Monthly Archives: February 2017

Inspiration from the Unexpected

It seems quality interpretation often comes from surprise events.  Planning is important, but thankfully not everything can be arranged in advance.  The same is true for professional gatherings.  I am excited for the regional conference in a week.  I typically get inspired in places I least expect it.  The sessions directly related to my work are often good but it’s the unplanned events that typically have the most impact for me.

Last year I went on a field trip about puppets.  I am a wildlife interpreter.  The history of puppetry is not something that typically applies, which is why it was so inspirational.  It allowed me to think about what I do in a different way and about inspiration itself.  They had an early Jim Henson puppet.  Before the Muppets, Sesame Street, The Dark Crystal, and all his other amazing work; he looked at a piece of corrugated drain pipe and saw a creature.  With some sticks and fabric, he created something unique by looking at the world differently from others.  That early character spawned a career that has touched the lives of millions.

A lesser known artist was the biggest spark for me when the regional conference was in Nashville.  There was a successful songwriter that spoke and performed at a sponsored event.  The theme that year was stories and this guy told lots of stories.  They were funny and widely appealing with tangibles, intangibles, and universal concepts but they were all about him.  Later that night I saw Kinky Friedman perform.  He also recounted anecdotes between each song and every one was about us.  What a great reminder of what’s powerful by feeling it.  Most if not all of us are in this field because of the powerful feelings of connection.  If you come to the regional this year, and if you don’t, I hope you find inspiration…maybe even in unexpected places.

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Time For Spring Cleaning!

As I look at my woods, the buds are opening and it is already looking like spring.  Spring is the time to open the windows, let in the sun, and give way to fresh air!  It sounds odd since it’s late February, but I don’t like the cold and I will take what I can get!

Spring is the annual time of cleaning and freshening up.  My mother would begin to toss out things that had accumulated and no longer had use for.  A time or two, I wished my brother was in the mix headed out and I’m sure he thought the same of me!  It is a good time to do it though, spring is the time of new beginnings.

It is also time to toss out some of our material that has lived past its usefulness.  We may also need to take a duster to some of our other items that need to be freshened up.  As I write these words I realize that it is easier said than done.  If you’re like me, it is all I can do just to keep up with what needs to be done.  Another thing is, interpreters typically don’t like change.  We like it the way it is, so stop messing with a good thing!  However, I heard someone say that “When you’re through changing, you’re through.”

I’m not asking you to overhaul everything you do.  Take it a little at a time.  For my lessons, I regularly update the material.  I hope it keeps it up-to-date and fresh.  For me, it keeps me interested and keeps me from getting bored with the material.  Besides, this kind of purging is not that bad.  It’s nothing like the spring “purging” some cultures practice!  But that is another story…

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Crazy in Love


Love, as we are reminded (for better or worse) every year on this day, is a potent force in our lives. It can trigger wars, alter fates, save lives, redeem the lost; while under its thrall love can drive us poor humans to do unbelievably crazy things. Become heritage interpreters, for example.

I’m teetering on facetiousness, but not by that much. Two decades in the interpretive world has taught me that a passionate love for some aspect of the field – whether it’s a particular type of subject matter (history, wetlands, modern art, immigrant narratives, etc.), the interaction with people of all ages and backgrounds, the challenge of interpreting academic materials for a wider audience, the protection of a vital piece of the earth, or wrangling over the very philosophy of interpretation itself – is strong and present in people who choose to follow this path. There isn’t a conference I’ve attended where someone won’t inevitably point out that none of us are doing this for the money. Interpretation isn’t generally a field that attracts people looking for a 9-5, in-it-for-the-pay, TGIF, leave work at work type of life. We stay up all night making sure that the next day’s event will go off without a hitch, we drive ourselves crazy trying to pick the perfect typeface for our informational fliers, we work ourselves to the point of exhaustion to ensure that the animals, natural environments, and precious pieces of history, art, and culture are in the best possible situations we can manage, usually with shoestring resources and a severe dearth of time. We’re often not entirely sure what a weekend means to the rest of the human race anymore. But we love it, or we try to, as much as we can.

Because it’s hard. It’s hard to put your heart into your work and hope that the masses of strangers walking onto your site won’t tear it to shreds. Interpretation goes beyond requiring vulnerability. It demands it. How can you reach into that stranger’s world, get past their biases and defenses to bring them closer to inspiration and connection, without risking some part of yourself in the process? Love requires sacrifice: of ego, of control, of the ability to walk away and not care anymore. It challenges you in ways you never expected, even when you think you’ve encountered every possible challenge because our job is to engage humanity with the world in an infinite number of ways and humanity already has an infinite number of ways in which is can challenge us on its own.

So what do we do with this love that demands (and gives) so much? What do we do with it in a time where our roles are more intensely present than ever before? Politics is woven into our nature walks now; immigration bans are changing the art in our galleries; climate change, human rights, and public education are active and inescapable battlegrounds no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. And I see the strain in our faces. The frantic pace is pushed further and harder, and narratives interpreters were already passionately advocating for are reaching states of fight-or-flight desperation. We love, and we fight for what we love. But how can we do this without destroying ourselves in the process?

There are many articles, including on this very site, out now with wise advice: pace yourself, don’t get drawn into the exhaustion of daily outrage, focus on some positive news, take a break. I’m going to add one more that’s here especially for you: all of us. Region 3. NAI. Our crazy band of interpreters that make up a regional, national, and international network of people who know what it means to be our particular flavor of crazy in love. NAI is a resource for technical and professional materials, training, and opportunities, definitely. But even more than that, it’s a support network. If you’re overwhelmed, exhausted, bitter, or at a loss, there is a community of people that will have at least some idea of how you feel and how to make it through to a healthier state. At the very least we can lie down on the floor next to you and cry, laugh, rage, and wonder how we made it through some of these situations, or how we’re going to make it through the next.


Just a small sample of Sunny Southeasterners who can relate to your situation

In the Southeast Region, we’re at the epicenter of many of the shockwaves making their way through the continent. The upcoming regional conference in Kentucky March 7-10 is going to be a place where we can meet and remind each other that we’re not alone, but if you can’t make it to the conference, we are always here as an active and supportive community. Our weekly blog posts, our Facebook groups, and our State Coordinator gatherings are all avenues that exist for your well-being. Use them. Make comments, ask questions, plan activities, help each other out. We are here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. Because one of the best things about this crazy love for interpretation is that it never, ever should be a solo affair.

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Telling Stories, Telling Truths and Avoiding Politics

It isn’t easy, sometimes, to come up with an idea for a blog post. There are times when the idea hits right away, months in advance, but other times, I struggle. But then, out of the blue, I remember the bravery of my friends in green, the good folks at the National Park Service, and I feel heartened. I usually feel good after I think about the NPS, but now, more than ever before in my lifetime, I feel excited about the goodness that comes from these folks!

The atmosphere surrounding the U.S. political scene is about as heated as it has been in 40+ years, and interpreters are on the front lines. For better or worse, we’re entrusted with truth, or at least we’re traditionally expected to tell the truth. Telling that truth has become a challenge as “alternative facts” are the new normal. Much worse, there is what looks to many to be an active campaign to stop the flow of science and truth. People feel their careers are on the line should they choose  to speak out. But some are choosing to speak out regardless.

Mind you, speaking out isn’t always the right approach for interpreters. Or, for that matter, anyone. If speaking out about something you find to be true, but your bosses don’t, you really must weigh the situation.

“Is my speaking out serving my personal beliefs or providing people who visit the location with important context to understand what’s happening?”

If it is just for your sake (even if you feel it is what is best for the world), keep your opinions out of the workplace. Speak out. Go to rallies. Send letters. Do what you feel to do, but do it on your own time.

But, if it impacts the story of your site, find ways to weave the story into your interpretive activities. Context matters. Content matters. Sensitivity to others matters.

Telling the story of bird migration certainly doesn’t require telling the story of today’s political actors. But it does require telling the story of climate change. The migration patterns are changing, and that’s just observable fact.

Telling the history of racism in the deep south doesn’t mean blasting current leaders about their political opinions, but it does provide opportunities to relate topical experiences to historical ones–not so much to showcase any current political evils, but to connect with our audience in a real and meaningful way. You know, like an interpreter should!

So far, I’ve been delighted by what the good folks at the National Park Service have been doing during their off-time. For good measure, there’s also a great “alt” NASA account and an “alt” EPA account. If you haven’t, be sure to check out these sites:

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