And out of the darkness ...
The human brain is a vast complex shaped by culture, previous experience, attitudes, and assumptions that sometimes act as barriers to input. Penetrating these cultural and experiential barriers isn't always easy. The truth is that real progress rarely shows itself like a giant billboard with flashing lights. The progress that interpreters make is often subtle, secretive, hidden in the deep recesses of hearts and minds. It may not be the subject of everyday conversation with visitors, but it lingers there simmering, waiting for the right moment to express itself. You never know when the experiences you have facilitated with children and adults or what you have taught or shown them will come back to the surface, turn on like some tiny but bright light. Think of those in your own lives whom you may remember from long ago who said something or shared an experience with you that you will never forget, that may have helped shape who you are today.
Just about the time I start questioning my own efforts, wondering if anyone has listened or felt a change in perspective, something happens that reminds me there are glimmering lights that pierce the darkness. I will share a few experiences that I think illustrate this point.
A year after publication of the Field Guide to Plant Galls of California and Other Western States in 2007, I received a grateful, handwritten note from an 83-year-old woman who took the time to hunt me down. She said that she had noticed oak galls for many years in her garden but never knew what they were or how they affected her trees. Then according to her, "To my delight I found your guide and a whole new world opened for me." I had to read and re-read this many times to remind myself that all of the thousands of hours of field work, literature searches, writing and editing time, and photography were worth it. I had reached one person and I had to assume that there were others. For me, opening the window to a whole new view of the world we live in was the central task that has driven me all these years in my teaching and writing, as I suppose it is for you as well.
Just after I was hired by East Bay Regional Park District in California, I began working with a special needs group of school children 9 to 14 years old with Down's Syndrome. I met them once a month for two years during the school year. These kids were so full of life and energy and affection. They loved finding things and especially touching animals. They were a joy to be with. They were so innocent, so trusting, so vulnerable. I wanted so badly to make things better for them, but while I was with them, I had to keep my emotions in check. Often, following our time together, I would simply go into my office, close the door, and cry. There was nothing else I could do.
I would frequently eat lunch with them after our morning walks. During one of our first meetings following lunch, we were playing in a meadow near the parking lot when one of the kids quietly removed my string tie (which I stopped wearing after this) and used it to bind my hands around a eucalyptus tree, all in great fun--so I thought. Then, they started running around the tree shouting and laughing at poor old Ron all tied up. To my chagrin, of all people and of all the times, my new boss--the guy who had just hired me--drove by, stopped his car, looked out his window at me, and probably said to himself, "Oh my, what I have I done?"
About a year or so after the program ended, I was in uniform walking down a sidewalk in Berkeley, California, in the late afternoon, when I was startled by a chorus of kids hanging their heads out of the windows of their bus waving and screaming in unison, "Ron!" I turned, recognized them, and waved until they were beyond view and reach. That moment with those smiling, joyful faces stopped me in my tracks. I melted and just about collapsed in a heap of emotions. I was completely gut-punched, but in the most loving and caring way. They remembered me! What a humbling feeling! I completely forgot why I had come to town and what I was supposed to buy, and simply crawled back into my vehicle for the short trip back to the park. Somehow, no matter what discoveries we had made in the park, we had established a strong and lasting bond, a park naturalist who cared and just normal kids who wouldn't forget.
During the '70s I met a young kindergartner who seemed to enjoy banana slugs. At our first meeting, very soon after we started a short walk, he picked up a banana slug and folded both hands around it creating a little "slug chamber." I saw this and asked, "What are you going to do with that slug?" He replied simply, "I'm taking it for a walk." When we returned to the starting point, he opened his heavily slimed hands and let the slug go. Now, as good fortune would have it, I saw this same youngster each spring through the sixth grade and each time we met, he came loaded with complex questions that seemed to intensify each year. The kid challenged me, no doubt. It felt like a friendly game to see if he could stump the old naturalist. And then he was gone!
Nearly two decades later I was leading a family walk one Saturday when a young fellow approached me and said, "I'll bet you don't remember me!" Of course I didn't. Then he told me about our acquaintance and how he had just graduated from University of California at Berkeley with a degree in biochemistry. I was floored and speechless. He was my "slug kid" all grown up.
In another program effort, I was working with a small group of emotionally challenged adults, which was both mentally draining and occasionally nerve-wracking. Sometimes we would not walk far before one or more of them experienced an uncontrollable meltdown and we had to return to their van. At first, it was a bit disconcerting to be with a young adult who started screaming hysterically at the top of his or her lungs for no apparent reason. Other times when things were rather calm, we might cover a half-mile or so. On one occasion, the small group of eight adults plus four counselors included a giant of a fellow about 6' 5" and probably more than 300 pounds. His stature was intimidating, to say the least, but he reminded me of Steinbeck's Lenny in his classic, Of Mice and Men. He could have thrown me across the creek for sure. During our short walk we saw and talked about squirrels, newts, and lots of birds, but he said nothing. At the end of the modest program, he walked up to me rather briskly (which initially caused the hairs on my neck to rise) and handed me a piece of paper that had been folded several times until it was the size of a nickel. I gingerly unfolded the paper and read his pencil-scribbled note that said, "I like being here." That made my day and several thereafter. These were not loonies to lock up and throw the key away; these were genuine people with some difficulties to be sure, but inside their damaged minds there was humanity and receptivity. They were visitors to our parks to be valued.
So whenever you start wondering about whether you are reaching your audience, reflect on one of those moments of brilliance when someone has said or done something that confirmed for you that you had made an impact. Take a moment to re-read an old fan letter or the post-field trip letters you get from school children, or simply take a walk into the woods or the desert and listen for a bird's song or a frog's croak. The reinforcement that you are doing the right and noble thing comes from the voices of nature and just a few words from a few people, a nano-second of confirmation that you have made a difference. Don't expect neon signs of gratitude, but just rest well knowing you have planted seeds that may grow years later and that might not otherwise happen without you. Out of the darkness, you might just find the glimmer of a star.
Ron Russo, retired chief of interpretation and recreation for the East Bay Regional Park District in Oakland, California, is an NAI founder and was the recipient of the prestigious NAI Fellow Award in 1989.
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|Title Annotation:||COMMENTARY; reaching your audience during interpretation|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2015|
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