by Nat Frothingham
MONTPELIER — On a recent Monday morning, some half dozen workmen from the concrete contracting company Gendron Building were out in force making last-minute adjustments to the metal forms they had put in place for a concrete foundation — soon to be poured — for a new North Branch Nature Center addition.
Construction of a new building has been made possible by contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations as part of what is already a largely successful North Branch Nature center capital campaign. That campaign has an overall goal of $1.6 million. More than $1 million has already been raised and a further $540,000 needs to be raised to complete the campaign.
In the 20-plus years since the center first opened in 1996, it has operated out of a small farmhouse and then later on, that farmhouse and a small, renovated barn.
For some time now, the farmhouse and the barn have been too small to accommodate the growing number of visitors. Visitors include elementary school children, teens, adults, schoolteachers, citizen-scientists, summer campers and the general public.
On that recent morning, Chip Darmstadt, the Nature Center’s Director walked me through the renovated barn that in its own way has become a modest energy conservation showcase with its double-glazed windows, heat pump and solar panels.
But the “smart energy” showcase doesn’t end with the renovated barn. Outdoors within view of the Nature Center is a solar panel array. In the near distance are community gardens. And looking toward the North Branch River is the City of Montpelier’s “Street Tree Nursery.”
As Darmstadt and I walked the short distance from the renovated barn to the old farmhouse, he pointed toward a broad-winged hawk — then a second broad-winged hawk.
As Darmstadt and I sat around a conference table in the old farmhouse we were joined by Emily Seiffert, capital campaign coordinator for the $1.6 million project.
“Why the new building?” Darmstadt said provocatively.
Then he answered his own question. To accommodate as many as 100 people in an assembly space. Or a big hall for special events. Or a big multi-purpose room.
“And those special events?” I asked.
Darmstadt replied, “The Center’s ‘Caterpillar Fest’ in the fall. Or the ECO Initiative for teachers — to help schoolteachers figure out how to work with schoolchildren outdoors. “Teachers are looking for guidance,” he said.
Or what about a typical summer day, Darmstadt continued, “with two camps in progress. And then it pours with rain. Or it’s winter and it’s bitter-cold.
Clearly, the center’s emphasis is on what’s happening outdoors — not indoors. But said Darmstadt, “You need a launching space.”
Then Darmstadt and Seiffert pointed out that the center also needs a space to welcome visitors. It needs some storage space, a program room, a meeting room, a kitchen, bathrooms, office space. That’s what the new building supplies.
The North Branch Nature Center has come a long way since it first opened in 1996.
In 2006, the North Branch Nature Center spun off from its original parent organization, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. In 2013, the center purchased the 28 acres of property that makes up its campus — really a small nature preserve “at a gentle bend in the North Branch River about two miles north of downtown Montpelier at 713 Elm St. along Route 12.
Then there are the various programs — the summer camps, the Center’s ECO program that works with 1,080 (K through 4) schoolchildren from nine different schools with strong educational impacts in Montpelier and Washington County — and as faraway as Lamoille, Chittenden and Orange counties as well.
“Last year,” said Darmstadt, “we celebrated our 20th anniversary.”
In discussing the slow but steady development, Darmstadt introduced an unusual scientific term — “punctuated equilibrium” — first articulated by evolutionary biologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould.
Gould’s notion runs like this. That a given species continues without too much change for years and years and years. Then something happens — like the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Then suddenly — many new species arrive and many things change almost at once.
“When the dinosaurs disappeared,” Darmstadt said with a smile, “there was this explosion of life.”
Well, the Nature Center started in 1996. Then it went along for some time. And for several years, it seemed, just clicking along, virtually unchanged.
Then suddenly, like today, there’s a new Nature Center Building under construction and what had been for a time, two or three people on staff is now — “Five full-time,” said Darmstadt. “No, make it six,” he said cheerfully.