Author Archives: katiehicks

Props to a Parkway

by Eli Strull

Studies show most people don’t read signs, but those that do will be the better for it at Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was up there a few weeks ago and, being an interpreter, I pay attention to interpretive signs. Each one I saw impressed me.

Interpretive writing is not easy. I have done it for years and it is still challenging to be compelling, brief, make an impact, and tell a story. It becomes even harder when the audience includes anyone who visits a park and reads or can be read to. Still, the signs I saw did everything right. They had place-based context, interesting information, connections to people’s personal lives, and messages that were relevant and could appeal to a wide range of people. They were also eloquently worded and easy to understand. Attractive and accessible design elements tied it all together.

It is easy to take a good sign for granted, but when you have millions of visitors and no other way to reach most of them, a strong interpretive element could make the difference in meeting the goals of a site’s mission. It certainly enhanced my visit and I am grateful for it. Thank you, National Park Service, Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, and all others involved in the effort.

While looking for pictures of the signs because I didn’t have a camera with me, I found this link about what I saw. It turns out they were installed just a year ago. I have been there many times over the years and it did not occur to me they were new. I think this is a testament to their ability to fit into the landscape—another important design feature!

Sign at Graveyard Fields

One of the signs, as pictured in the Mountain Xpress article linked above, courtesy of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.

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Surrounded by patterns

by Helena Uber-Wamble

Patterns in nature are everywhere: in the songs of birds, in shapes of flowers and trees, in the rhythm of the waves crashing on the shore and the patterns of sand that are left behind.

Beach glass hunting has been a big pastime in our family for many years. This is where you walk along the shore and look down at the sand, pebbles, and rocks, trying to find that frosted gem of glass that has been smoothed over by the many rolling, tumbling and tossing effects of the waves. The longer the glass is tumbled, the smoother it is.
One would think that finding this glass is easy, and on a good day after a huge storm, waves may have thrown up larger pieces of glass onto the sand. The reality is, though, that most of the glass we find along the shore is smaller than a pencil eraser. I am obsessed with this pastime!

One can spend hours on the beach searching for these glittering gems. It is relaxing, too! You get your dose of Vitamin D, you definitely get some exercise both walking and bending down to pick up glass, and you become relaxed with the repetitive sounds of the waves lapping or crashing against the shoreline. What better way to spend a day, and what a sensory overload!

Patterns – it is all about patterns and rhythms.

What does this have to do with interpretation? Everything! As interpreters, we constantly point out the pattern of a venomous snake vs. a non-venomous one. We look at the patterns of color on birds at the feeders with our audiences…we count and teach about “the leaves of 3, let it be,” and we teach the sounds of frogs and birds based on their repetitive song notes. Likewise, I am sure you all can relate to the counting of the geese in a “v-pattern” even if you aren’t a die-hard bird watcher. It is just what we do — we watch patterns.

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My experience at the NAI regional workshop

by April Byrge

Attending the NAI regional workshop seemed pretty far-fetched to me last November. I’m sure many NAI members can sympathize with the plight of working seasonally. Although seasonal positions can provide some really neat experiences, they can also make finances tight. It’s a necessity for a National Park Service career. In addition to this reality, I’ve become the sole earner in a two-person household due to a medical condition. Needless to say, when I found out I got a scholarship to go the conference, I was super pumped.

My NAI experience began with an amazing trip to Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. Mike Campbell from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission showed us around the refuge, giving us the opportunity to view a ton of waterfowl. Literally thousands of tundra swans take refuge at Lake Mattamuskeet during the winter. We also saw many duck species, a few hawks, and a black-crowned night heron. For someone who is just starting to learn to identify waterfowl, this was a perfect outing.

I was scheduled to present during the first concurrent session on Wednesday. I wasn’t really nervous until about a week before, when it finally hit me that it was a regional conference and I was going to be presenting to professional interpreters from all over the southeast. I was describing the digital storytelling project I’ve been working on, which involves guiding students in the creation of mini-documentaries focused on a Smokies-related theme. I was impressed with the brainstorming participants did as they thought of ways to incorporate digital storytelling at their sites.

I attended Julia Gregory’s session on Becoming an Edge-Walker, which was totally fascinating. She discussed coyote mentoring, which is based on the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. This mentoring technique is meant to enlighten outdoor educators as well as those they are guiding out in nature. It is recommended by Richard Louv and David Sobel (my personal hero), so I am very interested in learning more about it.

Friday’s sessions were really eye-opening for me. Joli Reynolds and Ariel Lowrey’s presentation, I’m No Expert, changed the way I look at interpreting certain topics. We talked about topics we had issues with interpreting because of a lack of deep knowledge. For many people, these were things like geology, weather, and history. The line that really stuck with me from that session was that we are experts at interpretation. Because of that, we should have the confidence to present on topics that we aren’t necessarily a specialist in. We can learn alongside those we are teaching.

Corey Sperling’s session about employing conscious discipline when working with young people really blew my mind. I’m sure we have all had experience dealing with disruptive students, and it’s often our first instinct to act negatively towards them (lecturing them, not allowing them to participate in activities, etc.). Conscious discipline is a model that helps students learn to identify their emotions, explain them, and think of solutions. For instructors, it’s a different way of framing questions or requests. This is definitely something I will share with the Parks as Classrooms team at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

My NAI regional conference experience was inspirational to me on several levels. It gave me new ideas to explore and share, gave me insight into how other interpreters are using different techniques at their sites, and allowed me to experience several amazing sites on the Outer Banks. I’m definitely looking forward to sharing these things with my team at the Smokies when my season begins. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to the NC coast and meet and learn from amazing interpreters.


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OBX Regional Interpreter Conference

by Christie Hill, Naturalist Coordinator at Chattahoochee Nature Center, Roswell, GA

What an adventure heading from Atlanta to the Outer Banks of North Carolina! Interpretation on the Edge was focused on finding innovative and creative ways to engage our audience, while at the edge of our seats, the edge of civilization, or the edge of our budgets! Wow, this is a lot to achieve in 3 days. Those of us who attended felt at times to be on the edge of the world, and the journey took most people a lot of travel and logistics to be able to attend. It was well worth the trip to be in this place, and to commune with and learn from many great teachers! Interpreters brought valuable seminars and stories to the occasion from their many different experiences.

Lobby of NC Aquarium

Lobby of NC Aquarium

Our first stop was The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island for an opening evening event to get to know the area and fellow conferees. I re-connected with several people I had not seen in a year or in several. The aquarium is situated just inside the arm of the Outer Banks on the Croatan Sound side of Manteo. The NC Aquarium offers experiences on and around the island, including diving with sharks. Our event was inside the innovative interpretive center building. We walked through fresh, brackish and salt water exhibits, viewing animals and plants native to each habitat. It had a really nice flow. My biggest impression, and probably that of most kids visiting here, was the variety of reptiles, which included the sea turtle and alligator that crawled up to all visitors upon entering (as it was super-imposed on a video of the entranceway). Nice touch!

RIW sessions took place at UNC Coastal Studies Institute

The RIW sessions took place at the Coastal Studies Institute.

Our first full day of conference schedule offered a wide variety of choices of seminars and workshops for four different time slots from fellow interpreters. The 2nd day was reserved for field trips of the wider area of Outer Banks (OBX), and the 3rd was a ½ day of sessions, a short wrap-up and announcement of the next year’s conference plan and location. You all will have to wait for those details!

I attended a session led by Steve Gerkin of the North Carolina Zoo. Steve, in his exuberant style, led us through the leadership plan the zoo staff has developed over the last several years, which involves better communication between directors and coordinating staff to decide next steps and changes in all exhibit areas. The Park Interpretive Team (PIT) has been successful in working together to make creative changes for the entire organization. Hmm this method sounds familiar… nterpretive! I am fortunate to work in an organization that has chosen similar methods to accomplish our center-wide goals.

view from the NC Aquarium

What a view!

Next I attended a very different type of session entitled “The Legacy of Alvin C. York” and learned of the steps and support taken for a total make-over of one of Tennessee’s state parks. The team of five who presented the story and progression of this transformation dressed in period costume to put us in the shoes of Alvin and the people in this place around the time of World War I, or The Forgotten War.

In the middle of the day, after chicken & veggie taco lunch island style, catered by one of the local favorites, we were treated to a wonderful storyteller, Darrell Collins, who revealed to us the story of the Wright Brothers as you have never heard it before.

Christie with Perky the Rat

Christie (the author), with Perky the Rat

Later that day, my docent / friend Marjorie, also from the Chattahoochee Nature Center, and I led a “forest bathing” session called Slow Nature, attended by a large group of 20 interpreters! We wanted to share the techniques of this practice of connecting others to the outdoors. Participants have reported feeling relaxed, calm, safe, and an interdependence with all the life around them. We know that benefits of this practice include reduced stress, a sense of peace and well–being, and improved immune function. Everyone enjoyed the quiet time outside. Since we were literally preaching to the choir, it was good to have a lot of participation in the sharing circle to wrap up the session.

Chris Smith, from the NC Museum of Natural History, gave me a new appreciation for Instagram, in his session Interp-stagram. Chris shared best practices for making your posts engaging, building your site’s network, but also maintaining integrity. I have posted my first alluring, yet effective, hashtags with some spring ephemerals pics this week.

The last night was beautiful, walking my last time on the beach and waves coming in heavy with the full moon. A nor’easter began during the night while everyone attempted to sleep. The windows of our hotel rattled and buckled with the force of the wind all night long. As we tried to pack up that morning we were buffeted continually, and I struggled on the edge of barely keeping my feet on the ground. Even the doors of our car were close to bending back in the wrong direction. The hotel doors would not close, and the crew gave up trying to repair them in the onslaught of the wind. Wow, incredible weather! I have great respect for those living on the edge.

Moon in Manteo March 1

The moon over Manteo

Conferences always take me a little out of my comfort zone, and take a lot of time and details to be able to attend. I find the Regional Sunny Southeast group to be fun, approachable and knowledgeable, and the gathering a valuable source for refreshing my interpreter skills. The locations are all over the southeast so I have gotten familiar with new places each time. I came back to my normal life and job in Georgia last week feeling rejuvenated and small in the face of so much still to learn about my craft. I’m realizing new ideas to utilize in my teaching, in CIG workshops and staff training. But also, I bring back with me better ways to include fellow staff in slowing down, being in the moment and taking some time to listen, absorb and communicate.

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Well-Hung Catkins And Sticky Stigmas: The Promise of Spring

by Doug Elliott
Catkins 1
If you’re looking for the earliest flowers of spring it’s time to look up at the trees and shrubs. This is the time year when the dangling male catkins swell and the tiny, female flowers expose their sticky stigmas hoping to catch a few grains of windblown pollen.

Alder catkins and pistillate flowers

Alder catkins and pistillate flowers

Hazelnut catkin and pistillate flower

Hazelnut catkin and pistillate flower

Many plants, like apple trees, daisies, and roses, have what are called perfect flowers, meaning that they have male and female parts in the same flower. (The male parts are stamens, each made up of the filament or stalk topped by the anther which contains the pollen. The female part is the pistil, composed of the ovary at the base, and the stalk-like style, topped by the stigma, which is the part that receives the pollen.) Other plants like persimmons and holly trees have male and female flowers on separate trees, and some plants like the birches, alders, hazelnuts, and ironwoods have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Late winter and early spring is the time to look for the swelling catkins and then challenge yourself to find those diminutive, delicate, pistillate flowers flaunting their finery.

The female flowers of the hazelnuts are a brilliant red!

The female flowers of the hazelnuts are a brilliant red!

The pollen-bearing catkins can be an important source of protein for the growing honeybee larvae as colonies expand in Spring.

The pollen-bearing catkins can be an important source of protein for the growing honeybee larvae as colonies expand in Spring.

The pollen-bearing catkins can be an important source of protein for the growing honeybee larvae as colonies expand in Spring.

Here you can see a video of an ironwood tree in full flower. When it was abruptly shaken, you can see the huge cloud of pollen coming off the tree, (complete with human and avian exclamations!) I bet there were some satisfied stigmas that day!

Thanks to Todd Elliott for the photos. You can keep up with Todd’s photo work by following him on Twitter or Instagram, or on his website at

For my appearances around the country, check out my calendar.

This post was originally on

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Registration for the upcoming regional workshop closes Feb 1st!

by Rhana Paris

My bad . . . . I didn’t look over the registration packet as well as I should have! If you are operating under the notion that you have until February 23rd to register for our Sunny Southeast Regional Interpreters Workshop (RIW), be advised that the correct deadline is February 1st!

Our next RIW will be on the Outer Banks of North Carolina from February 27-March 2 at the gold LEED certified Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) in Wanchese, NC. The organizing committee has put together quite a slate of activities for you to learn from and enjoy!

Check it out:

  • We are offering three pre-workshop sessions on Monday and Tuesday.
  • The actual RIW starts at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island on Tuesday evening for after hours views of our exhibits, heavy hors d’oeuvres, music from our house band and an opening address from Dave Hallac, the superintendent of the NPS Outer Banks Group.
  • On Wednesday, we meet at CSI for concurrent sessions and a keynote from Darrell Collins, retired NPS interpreter and expert on the Wrigth Brothers. We’ll have silent auction during the day and live auction at night to raise money for scholarships.
  • Thursday is for field trips to lighthouses, hunt clubs, antebellum homes and natural landscapes.
  • We reconvene at CSI Friday morning for another round of concurrent sessions before sending you on your way!

Perky at the aquariumSo sign up today, pack your water bottle/coffee cup/old name tag holder, bring an item or two to auction, and plan to have a great time networking with fellow Sunny Southeasterners! Perky is ready–are you?

Questions? Contact Rhana Paris at 252-475-2344 or

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Now is the time

by Helena Uber-Wamble

Here we are with New Year’s Eve fast approaching. Our minds are filled with resolutions of things to come: plans to do better, tackle something new, expand our horizons through travel with family and friends, and lose the weight of yesterday as we try to let go of the past. Holiday letters received usually have a synopsis of the year’s events that have occurred, with the ups and downs of life. Time — time is what we try to capture with these rituals. We measure time in memories that were made and events that rocked our world, both good and bad.

IMG_20171104_135716How easily nature takes on time. There is celebration in the rebirth/growth of new leaves and blooms that burst forth in the spring, and in the rhythm of summer insects drumming out through the night. The peacefulness of the planet preparing for its winter slumber in the fall carpets the earth, preparing us for the silence that is to come in winter. Nature rests during the winter months to prepare again for the spring. Oh, how nice it would be to live within these same time frames.

In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner writes, “Clocks slay time…time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” How true this is for all of us. When you are out in the woods – hiking, camping, or making memories of any sort—as long as there is not a time limit, then it is “the best time of your life”: not quantified by minutes, but memories.

And so it is that nature, the best time keeper, brings us back to the present. Watching the sun rise or the sun set, seeing a fawn being born or taking its first steps, or watching a butterfly float silently by on a summer’s day are all moments that capture us in the “NOW.” Nature envelops our senses and slows us down to appreciate the here and now. Every bit of nature has no care in the world except for the precise moment that is now. The birds you see flying by in formation are passing through in a moment’s time, and then they are gone. The joy in experiencing these moments really is a here-and-now only opportunity.

My Mom has a quote at her house that reads, “The place between no longer and not yet.” This is where we should aim to be. “If you’re always racing to the next moment, what happens to the one you’re in?” (Author Unknown). Arnold Bennett said, “The chief beauty about time is that you cannot waste it in advance. The next year, the next day, the next hour are laying ready for you, as perfect, as unspoiled, as if you had never wasted or misapplied a single moment in all your life. You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.” This should be our goal.

My husband and I started a ritual. When we see something beautiful like a full moon or a spectacular tree, one of us will say to the other, “I give you the moon” (or whatever it is that we are admiring). In that moment in time, we stop and appreciate the beauty around us. That beauty is doubled because it is a moment that is shared.

time-managementTennessee Williams wrote in The Glass Menagerie, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” How true is this as we prepare those resolutions? Tomorrow I will start my diet, next year we will take that trip, let’s get together for dinner or lunch real soon. We look at age sixteen as the time of the driver’s license, eighteen as our time to graduate, and 21 as the time to be able to legally drink. We start our childhood with, “Once upon a time…” and look for the “happily ever after.” Why wait? Marthe Troly-Curtin said “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

Nature doesn’t wait, nature just does. There is a time and a season for everything, but nature flows with that concept and moves along with it effortlessly. Maybe we should approach life with that same attitude. Nike had it right with their ad stating, “Just do it!” There is no time like the present! Take charge, live in the now and create memories to etch these moments clearly in your mind. Don’t wait until New Year’s Day to start those resolutions. We are not guaranteed tomorrow, so make the most of today. This is my wish for all of you as you read this.

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Breaking Down Barriers: Reflecting on NAI 2017

by Chris Smith

Falls on the Spokane River

The beautiful falls on the Spokane River was a great setting for this year’s national gathering.

The NAI National Conference in Spokane, Washington, was a profound experience. I always learn and recharge when surrounded by fellow interpreters, but this year was about challenges. It was about understanding more about what we – as frontline faces and voices – build for our many audiences. What are projecting into the audience? What expectations are we setting up through our words and actions for our audiences that supports or deters them from full participation? Are we asking ourselves hard questions, giving ourselves honest answers, being willing to take a risk, and using our skills and abilities to meet the needs of our audiences?

I was very excited to be at NAI this year, but I was also nervous. The conference program had a keynote speaker with a topic that promised to present tough historical issues and how to deal with them. I counted about 10 sessions in the schedule that planned to consider topics of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity. Looking at the conference schedule, I could tell the theme of the year was going to be making space. Space in our programs, at our sites, in our language and approach to interpretation, and space in our minds. I knew I wanted to participate in these discussions, and I expected to be challenged by them. I even expected to experience guilt for failing to make the space in the past, but I found encouragement to learn and grow because it was obvious that interpreters all over the country wanted to have these conversations.

I volunteered each day of the conference, and my duties kept me running most of Wednesday so I’ll start my story with Thursday morning. The first Thursday session set the tone for me for the rest of the week. Thursday morning, Sarena Gill from the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation led a session entitled, “Let’s Talk About the Resource.” Her session was a discussion about the ways that language could lead our audiences down a less effective path to creating stewards. Specifically using the word “resource” to define our sites might invoke the idea that visitors make withdrawals, or take from, our sites without giving back or considering the wider community. Interpreters seek to turn visitors into stewards; we want the visitors to care about these resources like we do. Sarena used a game where each table had a communal fishing pond and a personal fishing pond from which each person could fish for the required number of fish to survive. We learned quickly that each of us tended to approach our personal resources more conservatively than the shared resources. This mentality toward our sites as shared resources might make a difference in how our audiences respond and how we build stewards. Even calling our sites a “resource” might miss the ways our audiences contribute and make deposits rather than withdrawals.

After thinking about how our language might be setting expectations for our visitors, I turned my mind to how language can include or exclude people from our programs. “From Diversity to Equity: Shifting the Way Interpreters Think,” led by Mac Buff and Julie Bowman, brought up the ways that interpreters can welcome diverse communities through mindful changes. The presenters emphasized that aiming for diversity and inclusion might still miss the mark if our programs lack equitable access for all. Language can make a difference in how we approach and respond to individuals. Replacing gendered language and avoiding making assumptions about individuals or groups can go a long way to making people feel comfortable in our programs. I especially appreciated when a suitable suggestion to replace “you guys” when addressing a group was “y’all.” Simple changes in the language we use to address others can create a comfortable, welcoming space for the many identities of the people we serve.

Japanese American children

Japanese American children on trains carrying them to concentration camps and away from their homes and communities following exclusion orders based in war hysteria, racism and prejudice.

Friday morning’s keynote session was an incredible example of the good that interpretation can do in the world when we consider the complexities of history and humankind. Clarence Moriwaki, President of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, shared the story of the first Japanese Americans to be taken from their communities during World War II and placed in concentration camps. Racism, war hysteria and fear led to injustices that haunt American history. The keynote provided us an example of addressing complicated, troubling histories and using interpretation to bring healing and hope. Moriwaki’s comparisons of World War II racist cartoons of Japanese Americans side-by-side with depictions of Muslims following the September 11 World Trade Center attacks sent audible gasps through the hall. For me, it was a reminder that we’re not so far removed from complicated histories in America, and that we still have much to learn. The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is a space for sharing the history, calling out the fear and racism that persisted, and pointing towards a future free of those evils. The Memorial’s example shows us that interpretation – a powerful framework for changing hearts and minds – can be a force for good.

NAI Fun Run

Gathering with interpreters is always fun, and this year we had a fun run, the inaugural NAI 5K!

As I had expected, this year’s NAI National Conference challenged me to think beyond the boundaries of what I thought interpretation could be. Interpreters can use their skills of communication and connection to build even stronger bridges for more people and feel empowered to make positive, powerful changes in their communities. We just have to take a deep breath, listen, choose our words wisely, and act.

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The Sunny (Stormy) Southeast

by Marisol Asselta Castro, Regional Director

With the seasons beginning to change in some parts of the region and hurricane season in full, frightening force, I want to take this moment to express a profound wish that all of you are safe and well, along with the communities and resources you’re working to protect.

Hurricane JoseFrom Puerto Rico to Florida and beyond, this has and is going to continue to be a time of high stress, preparation, and recovery. With everything on your collective plates, it’s good to remember that you do have a community of peers working, fighting, and worrying alongside you. Let’s make sure we remember that we’re not alone, and to paraphrase Jane Goodall, the natural world has amazing resilience.

Looking to the future, we have some wonderful Certified Guide and Certified Host courses being offered this fall in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina that can be found in the training calendar section of the NAI National website. Those of us that can make it to the national conference in Spokane this November will look forward to catching up with fellow Sunny Southeasterners and bringing the latest interpretive news home to share with the rest of our region. Finally, a variety of state gatherings are occurring throughout the year, thanks to our wonderful volunteer state coordinators.

We continue to grow as a community, both in-person and online, and that can only lead to a stronger network of support and camaraderie for our region. Thank you all for being such a vital part of it.

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by Eli Strull

Hobey Ford moved with focus. He was dressed in a relaxed way, all black. The backdrop was black too and the stage sparsely decorated. As I settled in for the puppet show with my children and parents, I realized quickly I was watching a master.

One thing I like about our profession is that I run into inspiration in unlikely places. While a skilled puppeteer who builds all his own creations was captivating an audience and celebrating the animal world, I was watching interpretation without words. It started with mime and moved to decorated foam animal figures moving effortlessly in an imaginary world he had painted with just gestures, movement, and music. Certainly thematic and universal concepts a plenty. Cool stuff!

So I have been thinking about ways to engage an audience beyond words. We all do that but a main focus for me is often the language I use. Have I been overlooking opportunities? I look forward to learning.

Hobey Ford can be found on YouTube and the inter webs.

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