A Future Focus

The taller buildings of St. Cloud are replaced by warehouses, then sheds and barns as the bus plugs on towards the Pothole Prairie region of western Minnesota. The trees, broad, bright and bushy from the near-solstice days, are interspersed by ponds and meadows. A sign that reads “Lake Wobegon Trail” catches my eye, eliciting a smile and fond memories of curling up on rainy California afternoons with the works of Garrison Keillor.

Suddenly, this ever-varied landscape becomes less forested, showing its wetlands, streams, raptors and cattle, softening my dry, Californian attitudes towards agriculture. It’s heartening to see productive farmland; fish and fowl. Of course, I can’t really see any fish through the bus window but all these egrets, herons and anglers seem convinced of their existence. I imagine for a moment that if these vistas weren’t so varied, I might get some sleep, but that’s a pipe dream. I’m much too charged about my new job.

The jocular, knowledgeable staff have eased the two of us newbies - fellow intern Lionel Grant and myself - into the environment in and out of doors. Their enthusiasm for this place and light humor spreads easily. Taking us on a naturalist walk, Dave Ellis pans his gaze across the wetland indentations of prairie, crowded with reeds, grasses, and birds. He softly addresses several theories of effective environmental education interspersed with practical facts about wetland prairie ecology.

Dave can see much more than Lionel and me: the years of history, the human and natural change, that have impacted this land and those who live here. Even after all of these years of giving nature hikes here, it still takes a few seconds for the smile to fade from Dave’s face after seeing a purple martin or Savannah sparrow. “There is truth, and there is absolute truth,” he tells me. The long silence that follows sends this aphorism spinning in my head.

Last summer, after an exciting freshman year at Carleton College during which I decided to major in Environmental Studies and pursue a career in conservation, I applied to SCA and was placed at Mount Rainier National Park. I helped to run an outreach program focused on underserved urban families with few outdoor experiences. My internship not only rekindled my love of working and teaching in nature, but gave me valuable experience with at-risk youth. I lived in the park, was embraced by the Rainier “family” of rangers, and spent many unforgettable days and nights in the dramatic volcanic wilderness.

Beautiful though those mountains and meadows may be, the most valuable thing that I took away from that summer was the way that the kids enrolled in the Camping Adventures with My Parents program loved exploring with me, learning and playing in the outdoors. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to serve this year at the USFWS’ Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, a dynamic model of environmental education which teaches hands-on service learning to elementary school students and holds a variety of programs and camps through the summer.

I closed my first week here by attending a future-looking staff meeting, inventing and rehashing future Learning Center programs. The energetic discourse, in which everyone contributed in building dynamic public outreach programs and methods, left me feeling like a part of a great team. By the end of the day, I’d been given temporary custody of one of the refuge’s digital cameras for the summer. I walked out of the visitor’s center and aimed my lens at the distant horizon where the clouds, wetlands, and prairie grasses meld.

Photo credit US Fish & Wildlife Service