by Nat Frothingham-
“From the staff and the earth at this modest nature center, countless Vermonters have discovered birds and butterflies, orchids and otters, relaxation and contemplations. And now, with a vision to connect ever more of us to wildlife and wild places, North Branch Nature Center will move from greatness to virtuosity — not only here in Montpelier but far beyond as well.” — Bryan Pfeiffer, writer and naturalist
This year as May turns into June, the North Branch Nature Center (two miles from downtown Montpelier out Elm Street) has announced a $1.5 million capital campaign to build a new education and visitor center and, in the words of a May 31 press release, “…to advance its mission to connect people of all ages with the natural world.”
As part of the capital campaign announcement, the center reported that the quiet phase of its current campaign has already raised $575,000 — a giant step toward the overall $1.5 million goal.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Chip Darmstadt, the center’s executive director, took me on a brief tour of the center’s current buildings as we looked out on the nature center’s 28-acre preserve.
Darmstadt, who has been with the center since its beginnings in Montpelier in 2006, combines an easy-going, friendly manner with a naturalist’s knowledge, curiosity and enthusiasm for getting outdoors, tramping around, peering through binoculars, and directly experiencing the plant, animal, and ecological wonders of the preserve.
Darmstadt described the preserve this way: “A big open meadow with wetlands.” Then he went on to say, “It’s very diverse.” So diverse that 150 different species of birds have been sited on the property. Then there’s the 1,000 feet of frontage on the North Branch River. Said Darmstadt, “Moose, bear, bobcat — it’s a small property but it’s a wonderful assemblage of creatures great and small.”
The nature preserve — although small — is lucky in its situation. To the east across the river is the wooded ridge, an almost three-quarters of a mile stretch of land along the North Branch of the Winooski. To the south of the preserve is the public land of the city of Montpelier’s recreation field, with its baseball diamond, playing fields, tennis courts, and swimming pool. And to the west and south is a trail that connects the center with the 194-acre Hubbard Park.
Again and again as Darmstadt and I talked, both at the center and on the phone, he returned to the theme of the current capital campaign. What’s driving the campaign fundamentally, he said, is the success of the center with more programs, more participants, a dramatic rise in community dollar support, and an outreach that is all-inclusive, with participants being children as young as 3 and adults and elders as old as 93. “Connecting people of all ages with the natural world,” that, increasingly, said Darmstadt “has become a more critical mission.” Given what’s happened with the growing power of TV, videos, and the Internet, many of our experiences, Darmstadt observed, “are through the screen.”
“I’ve mentioned the Forest Preschool Program,” Darmstadt said about a program for children as young as 31/2 to 5 years old with two 12-week sessions in spring and fall. The emphasis is on going outdoors, discovering outdoors.
Then there’s the ECO (Educating Children Outdoors) program that is offered to seven different area schools, from Waitsfield in the Mad River Valley, to Union Elementary School in Montpelier, all the way over to Hyde Park in Lamoille County. “People want that for their kids,” Darmstadt said. Many parents remember being outdoors themselves as children — playing wherever kids played. “They didn’t come home until the street lights came on. That’s what motivates me,” Darmstadt said, “I want to see them loving, appreciating, and understanding the outdoors.”
But times have changed. “Our kids lead very structured lives.” In times past there could have been a forest nearby — so kids messed around in the woods. If we don’t introduce kids to nature, there’s a risk of that not happening at all.”
And yes, there are political, even global, consequences of not introducing kids to nature. “People who have had exposure to wild places have conservation values.” They may pursue a career that has nothing to do with the natural world. But their love of and understanding of the natural world will make a difference in their lives. “They will understand that it’s part of their values to protect and conserve,” Darmstadt said. “Children have this natural affinity for nature — it’s deep inside of us.”