Most postings for interpretive jobs include wording like this under skill requirements “The ability to answer the same question for the hundredth time as cheerfully as the first.” I never quite understood the reason why this is considered difficult enough to be called a skill.
I’m spending this summer volunteering for the Oregon Island National Wildlife Refuge, and having a wonderful time. My major responsibility is to do twenty hours a week of roving interpretation in a state park that overlooks the largest island in the refuge. More than anything else I have done in my career this is exposing me to the dreaded repeated question, but I still am enjoying the chance to answer every question.
Lately I have wondered why, unlike most skills in interpretation, this one seems to come naturally to me. I’ve come up with two possibilities. First, I consider every question as a chance to improve my answers. Over time my answers become more fluid, thematic, and focused. I am always trying to discovered new themes in the resource, and I experiment freely. Each repeated question is a chance for a do-over, a chance to do it better.
More importantly, I know that each person is unique and has different needs. There may be only one way to answer the most common question of all “Where’s the bathroom?”, but there is no single best answer to a question like “Why can’t I visit the island?”. I use those questions as a way to open a quick dialogue to understand the thought process behind the question and to determine how I can best convey the meaning of my resource to that individual.
Now that I think about it, I’m actually cheating. By constantly honing and customizing my answers, I am NOT answering the same question over and over again. Except maybe the bathroom one. There is only one building, and it has large signs featuring pants and skirts. Maybe that question does take a little skill to smile through!
For some reason, plant taxonomists can’t keep still. For example, some years ago, just as soon as I had committed the botanical name of a lovely yellow fringed orchid (Habenaria ciliaris) to my sputtering memory, these absolutists decide to change the entire genus of the plant to Platanthera ciliaris. Now how am I supposed to remember that one? Even worse, now I am obliged to change out pricey plant identification signs that accompany the nature trails.
So I decided to embrace change. I removed the pricey plant identification signs and instead developed an attractive low-cost signage system that I can produce with my own office equipment. And this is all due to a wonderful invention called ‘plastic paper.’ Plastic paper is 100% plastic and does not rip, wrinkle or degrade easily, even when used outside. Plastic paper is available in standard 8.5” x 11” formats and can be found in office supply stores. Best yet, they can be run through my own laser printer (inkjet prints will flake off over time and are not color fast). To make the signs, I developed an 8” x 8” template on my word processing program and left room for accompanying graphics. Standard printer ink dyes will fade in the intense summer sun, but the black ink of laser printers actually fuse to the plastic paper and last a long time. I simply use a wax color pencil (found in art supply stores) to add color to the plastic print.
The sign post itself is also produced in-house and customized to fit in with the center’s architectural style. I use a 4” x 6” x 48” post, that is notched and stained to provide visual interest, and I simply tamp it 12” into the ground. By not using concrete footings, the sign is movable yet not too easily removed by vandals. To hold the plastic interpretive sign, I made an 8” x 8” wooden backing plate which secures into the post, and had a local plastic fabrication shop create a plastic cover that attaches to the backing plate and protects the sign. The last time that I ordered materials, it cost about $25 for all the materials for one sign. Here’s the kicker– the first plastic interpretive signs that I made were in 1992– and they are still out there today, and look just fine.
The advantages of this method are obvious, I can customize the sign content and graphics to suit plants, animals and habitats that are found along the nature trails. And they are easy to construct. If a colony of oyster mushrooms crop up along the trail, I can have a sign written and installed within an hour. Even better though, when the taxonomists change their collective minds for plant names, I can keep up with them as fast as my printer will allow. –Bob
Let’s face it. Sometimes, we interpreters feel so physically and intellectually tired, that we wish to stay at home; quiet all day. Those days, you think there is no possible way to wake up, to yet another interpretive hike. Please, do not get me wrong; those days are when passion really kicks in.
In my five years as an environmental interpreter in a national park visited by urban schoolchildren, I always find a renewed strength, inspiration and passion when I see their smiling faces walking down the bus. Often, teachers explain to me how thrilled kids have been with the hike for weeks. I think about their excitement, how they joyfully greet me as “the Guide that will take us to the forest” and their natural sense of wonder. And I think: Who am I to label my immediate needs more urgent than the great experience they are about to have? I realize happily, that I will not allow my visceral feelings get in the way of them having the greatest hike in the woods. Possibly, for many of these kids this will be the only contact with local nature that they will experience. In a world filled with busy agendas, a senseless fear of nature, and apathy to be physically active; I am convinced I have a responsibility larger than myself.
In an island in which Caribbean nature compete with rhinos, elephants and penguins for children’s attention, I interpret local nature so at the end of every hike they love the endemic birds that we heard, the small butterflies that fluttered around us and the tropical breeze we felt at the top of the forest. Before leaving, I always ask them: What was the best part of the hike? A girl would say, “listening at the different birds singing”, a boy says “hiking through the big hill” another would add “seeing the forest from the observation tower”. If you ask me, I would say: sharing this beautiful peace of nature with the best audience: children…this thought always wipes out my worries, my sweat, and my tiredness.