This summer for my final co-op I’ve been working at the Trailside Museum at Glen Helen. Trailside Museum is a small, museum space at the trailhead of the north Glen. It’s home to three animal ambassadors – two box turtles and a black rat snake – and educational materials/exhibits on a variety of subjects including geology, mammals, pollinators, trees, and others. It also has a large bird-blind and a small gift shop. It was built in 1951 by Antioch students! (A fun fact I love to share with curious visitors). Trailside sits at the most-used entrance to the Glen, and serves as a welcome center and educational space, run by the Outdoor Education Center at Glen Helen. I began working there this past April as a Miller Fellow through the Community Foundation and decided to stay on for a co-op with the Glen for the summer.
The Glen’s mission is to “. . . steward and strengthen Glen Helen for present and future generations, safeguard the ecological, historical, and geological resources within its bounds, and utilize the preserve to offer life-shaping environmental learning to our students and visitors” (credit: Glen Helen website). My role at Trailside fits into this because my main role is orienting visitors to Glen Helen. Usually, this means giving directions to the Yellow Spring and the Cascades (waterfalls). This by itself is a crucial role since there are currently no trail signs in any part of Glen Helen – but beyond sharing directions, I also spend time identifying native plants and animals, and engaging visitors in educational experiences around the three resident Trailside animal ambassadors. Day to day, I answer questions about all kinds of things (birds, plants, trails, the history of the Glen and Antioch College, and many many other random topics), and when it is rainy or slow, I work on social media outreach and other administrative tasks for the Glen.
On any given Saturday, about 200 to 600 people come through Trailside museum in the summer. My job is to interact with each and every one of them. To make them feel warmly welcomed and inspired to explore this place – and return again and again. It also means I get to learn a lot about visitors. One of my favorite moments of this co-op term was just a few weeks ago when a mother came in ahead of her three children, all of them seemed to be under 10. She asked me if I could help her son figure out where a feather he had found on the ground came from, of course I said I would try my best! Her son, who was probably about 2 and a half or 3 years old came toddling in behind her, arm outstretched, tiny, fluffy feather in hand. He looked up at me and raised his arm even higher. I took the feather from him and showed on the wall by the bird feeders (where we have posted photos of most of the local feeder-birds) which one it likely belonged to – a red-bellied woodpecker. His mom said “Oh wow! This is so much more than I was expecting, I just wanted you to make sure he understood it came from a bird!” It was a very tender and sweet moment for all three of us. Her son was excited about all the bird photos, promptly looking through the binoculars on site, and it was cool that he’d been able to find and hold evidence that birds lived here in the Glen, and his mother was just excited that I was around to help her son engage with his curiosity. It reminded me why I sought out work at Trailside – to help kids (and adults, and myself!) understand the world around us better!
I remember coming to Yellow Springs and not knowing many of the local plants or animals by name. Thankfully, throughout my time here I’ve learned tons and tons of them, many different ways to identify them, and even some medicinal or edible uses for them! It’s helped me feel rooted and grounded here, and I’m certain that extending some of that knowledge to visitors at the Glen is helping other folks feel similarly about the land they live on every day. I don’t know exactly how this job fits into my educational or professional goals yet – but I know the skills I am learning on this job are applicable almost everywhere. I’m spending time thoughtfully answering questions, making seemingly-complex things (like plant identification and map-reading) accessible, and I’m helping to get kids and adults and everyone in between excited about their natural surroundings. That seems good enough for me.
My time here is spent mostly all alone, finishing difficult and physically demanding projects at my own pace. I find this kind of interaction with learning to be incredibly helpful and I feel that the skills I’ve acquired here are going to stick with me for the rest of my life even if I don’t go into sustainable agriculture as a career, simply because I have had so much hands-on experience with them.
Before I got here, I made a promise to myself that I would learn more about native Ohio plants. I felt that this would make me feel more connected to this place and more committed to finishing out my degree here. In order for this to manifest at Procter, I’ve been designing a native plant garden to be built after my departure. I began by simply reading the Xerces Society Guide to Attracting Native Pollinators, since I knew native plants were the best way to do this. Back home in St. Louis, my parents are beekeepers and the decline of the honeybee is on my radar all the time. I began planning my garden only to attract bees, butterflies, moths, bats and birds. But I soon learned that rain catchment (or lack thereof) is a huge problem on the farm here. I then became very interested in the idea of building a rain garden.
There are lots of different ways to go about building rain gardens, some of them much more costly than others, and I read about many options that people had been successful with. I have chosen to design a rain garden using hugelkultur beds. These essentially are built by digging holes in the wet areas, filling them with logs, sticks, twigs, and bark, and then covering them with nitrogen-rich compostables and a layer of dirt/mulching. On the last farm where I worked, there was a hugelkultur natural dye garden being built, and I got to see the process first hand. It is an effective way of making too-wet (and too-dry) areas into the perfect condition for growing plants.
I have planned to build this rain garden in three zones- the first will be the wettest section of land. Here we will plant things that are accustomed to wet conditions; I chose to look into swamp milkweed, white turtlehead, golden alexander, and culver’s root. The second zone is a bit drier but still considerably more wet than the ideal landscape, and I have planned to put serviceberry, tall phlox, and indian cup there. In zone three, the driest of the areas, there will be blazingstar, bergamot/bee balm, and wild passionflower. This is only ten plants, but I wanted to learn a whole lot about each of them in order to plan the best garden I could.
In honor of another promise I made myself to paint every week I was here, I painted tiny pictures of each of the plants I studied. On the back they have information about care, which pollinators are attracted to them, and the seasons they bloom. I don’t know if this garden is actually going to be built after I leave, but I know it helped me understand my surroundings and make a “problem” on the farm into something beautiful and helpful.