So a few of you are aware I’m about ten years behind when it comes to technological tools. A tool I’ve recently adopted (within the past two weeks) is that of a podcast.  For some generations and users this is a tool that’s been around since 2005ish. Yup, I’m late to the party.

Does anyone subscribe to any podcasts that relate to your job or interpretation?

In an attempt to continue to find nuggets to become a better interpreter, manager, Dad, human, I’m always looking at ways to sharpen myself and learn. For me this has traditionally come through articles, books, mentors, and conferences. One night I decided to hit the podcast icon on my phone and see what happens.  Little did I know there are so many relatable podcast topics out there that relate to our field of interpretation.

I personally enjoy leadership tidbits so I typed in leadership. Numerous podcasts with examples of topics and issues I find in the workplace appeared. The next button I hit was SUBSCRIBE.  I did this for three different pod casts and now my morning commute becomes a thirty to forty minute leadership session and a way to start reflecting about my work day and work on me.

For fun, I typed in “interpretation.” Interpreting dreams, interpreting religion, and interpreting language seemed to be the common themes in those podcasts. I then tried “Nature”.  Some fun podcasts came up relating to sounds, birds, philosophy, medicine, and recent science talks at museums. Typing in “Naturalist” will also bring you some great choices with regional relevance.

Whether you’re late to the party or not, I encourage you to give it a try. If you’re looking for good discussion with your staff, share a podcast with them to discuss. If you’re looking for guidance on managerial or staffing issues check out some of the podcasts out there. If you want to listen to the style of other naturalists, or see what’s going on with your regional phenology there’s podcasts out there. Perhaps this tool can help you research and develop your next interpretive talk.  Millions of Americans listen to podcasts monthly, perhaps this is another way for interpreters to sharpen and share our craft.

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All Parks Need a Guy Like Lloyd


The family and I recently visited Tallulah Gorge State Park in northern Georgia and we had a fantastic visit. We hiked down the seemingly endless steps into the gorge, took in the scenic views, and experienced some stunning waterfalls. It’s a fantastic natural treasure in the state of Georgia.

And some of the people there are treasures too—like Lloyd. As we left the visitors center, I noticed a park employee changing out the trash receptacles. He stopped to ask me if I enjoyed my hike that day. In the space of five minutes, he then asked the same question to everyone that walked by. In some cases he gave directions or answered questions that visitors had about other sights or trails in the area. I saw that after a brief chat with Lloyd, a few people that were obviously weary from hiking up too many steps change their demeanor and break into a broad grin. The thought that occurred to me was that all parks need a guy like Lloyd.

Sure, we greet folks at the front counter, hand out maps, and tell them to enjoy their day—but to have an exit survey is a useful tool. Just someone to ask them how their walk went, what they saw, or to let them know what else they can see in the area. It adds a nice conclusive chapter to an otherwise enjoyable day. I know it’s not easy today with reduced staff levels and budget cuts to have a person at the exit, but it sure goes a long way to have someone who can acknowledge visitors and their experience at your facility. Good job Lloyd.


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A “Rockin” New Trend

Have you heard of this hip new trend of … painting rocks? It’s true! There are grassroots groups forming all over the country based around the simple activity of rock painting. Well, there’s a little more to it than that. It’s really about connecting with other people by sharing little mementos of positive thoughts expressed through painted rocks.

What people do is paint rocks with some kind of positive message, image, or anything they think might brighten someone else’s day, and then leave their rock in a random location for someone to find. They often leave some kind of information on the back, like a facebook group that the finder can contact, or another means of linking up with the rock painting community. And they also look for these rocks, sort of like a never-ending scavenger hunt, and report any findings to their group.


This movement grew out of an organization called The Kindness Rocks Project, whose stated goal is “to encourage others to find cool creative ways to reach out and brighten someone’s day unexpectedly.” You can find out more at their website: The Kindness Rocks Project. Additionally, if you search, you will probably discover many local groups associated with the project. Almost every county around my area seems to have one, and they share their painted rock pursuits through their group facebook pages.

What does this have to do with interpretation? Well, I think this trend offers a great opportunity for programming at many of our centers. Whether we do something simple like incorporating a rock-painting craft into a program, or something more involved where participants paint rocks and go for a hike to hide them, or whatever — it seems like something to consider tapping into. Personally, I think I’m going to try hosting a Rock Painting Party!

It’s simple, outdoor, nature-based fun, and a lot of people seem to be into it right now. And, there are existing online groups that we can communicate with and work with who might be excited to visit our site to pursue their hobby.

Anyway, this is just a very small thought for the blog this time. Nothing super deep or big. Just something I’ve come across and thought was really neat and wanted to share. Have a great rest of the summer everyone!


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Does Your Site Have Baggage?

I work at a Nature Center that was started in the early 1970s as a way to preserve greenspace in a developing community, to provide a place for people to learn and enjoy our natural resources. The city of Athens began in 1806, although the University of Georgia was chartered here in the 1780s. With such a long past, we must expect our site to have a little baggage. As a nature center, our focus is on the environment but it is hard to ignore the scars of past land uses.

Evidence is hiding all around our property, peeking out and exposing its tattered past. Scattered brick from the old brickyard emerge from the ground. Piles of tires, broken glass and haunting children’s toys are discarded relics when our country road sides became dumps. Faint traces of farming remain like terraces and barbed wire piercing the middle of a tree.

Although we are a nature center, it is important to look to the past and interpret the history of our land. I walked by a small hill on our property for 12 years before learning that it wasn’t a natural hill. It was formed when clay dredged from the pit was piled to dry before being formed into bricks. The brick factory created a clay pit that has now turned into a large pond. It makes a wonderful wetland full of fish, turtles, birds and beavers. Using Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology, we can see where soil was dug out for fill dirt when the highway was built, where old fence lines and road beds were. These remnants of the past have formed the landscape that we now protect.

The next time you are walking your natural site, stop and look around. Look for the scars that are hidden beneath the ground and out of the trees. What has your land been through in the past?

Author’s note: This post is written to those that work at sites that focus on nature. If you are a historical interpreter, you already know where those scars are. Take time to look and enjoy how nature has evolved and changed your landscape.




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Pop Science

When somebody says the word “research” my mind goes in multiple directions. The first words that came to my mind  are proven, scientifically factual, and methodically valid. When I bring this up to friends some of them think “boring”, due to the equations, language, statistics, and overall complexity that research often implies.

During my CIG courses I include this video to discuss how this can be an example of interpretation. What do you think?

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Enriching lives one cricket at a time!

The people are bustling, the animals are out and about, the heat is in full force, and the energy is high- yep, it’s summertime at the South Carolina Aquarium! We are oh-fish-ally in full summertime mode with engagements around every corner! Almost every half hour, guests have the chance to visit one of our captivating educational programs. A new one this summer, is our Ambassador Animal Enrichment Show. During this program, guests will be enriched while watching one of our education animals get enriched with a new habitat, treat, or food puzzle!

Animal care is always our top concern at the Aquarium and enrichment is one of the ways that we perform that care. For example, we may bring out our Bearded Dragon, Dundee and have crickets in a wiffle ball or PVC pipe for her. Dundee then has to use her natural adaptations and hunting skills to locate the crickets and eat them. Enrichment is anything new and different for the animals to experience. It encourages mental and physical stimulation, promoting overall health. This show gives guests a glimpse into our animal care practices, which is in turn enrichment for them. Aquarium visitors are becoming more and more interested in learning about the behind the scenes care rather than pure entertainment. Interpreting this during our shows has become the focus of our messaging and really helps us drive home our mission of conservation!


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Knowing Your Audience

Do you know your audience?  I mean really know your audience?  We often think we do.  We make assumptions about who they are, what they are interested in, their values, and what they might need.  Years ago, while working in east Texas, I found out what a poor judge I could be.

I was working at a campground in the piney woods where the pines grew thick and tall.  On one of my early weekends, a section of the campground became occupied by guys riding Harleys and wearing lots of black leather.  Once they settled in, they wasted no time in breaking out their beer.  At this site, it was fine as long as you stayed on your campsite.  It was late afternoon and I thought we were in for an evening of trouble.

Imagine my surprise, when they and their families showed up for the evening program.  While I was avoiding them, their wives and children had driven in from the Dallas area.  They all seemed to enjoy the program.  They asked lots of questions and we enjoyed getting to know each other.  I helped the guys plan a road trip to take in the beauty of the forest.   I helped their families plan a day of swimming, hiking, and other adventures.  We all settled in to a nice, quiet evening.

I’ve often thought about that experience and what it taught me.  Appearances can be misleading.  Only when you visit with someone, can you begin to know them.

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Representation Matters


Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900 (Austin History Center, Austin Public Library) Source:

One day I pulled into a Connecticut gas station to check the air pressure on my tires. The weather was typical New England gray and chilly early Spring, so I didn’t want to spend more time outside my warm truck than necessary, but had noticed some slightly squealing on turns that concerned me. I hopped out, grabbed my pressure gauge and a couple of quarters for the air machine, and started popping the caps off of each suspicious looking tire. Ten minutes later I was ready to go; just another unmemorable stop at an unmemorable spot, destined to be forgotten within the week. One minute later it became an experience that has resurfaced in my mind at opportune moments for over fifteen years. Just as I was climbing back into the pickup, a woman approached me. Comfortable looking, dressed well, probably in her mid to late 50s. The car she had exited was a decent-looking sedan, but nothing too fancy. I thought maybe she was lost, as this was the time before smartphone maps, when people would print out mapquest directions and try not to crash into other cars as they rechecked their turns. She seemed nervous but excited, though, which was a strange combination.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but could you show me how to do that?”

As I walked her through the steps, we chatted. All her life, anything to do with cars was a man’s game. She drove every day, but knew barely anything about cars: how to check her oil, how to change a tire, how to work an air pressure gauge. It was all supposed to be very complicated and involved, far too much for her to understand. She’d wanted to know how to change that, but it wasn’t until she saw another woman doing it did she get the nerve to say, “I want to know how to do that, too.” The mystery disappeared. This was simple, straightforward, and vital to the safety of any driver or passenger in her car. And now she could do it, too.

Representation matters.

Many of you have seen the Wonder Woman movie out now, or at the very least seen the avalanche of articles about it: the women-only screenings, the lists of kindergarteners who now have female superheroes to emulate, the adult women who didn’t expect to find themselves crying in the theaters, moment after moment. Being able to see that representation is vital to something in our very core, our very ability to see ourselves in those roles, to see ourselves as more than a bystander, a victim, or a sidekick to the real hero.

Representation matters.


Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving (By Source, Fair use,

Yesterday we celebrated fifty years since the Love vs Virginia civil rights case ensured that interracial marriage was legal in the United States of America. Three years before that ruling, on June 12th in 1963, civil rights paragon Medgar W. Evers was assassinated in his driveway by a white supremacist. It took three attempts to get a jury to convict him. Yesterday, also on June 12th, we remembered a horrific hate crime, the Pulse Nightclub shooting, that took the lives of forty-nine innocent members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom were also people of color. In six days will be Juneteenth, the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, a holiday that has existed since 1865 and which far too few Americans are familiar with. If you’re in the central North Carolina region, you can also join in the Juneteenth Celebration at Historic Stagville in Durham, NC:, or check to see if a similar interpretive event is happening in your area.

Please also take ten minutes to watch representatives of Biscayne National Park powerfully demonstrate what how what we do can play a role in putting all these things into context with the narrative of our history, our country, and our world, through a tribute to the victims of the Pulse Club Massacre:

Representation always matters.

Today I want to honor and thank all the interpreters who work tirelessly to ensure representation of all our community, who aren’t afraid to take a critical look at their exhibits, their hiring practices, their programs, and their outreach to see where they could improve, whose voices may not be being heard. Your work helps people understand the experiences of people who may live in very different versions of the same place, and it helps us grow, ourselves. It’s a difficult truth that the interpretive field isn’t populated with as much diversity as it should, and we need to make sure that as many people as possible can see themselves doing what we do, so I want to encourage all of us to either keep up the working, learning, and growing, or to have the courage to see where we can begin tackling a lack of representation from whatever point we find ourselves starting from.

What, and whom, and how, we represent matters.


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Partners, projects, working through issues and building consensus

By Joe Watts

Projects, whether they are about interpretation, design, mapping, or anything else, require attention to multiple levels of details. Moreover, they should always involve working with strategic partners. Concentrating only on one side of the details can be disastrous. Missing an opportunity to work with a partner can be damaging to the individual project and to projects in the future. The design can be great, but without buy-in from partners, you are doomed to failure.

Case in point, a recent series of posters developed for the Alabama Birding Trails project.

The first poster started straight-forwardly enough. Choose the 50 (it turned into 49, but that’s another story) birds of Alabama most commonly found here and create a poster. This had been done before. Simple, right?

Well, what really are the most common birds? How do you rank them and why? Simply based on numbers and ability to see them anywhere and you immediately begin to fill your precious space with European Starlings, House Sparrows and House Finches (all invasive species). Worse yet, you’ll certainly have to include Pigeons. And, if you’ve ever parked your car on a city street only to discover that the shade provided by the nice street tree is also a rest stop for these rats with wings, you know that including a pigeon is not the best way to endear casual bird fans to the intricacies of birdwatching!

The good news was that, with 49 species and working with partners from both birding groups in Alabama (the Alabama Ornithological Society and the Birmingham Audubon Society), we came up with a rationale for inclusion and a list of interesting bird species, not just the most common birds. The list included such common birds as American Robins and Blue Jays, but also birds important from a conservation standpoint such as Snowy Plovers and Least Terns. Robins and jays are everywhere; plovers and terns really occur only in a small part of Alabama along our coastline, but they are important for everyone to understand.

There were missed opportunities and there were birds that should have been included that were not, but mostly, the process we used to determine birds to include worked. There were a few quibbles here and there, for sure. But, the process worked because we included many of the people that might have had an issue with the poster otherwise. They had a voice in making the poster. They made it better. Everyone had, at least to a degree, ownership. So, when the time to find fault came (ie, the day after printing), the main partners were all happy with the product.

The lesson here: Inclusion. The more people you can involve in a project before completion (and, honestly, from the very beginning), the stronger the project will be. And, of course, the more bulletproof.

And the end of the story: the poster proved so popular that we received funding to develop two additional, smaller posters highlighting other birds found in Alabama. After working with those same partners, we developed a plan to include a Birds of Prey of Alabama and a Wading Birds of Alabama poster.

Since we worked so closely with partners, we were able to develop these lists quicker, and with more concrete reasoning, to explain why some birds were included and others were not. (Several people wished a rare bird for Alabama–the Saw-whet Owl–had been included. Others wondered why we included Oystercatchers and not Sandhill Cranes.) But, the research and cooperation with partners left a solid trail of evidence to explain both choices and, for the most part, offered a satisfying answer to the critics!


The first in a series: The Birds of Alabama Poster


Wading Birds of Alabama (this poster includes three birds not classified as waders, but often found near them)


Birds of Prey: missing from this poster are several extremely uncommon birds, like the Saw-whet Owl and a rare hawk.

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Essence of Beaver – The Buck-Toothed Guru

by Doug Elliott
This post originally appeared on Doug Elliott’s blog

Down near the headwaters of Lake James the other day I saw lots of beaver sign. I love seeing their trails up and down the mud banks. The webbed hind feet are sometimes six inches from toe to heel. There were a number of scent mounds the beavers made by piling up small heaps of mud, twigs and grass and anointing them with an odiferous scent secretion called castoreum. I smelled one of these mounds. A pleasant, warm, musky, dark brown, leathery, mammalian aroma filled my senses. WOW! Essence of beaver! Quite a perfume.

The best way to see a beaver is to quietly wait near a lodge in the evening just before dark. A beaver’s first task upon leaving its lodge for an evening’s activities is a slow patrol around the pond to inspect the shoreline for intruders – perhaps a potential predator such as a bear, wolf, or other carnivore large enough to risk a beaver’s sharp incisors – or perhaps it could be a bumbling human like myself arriving late for the first feature of the evening beaver show. On a number of such occasions I have been the object of a beaver’s scrutiny. The first time it happened, I’ll never forget. The sun had just set behind a distant mountain and I was sneaking through the bushes hoping to slip behind the upturned roots of a fallen tree near the edge of the pond. I had my binoculars ready and I was hoping to get settled before the beavers emerged. As I crossed a clearing about fifteen feet from the water’s edge, a slowly swimming beaver materialized from behind the stump of a drowned tree. It was CLOSE, and it was swimming closer! I froze in mid-stride, trying my best to resemble a gnarled tree stump (with binoculars). With just its head and some of its back above the surface, the beaver was moving along parallel to the shore. When it came even with me, it paused. Then, like a toy ferry boat, it turned to face me. It swam closer and paused again, staring right at me. It lifted its nose and tried to scent the air. I stared back intensely. I held my breath and did not move. My legs muscles started to cramp. I gritted my teeth and held my position, determined not to even blink. As I stood there like a strained statue, looking deeply into those beady little beaver eyes, I realized that my psychic presence, that is, my stressed-out ego – that part of me that sees myself as separate from, rather than a part of, the environment – was probably much more disruptive to the peacefulness at the beaver pond than my mere physical presence. I knew I could fit in so much better if I could somehow soften the glare of this huge throbbing ego of mine. But how? I released my breath. I relaxed my eyes and softened my gaze. This felt better. I tried to release my thoughts and quiet the excited internal narrative rattling on in my busy little brain. I relaxed my leg muscles and allowed my body to float, ever so slowly, into a more comfortable position. The beaver just kept staring. It seemed like it was playing, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Something here just didn’t quite look right. Then KAPOW!! The tail came crashing down on the surface of the water, sounding like a combination rifle shot and belly flop. I about jumped out of my skin. Water splashed everywhere, and the beaver disappeared in the splash. I was so startled, that I completely lost my balance, and fell over into some brambles. The beaver surfaced a few seconds later. It was out a little further in the pond and it calmly surveyed the shore to see if the scene had changed.

Beavers are known for their ability to alter their environment with their dam building and tree-cutting. Here was another way. This beaver had actually altered my psychic environment and my consciousness as well. Not only had it induced me into the beginnings of a meditative experience, but with the help of this furry, buck-toothed psycho-drama coach, I had just acted out a personal existential metaphor — that of a startled being, falling out of control into the unknown. Life seems like that sometimes. This little flat-tailed guru transformed me from a poor imitation of a gnarled tree trunk into an embodiment of my true self, falling into a briar patch. With the help of this beaver, for a few short seconds, I had experienced eternity. I had been living purely in the moment. This living in the moment, or “being here now”, for practitioners of yoga, meditation, and other spiritual disciplines is the goal of years of devotion. This beaver brought me to that place with a mere tail slap. Not bad for a second’s work.

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