Living by example

As interpreters, we fill our days leading programs, planning exhibits, scheduling school groups, designing activities and working with volunteers and staff. It’s a busy and exciting job! In the endless shuffle, it can be easy to forget that we influence visitors to our sites not just through our interpretive programs or educational activities, but as examples by how we interact with nature.

It was recently brought home to me how easy it is to touch people’s lives by example, without even being conscious of it at the time. For some reason I had been Googling my maiden name, and I came across a newspaper column originally printed when I was 20 months old. The column’s writer had just had her first brush with camping. In search of a journalistic topic, she found the local Sierra Club chapter, whose members had staked out a section of meadow in the shadow of Stone Mountain for a workshop on wilderness survival skills. My parents happened to be among the Sierra Club members attending.

Revealing my age, here...On the hiking trail, circa 1991.

Revealing my age, here…On the hiking trail, circa 1991.

Adults happily took notes on emergency first aid and poisonous snakes, but the skeptical columnist’s eyes were drawn toward the toddler in the bunch. Apparently my younger self was helping my dad set up a display about some aspect of wilderness survival. “I learned something important,” the columnist wrote in the last segment of her column. “If Katie can camp out, so can I. It was Katie who taught me the real trick of successful outdoor adventure – find someone as experienced, as patient, and as kind as [these families] and tag along with them.”

Now, was I a lucky kid, with parents who took me camping on wilderness survival workshop trips? Yes. But at one and a half, did I know I had just changed a suburban writer’s whole perspective on the outdoors just by being there? Of course not. Yet that’s what we do as interpreters every day. No matter what plant or animal or fungus we’re interpreting, no matter the age of participants or the goals we have for the program, there’s always the chance we’re changing someone’s life just by being ourselves. There’s someone who’s experienced, patient, and kind, some visitor thinks when she sees you in uniform gently lifting up a twig to reveal a gall or listening for the return of migrant songbirds. If she can do it, so can I.

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