The interview was interesting. They handed me two skulls and said, “We’ll be back in five minutes. We’d like you to use these to teach us a 10-minute lesson on predator-prey relationships, at a fourth-grade level.” I looked like a deer in the headlights, but I must have done OK, because that was nearly 16 years ago.

I’ve watched my students grow up – from preschool to summer camp, to driver’s licenses, college, master’s degrees, and PhD programs.

Some of them camped out overnight for the first time with me. I’ll never forget the two little girls from the Dominican Republic who were visiting their grandmother in Ogden for the summer. Grandma had never been camping, but she registered herself and the girls for one of our first family camps to give them a quintessential Utah outdoor experience. People didn’t sleep outside or have fires where the girls came from. They said it wasn’t safe.

“This is just like that movie with Lindsay Lohan,” the oldest said while we roasted marshmallows over her very first campfire.

“You mean, 'The Parent Trap?'” I asked.

“That’s the one!” she said, shoving the gooey s’more into her mouth.

When you live in a place like Utah, it’s easy to forget that, for many kids, a simple campout or campfire is something they only see in the movies. There have been schoolchildren on field trips who kept stepping off the trail after I asked them not to because they didn’t know what a “trail” was. They live in the center of this beautiful town, see those amazing mountains, and have never walked a single path that wasn’t paved. Not everyone can get to the foothills, but they can come here. A bus drops you off right up the street.

If someone asked me what the best thing about Ogden Nature Center is, I would say it’s the opportunity to be out in it. Seeing deer, or maybe a raccoon, or a fox. Smelling wild smells. Getting scratched by grass as tall as you are. Seeing seven different colors of dragonflies. Getting a glimpse of a muskrat or beaver gliding across a glassy pond before disappearing with a “bloop!”

The field trippers, the summer campers, the junior camp counselors – all those thousands of youngsters who taught me how to teach have roots here. They volunteer. They visit on college breaks. They bring their own kids.

Roots. I established them here, too. They started small with a 12-hour side gig, and grew deeper by becoming an AmeriCorps intern, and then a full-time staff member, and eventually the Nature Center’s lead teacher naturalist – gaining an early childhood credential and master’s degree and a couple of awards in the process.

The Nature Center has given me deep roots in this place and this community that will remain. This place holds my family in so many ways. To all of them and to all of you, I’ll say what I have told every naturalist who worked here alongside me: Walk the trails once a week. Talk to Cronk. Walk out to the treehouses once a month. Walk Birdhouse Trail. Teach – and live – the mission statement. Unite people with nature.

It’s all there is.

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