“I knew this place would feel like home.”
A decade ago, when I was the coordinator for the Wetlands of Watsonville Nature Center in the central coast region of California, there were two volunteers I could always count on. They’d show up regularly to help me open the center and put out the welcome signs. They’d patrol the connected park to announce events and educate visitors. They’d participate in programs and linger behind to help with clean-up. What drove their devotion? As much as these two had enthusiastically absorbed the center’s interpretive offerings, it wasn’t an in-depth love of estuaries and marshlands that brought them to the door every day. The center had become a surrogate home, and that’s what opened their own doors to loving and caring for the land it stood on.
Elías* was ten years old and one of five children to an overworked single mother. He was a good-natured but hyperactive boy who needed “cooling off” periods to regain focus and stop driving everyone crazy with his need for attention. He also, having studied every bit of information he could find in the center, knew to catch and deliver to us a feeder mouse that had been released in the park by some well-intentioned teenagers. Lionel “El Magnifico” (AKA Fluffy) became the center’s mascot and a lively teaching tool on issues with pet store animals vs the great outdoors. Sarah* was twelve and in a group foster home after being removed from an abusive family situation. She came in daily with self-inflicted injuries, looking for someone to patch her up and give her another lecture on safety. Neither of them quite knew where they fit in. The kids, these two and the others that came trooping in from the small city of primarily migrant farm workers we were centered in, helped make it more than a set of engaging exhibits and instructive demonstrations. That inspired all of us, staff and volunteer alike, to make the nature center a place that felt like home.
This understanding began to shape our programs. The foundation of our lessons on water conservation and habitat protection was the message that animals, birds, plants, and people have been living in these lands together for thousands of years…have known this place to be home. Our visitors were part of this long line of residents, and could see themselves in the description of a child from the local Ohlone Tribe knowing where to find the freshest cattail stalks in the slough as well as they could find the milk in the supermarket the next street over. Or that both children could laugh at the antics of a cantankerous, green-footed mud hen even while separated by hundreds of years between the sightings. When you see a place as home, a good home, that knows you and welcomes you, there can be such pride and joy in taking care of it. Habitat restoration projects became more than weeding and planting, water conservation became more than a vague sense of doing something right for the world as a whole. It was taking care of your own.
Over time, Sarah found fewer reasons to crash her skateboard into posts, and Elías began speaking more slowly and thoughtfully. They both spent less time hanging around alone at the center, though they rarely missed public programs or events. Things were never perfect, and eight years later I wonder where they are now. I hope they have good memories of those times and the work we all did. This was our moment in time to protect a place that, whether perceived by its inhabitants as welcome haven or a worthless swamp, never once stopped offering itself up as a home.