Author Archives: aprilvarnwelch

Fear Not!

It’s not public speaking, heights, or bugs and snakes, it’s children’s programming!

According to a Chapman University Survey reported in the Washington Post (2014), Americans’ fears range from needles and blood to ghosts and zombies. In my experience training interpreters, however, our biggest fear is interpreting to children. If you shy away from this audience, it’s time to get in touch with your inner-child!

Think like a kid! Watch a few episodes of the Magic School Bus. Ask to shadow at an elementary school and observe classroom interactions. Use these interpretive techniques to get and keep your audience’s attention!
• Alliteration
• Riddles and rhythms
• Jokes
• Discoveries
• Solving mysteries
• Secrets
• Silliness and songs
• Stories
• Super heroes, super powers and the super natural (dragons, fairies and unicorns Oh My!)
• Activities and high energy experiences

Keep it FUN! Keep it FAST! Keep fascinating even the youngest of audiences!

Categories: General, Interpretation tools


Love is the essence of being and therefore, the essence of interpretation. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8 , English Standard Version). Love lasts beyond interpretation in the actions of those we love.

At our core, interpreters love: this love of nature, love of history, love of people, love of adventure, and love of place touches everything we do. It is the Golden Rule, the respectful workplace, the “Leave No Trace” principles, the humbling of beauty, the commitment to a cause, the passion and enthusiasm. So paramount is love that Tilden describes it as “The Priceless Ingredient.” To be an interpreter, we must be in love. Tilden writes that,

If you love the thing you interpret, and love the people who come to enjoy it, you need commit nothing to memory. For, if you love the thing, you not only have taken the pains to understand it to the limit of your capacity, but you also feel its special beauty in the general richness of life’s beauty…. You are to love people in the sense that you never cease trying to understand them and to realize that whatever faults they have, whatever levity, whatever ignorance, they are not peculiar (1977, p. 90).

In so doing, an interpreter conveys contagious enthusiasm and purposeful passion leading to our own personal and professional credibility as well as our own individual style. This style, communicated through the universal language of love, transforms something foreign into something familiar thereby opening hearts and minds to change.

Cultivating intimacy can be accomplished by story! Story is only as powerful, however, as the relevance it has in our lives- “whatever simultaneously connects to something relevant and meaningful to your listeners and gives them a taste of who you are, works” (Simmons, 2006, p. 6). Because story has meaning, it engages us on a personal level. Ultimately, the story creates a life of its own and becomes the listener’s story as much as our own. Simmons writes that “story is as close as you can get to taking someone else for a walk in your shoes” (2006, p. 44). Similarly, Tilden writes that a storyteller “will find that his hearers are walking along with him- are companions on the march. At some certain point, it becomes their story as much as his” (1977, p. 31). This ownership provides empowerment for listeners and credibility for the story teller- both critical ingredients to successful training. Combined, professional growth results.

To change the world and to affect professional climate change, interpretative messages and adult learning opportunities must live eternal. They must go beyond a day with a nature guide “and give a landmark to his mental horizon that will stand out through life” (Mills, 1990, p. 130). And, because we live in an age saturated with technology and information, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough and to be in love enough that we are able to adapt and evolve with our audience’s needs. Without providing a safe, non judgmental environment and without modeling our own vulnerability, inspiration and excellence become unattainable.

Whether the goal of interpretation is protection, preservation, or stewardship, and whether the goal of the interpretive trainer is professional growth, inspiration, or success, hopefully, the end result will surpass our individual human experiences and last because it exists at a level apart from the material world. By loving ourselves and our craft; by embracing positive psychology through vulnerability and change; and by instilling interpretive principles into professional development, we can surpass mere human experience and create opportunities for self-discovery, for growth.

I believe that interpretation, through love, can lead to enlightenment; a higher, celestial place, both personally and professionally; and our harmonious collective consciousness.


Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2008). Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck (Revised ed.). London: Arrow Books.

Mills, E. (1990). Adventures of a Nature Guide. Friendship, WI: New Pass Press.

Simmons, A. (2006). The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling (Revised ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Tilden, F. (1977). Interpreting Our Heritage (3rd ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Categories: General, Interpretation tools, Jobs / Professional Development | Leave a comment

Greater Than or Equal To

As I bent over to tie my shoes, I puzzled that the tongue’s logo resembled a ≥. Not knowing whether KEEN was intentional in their design or whether it was my subconscious connecting the coming day’s activities to my thoughts on this blog, I began questioning myself. Was I greater than or equal to the task at hand? Could I bag this peak? How many more obstacles would I traverse? Cheering myself onward, I said to myself, “I must be ≥ the challenge, the purpose, the destination!” Then, the connection!

This past month, I had the pleasure of training educators, keepers, and volunteer coordinators at the Birmingham Zoo. As we discussed moving beyond inherent meaning and ascribing emotion, I revealed a personal, intimate story. Participants passed around an empty Welch’s grape juice bottle and described its meaning. Then, I told the story of Princess Grape Juice. At the conclusion, there was not a dry eye. Sniffles broke the silence. Naturally, many felt uncomfortable. Finally, someone spoke up. She questioned my use of personal story, emotion, and vulnerability in a professional setting touting that her previous career would not welcome such feeling in the work place.

My point had been made: emotional connections cultivated relationships not only between the audience and the resource (in this case, the training curriculum), but also between ourselves. So, I didn’t stop there! I snagged the opportunity to move beyond this training threshold, harnessing the connective power of the participant’s very word- vulnerability.

I think of vulnerability as emotional yin and yang. Defined as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”, it typically has a negative connotation; however, social scientist Brené Brown illustrates from over a decade of research that it is at the core of connection. For interpreters, our goal is creating emotional and intellectual connections. Brown, however, moves beyond our own field purporting that connection is the purpose for our very being.

“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering” (p.8, 2012). In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brown writes that vulnerability is “the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity” (p. 34, 2012). And, because vulnerability is the foundation of feeling, when we dismiss it as weakness, we are confusing “feeling with failing and emotions with liabilities” (p. 35). Furthermore, if we want to fire hearts and minds both as interpreters and as interpretive trainers, “we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it” (p. 35). We must not shun emotion in the workplace, especially in a profession that champions connecting with heart, mind, and body!

Ultimately, our personal and professional peaks and valleys will continue; however, I challenge you to do as I did- double-knot your laces! Use personal story as an interpretive and professional development tool by allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to share yourself in order “to teach or move a process forward” because it “can be healthy and effective” (p. 162, 2012).

And, as I sit unlaced, I am reminded of what Ginni Rometty (2011) said prior to being named IBM’s CEO- “growth and comfort do not coexist.” Only if we dare to be > the challenge, whatever its form, are we able to grow beyond ourselves and approach our summit of self-actualization!

Oh, and if you are interested in Brene Brown’s work, check out her TEDtalk that has received more than five million hits and that has been translated into thirty-eight languages (p. 14, 2012); or check out another of her books such as The Gifts of Imperfection or I Thought It Was Just Me. Better yet, make it a twofer! I read Daring Greatly at the same time as I read this month’s NAI Book Club selection, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High. Collectively, they make for dynamite reading!

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Choose to Get High

Choices confront us daily, sometimes crowding our consciousness with anxiety and despair, sometimes filling our calendar with personal and professional priorities, and sometimes satisfying obligations while satiating our desires. These choices- born of a deeper psychological construct of attitudes, beliefs, meanings, and values- are expressed by the decisions made and the subsequent actions taken. They are the footsteps of our lives, mapping the essence of who we are. Unfortunately, in today’s harried world of doing more with less, many interpreters find themselves wearing multiple hats. Whether they are administrative, resource management, law enforcement, or supervisory responsibilities, many find their professional hours chalked full of non interpretive duties. And, many agency employees must choose to present interpretive offerings rather than fulfill other obligations. Fortunately, for those who make interpretation priority one, fulfillment, productivity, and congenial working relations result. Those who make interpretation priority one, experience an interpretive high!

Recently, I accepted a challenge from a former peer- a park ranger with Tennessee State Parks. She organized a Couch-to-5K (C25K) program with the hope of encouraging park patrons and local community members to become more active at the park. Being sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, I attended the informational meeting. Inspired and jittery were just two of the many emotions flooding my body as I read the nine week schedule. I signed the roster, purchased new running shoes, and marked my calendar for the first of twenty-seven meet-ups to come.

Being a former trail runner, I was jarred running on pavement; however, I chose to not focus on my jiggling cheeks. And, being a former half-marathon runner, I chose not to scoff at 90 second intervals or to beat myself up when I realized that 90 seconds meant 90 lashes!

Weeks passed. Intervals turned to miles. And, the long forgotten runner’s high re emerged. Thankfully, it did so at what would have otherwise proved a very humiliating moment!

Taking the dog for a run, I was confident my companion would stretch my stride and quicken my pace. I met the final hill of an extra hard run, glanced up at the approaching summit, and gave it my all. Then, it hit me: the dog was walking. I laughed at myself once I caught my breath and marveled at the feeling. It was the same feeling experienced following a successful interpretive program. As I cooled down, I recalled those wondrous moments of clarity when I revisited my interpretive offerings. Yes, it seems the same endorphins that kept my legs pumping stride after stride are the same that helped me hone my craft through informal, self-evaluation.

No matter if it’s running or interpreting, remember: it’s your choice!

4k photos

Left: The author (far right) on race day. Right: April and her 3-year-old daughter Arwyn nearing the finish line.

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“Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels”

As long as I can recall, my Dad advised, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” Ignored in my youth and brushed off with passing annoyance during college and my twenties, I felt wise beyond my years. I was no fool! However, I did not grasp the complexity or the meaningfulness of this adage until recently.

Me and Dad

Me and Dad.

Born in 1928, my Dad was a school-aged child growing up in rural South Carolina during the Great Depression. At that time, when the economy was unstable, wooden nickels were issued by banks needing to make change. Today, they are only tokens from the past. But for me, wooden nickels are a reminder of the inscribed versus inherent meaning of things and the value of knowing one’s audience.

Many times, adages, puns, idioms and proverbs aren’t grasped at first. No doubt, my Dad’s heartfelt advice did not create a connection with me then, but because of its unexpectedness in this day and age, and because of its repetition over the years, it stuck! It has led to provocation and revelation after two decades! I found a deeper truth.

Missing the mark by not connecting with an audience spells doom for interpreters. The likelihood of such a defeat is heightened when interpreters face non-captive audiences with varying ages. And although missing the mark by not creating opportunities for emotional and intellectual connections at the time of a program may seem unsuccessful, it isn’t. Adages, idioms, proverbs and puns, when used appropriately, may actually prove more enlightening for an audience as time passes.

At its heart, not taking any wooden nickels reminds me to be cautious in life, that there is more than what appears at face value, and that old sayings can be memorable cues for meaningful reflections in years to come.

Don’t be a fool this April Fool’s! Share your wisdom! Use an adage- an interpretive technique- so that others can discover deeper meaning!

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Sow the Seeds of Change

We emerge from hibernation- a winter to remember- when a lack of electricity and treacherous roadways kept us indoors and close to home. We are re-energized with the sun and with spring’s beauty. And during this time of rebirth, we hire and train seasonal, front-line interpreters, doubling our staff for the season. This experience can either be as daunting as an ice storm or as hopeful as sun-kissed dew. A new season brings new opportunity! And with opportunity comes change. A universal concept many of us champion, can also evoke fear and intimidation.

Just as a gardener tills the soil, augments its nutrients, and prepares the holes for planting, so to do Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the New York Times best seller, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard. They prescribe three measures to ensure successful growth. Similar to interpretation, the authors emphasize both intellectual and emotional connections dosed with optimism.

1.) Direct the Rider by finding the bright spots. Concentrating on what works rather than on what doesn’t, focuses the brain on success rather than failure. Pointing to the direction- the goals- supports the vision and strengthens the intellectual connection with change.

2.) Motivate the Elephant by finding the feeling, tapping into that emotion, and building identity, ownership, and a growth mindset supporting the feeling. By harnessing the emotions, the Elephant can’t run away with the Rider, but be directed by the Rider.

3.) Shape the Path by breaking the pattern, clearing the way, and rallying the herd. Provide specific, concrete direction; remove unnecessary obstacles; and cheer for change.

By following these three steps, we become intentional about the message we convey to our audience, those we mentor and train, lead and supervise. By harnessing the power of interpretation through connecting hearts and minds with the change, and by eliminating unnecessary steps within the status quo and rallying around the change, we support the journey.

We are entrusted with a new life- a new career- and although budgets, supplies, and time may be our limiting factors for growth, we have the power to propagate strength and life as we sustainably grow a profession of ethical, life giving, life affirming interpreters.

We are gardeners! Plant the seeds! Nurture their growth! And marvel at the resulting bounty!

Categories: Jobs / Professional Development | 1 Comment

Interpreting Tradition

The traditional disrobing of deciduousness creates a laboratory for winter study. This cyclical custom bares witness to patterns and mannerisms within nature and her inhabitants, but also within ourselves. Behaviors are altered as weather reroutes winged travelers both at airports and along nature’s migratory landmarks. Stark silhouettes shadow crystalline litter which reverberate crunching paws, hooves, and hands. Warmth originates at its trophic sources both for man and wildlife. And, tradition creates community, camaraderie, and continuity throughout the changing seasons.
Interpreting tradition takes many forms whether it is the patterns and behaviors evident in nature or those that dictate our everyday lives; however, tradition is not always inherent. Many times, traditions are borne from our subconscious- from our thoughts and beliefs, attitudes and ideals. These ultimately direct our behaving and our doing. Just as interpretation is borne from a deeper sense of connectivity, so too is tradition; therefore, during this season of thanksgiving, of winter’s solstice, and holiday greetings, interpreting traditions from a natural, cultural, and historical perspective provides communion with your audience no matter the institution.
Traditions bind us together; connect generation to generation; and instill in us a love for the past we can experience in the present. May this holiday season be filled with tradition and may each of your interpretive products be gifts from the heart, creating traditions for our future, for as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “every heart that has beat strong and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind.”

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Unleash Your Inner Book-worm!

Be inspired by the written word!

Whether it’s a need to recharge your interpretive batteries at the end of another busy season or a need to escape into the solitude of a relaxing, rainy afternoon, curl up with a modern-day “classic”. Winner of the 2013 Reed Environmental Writing Award, the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for general non fiction, The Forest Unseen, is a must read for every interpreter!

The Forest Unseen provides a rich view, through a hand-lens of consciousness, where meditative senses reveal intricate relationships within nature. By exploring one meter of old growth forest, a calendar year’s periodic observations come to life in millennia of natural selection’s evolutionary connections. Haskell’s specimen, akin to a Buddhist’s mandala, unravels scientific mysteries in biodiversity’s wonders. Like the great naturalists before him- Carson, Emerson, Leopold, Mills, Muir, and Thoreau- he blends history and economics, philosophy and religion, and science and culture, into illustrative prose rich with analogies and metaphors. Organized by date, the book traipses through seasonal changes within the mandala’s ecosystem yet throughout its timeline, ecological and evolutionary tenets perpetuate the holistic approach to a naturalistic investigation. From Kepler and Lao Tzu to Darwin and Lorenz; from Leopold and Linnaeus to Jefferson and Lewis and Clark, audiences as vast and as diverse as our evolutionary tree will connect with the revelations of “a year’s watch in nature.”

As the meter’s mandala metaphor implies, a holistic interconnectedness weaves plant physiology, communication, and dispersal mechanics; social constructs, predator- prey relations, and symbiotic marriage; and energy, arrangement, and values into a fascinating journey through complex labyrinths about humans’ affiliation with nature, the biophilia hypothesis, and our species’ egocentric unseeing eye. Haskell’s intimacy with the mandala flourishes within each layer of life. Chemical bonds are broken as individual sand and shale grains separate by transecting fungal hypha rescuing minerals for vascular neighbors. Slope erosion is controlled and air is purified by moss’s microscopic meniscus. Microbes survive oxygenated environs and thrive within anoxic herbivore rumens. Individuality is lost as mitochondria evolve inside into horsepower. And, cooperative farming ventures form unions between algae, bacteria, and fungus on lichen landscapes. Even seasonal adaptations within the mandala, typically escaping human consciousness, create an epic saga within botanical, cellular confines. Haskell portrays these invisibilities as “the engines of decay, keeping nutrients and energy moving through the forest ecosystem” and reminding readers that “unseen does not mean unimportant” (136).

The quest continues with a glimpse into arachnid behavior of blood thirsty ticks. Millions of survivors whisper their secrets within the mandala as natural selection greets mankind’s unnatural manipulation of time intruding on the slow progression of genetic history. The most unobtrusive of daily activity alters nature’s odyssey. Sunflower seed offered as a backyard banquet means less migration for birds of prey. Consumptive behaviors drive short-sighted economic markets expressing utilitarian values diminishing moral fortitude and ethical balance. Science imposes rigid frames on a thriving, changing world sometimes separating self from science and sterilizing society from splendid synergy. By tuning into our genetic code, our evolutionary heritage, and our surviving prodigy, the simple truth of science, self, and the sacred are revealed. Just as Haskell compares a tick to the Knight’s quest for the Holy Grail, so too does he impart the importance of returning to our roots embedded within Wilson’s (1984) learned rules of biophilia and Kellert’s (1996) human values relating to nature.

Ironically, in our emancipated culture, focus rarely falls on the confines within the whole, but Haskell nurtures a moral call to action by saturating our sense of fragile stability into his description of ecological efficiency. Sustainability feeds every layer of life as minerals, nutrients, and energy weave throughout the mandala of our lives. Nematodes beget new discoveries as morning sunflecks illuminate a shadowy future. Haskell’s hopefulness encourages quiet contemplation by inviting sensory stimulation and thought-provoking presence in nature as we rediscover ourselves, our environment, and our heritage.

So, if after visiting Haskell’s mandala, the book-worm within still hungers for the written word, join NAI’s Book Club: contact Emily Jacobs at for upcoming texts and discussion gatherings. Better still- suggest regionally specific “must reads” by commenting on this blog!

Happy Reading!

David George Haskell. (2012). The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. New York, NY: Viking. 268 pp. ISBN 978-0-670-02337-0.

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