At a grand opening celebration on Sunday afternoon, October 15, a crowd of more than 300 people — friends, supporters, staff members, the Center’s board of directors, the project’s architect, and some of its construction crew — marked the official opening of a new addition to the North Branch Nature Center
The North Branch Nature Center first opened its doors in 2006 on Elm Street on a 28-acre nature preserve located within walking distance of downtown Montpelier.
The new addition will provide much-needed space so that the Center can extend its educational and outreach offerings.
The program began with remarks from the Center’s Director Chip Darmstadt, who led off by thanking everyone who had made the new North Branch expansion possible.
“I can’t describe how grateful I feel at this moment,” said Darmstadt as he began speaking. He likened the excitement of the moment to the experience of suddenly seeing something in nature he wasn’t expecting: an unusual bird, or a rare plant – that kind of thrill.
Reporting on the current status of the Center’s capital campaign, which made the new construction (what Darmstadt called “Phase Two”) possible, he said that $1.1 million has already been raised out of an overall goal of $1.6 million.
He then went on to acknowledge and thank an impressive number of people and organizations, whose help and generosity had made possible the construction of the new addition. (Please see sidebar.)
The prevailing sentiment at the Center’s grand opening was celebratory joy. But there was an almost tender moment when Amy Butler, the Center’s Director of Education, described her work with young children as part of the Forest Preschool program.
“They are learning everything that’s wonderful about the forest,” Butler explained. When she asked the children what was wonderful about the forest, their answers were short but also charming and memorable.
“Leaves, trees, sticks,” the children said.
When asked how they felt when they were in the forest, they said, “I feel calm. I feel happy.” When children draw the forest, Butler said, “They start out with a rectangle with a circle on top. That’s a tree.”
“What about the forest from a mouse’s perspective? Or a bird’s perspective,” Butler asked the children.
All of this led easily into a talk from featured speaker, Deb Markowitz, former Vermont Secretary of State (12 years) and more recently Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (six years).
In a friendly talk delivered without notes, Markowitz made a number of telling points.
Discussing the Center’s impacts on children, she said, “Imagine the future of Vermont. Imagine the future of America. Imagine the future of the world. These kids will be our next leaders.”
Markowitz was talking to an already committed audience that didn’t need to be reminded of wildfires, hurricanes, threats to wildlife, and the planet’s ecosystem. “We only save the things we know. You get to know nature by going out in nature,” she admonished.
“Our young people aren’t getting outside,” she said, noting that an average high-school student in Vermont spends three hours a day “on his screen.” And that’s not “counting his phone,” she added.
“Did you know that nature changes our brains?” she asked. “When kids are out in nature it changes their brains.”
“We’ve lost 90 percent of our bats to White Nose disease,” she told her audience. “What ever happened to our pollinators? Where are the monarch butterflies?” she asked.
Then Markowitz turned to a delightful story about her oldest daughter, who as a child said she wanted a birthday party with her invited friends to be a climb up Camel’s Hump on a trail where they would get lost. That way they could use their formidable survival skills, use a compass, and make a fire with magic sticks.
That party idea eventually gave way to a canoe trip. But Markowitz was making a solid point. Children and young adults want to be, and need to be, touched in a very personal way with nature.
She also reported on a recent phone call from an adult son who is living in Philadelphia and who said via phone, “You know, Mom, I can’t stay here. I need to be near the woods, the forests, the mountains, and the rivers.”
Markowitz closed her talk with a friendly North Branch invitation, “Come and participate,” she said. “Be part of this community.”
Treats and drinks at the Grand Opening were provided by event sponsor Down Home Kitchen, with music by Colin McCaffrey and Doug Reid. There were also guided tours and a scavenger hunt for all ages.
North Branch Nature Center Thanks
As part of his talk, North Branch executive director Chip Darmstadt thanked and acknowledged the following:
- Individuals who had made contributions large and small
- The Larsen Fund
- Montpelier voters who approved a ballot item to contribute $75,000 of taxpayer money to the Center’s expansion
- The Vermont Community Loan Fund for a “bridge loan” that allowed construction to continue as fundraising continued
- The Vermont Community Foundation
- The North Branch Nature Center staff, board of directors, and the Center’s facilities committee
- Central Vermont Master Gardeners for critical plantings
- Black River Design (architects) and Kingdom Construction (builders)
- Paul Cate for slabs of butternut wood that made part of the new addition