For many Californians, the most accessible place to experience nature is in the chaparral, a shrub-dominated ecosystem rich in biodiversity that can be found in every county in the state. As a consequence, chaparral provides one of the best places for Californians to learn about and connect with the natural environment. In some wild land areas, local governments have built nature centers to help facilitate such an experience. One of the first nature centers we visited during our research was at Devil’s Punchbowl, a protected natural area administered by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.
When we first entered the park’s wood-paneled nature center, a small building with an open, uncluttered display hall, it appeared as if we were on our own. Along two walls were cabinets filled with an array of bird and mammal taxidermy, artifacts, and photos. Embedded within the other two walls were ten terrariums containing an assortment of live reptiles and insects. In the far corner was a tall counter with an opening behind that led into a small office containing an old book case with additional specimens from the park, all neatly arranged on shelves. On the counter sat a dissection scope and a two-foot-tall glass cylinder filled with earth. Attached to the wall was a two-foot diameter section of a cut pine tree. It was hollowed out and faced with a plate of glass to reveal an active beehive within.
Dave Numer, ranger and superintendent of Devil’s Punchbowl, emerged from the back office. “So, how do you think the bees get in and out of there?” he asked. Wearing a crisp uniform and a wide-brimmed hat, he leaned against the desk with a broad smile and he let us consider the question for a brief moment. Tapping the back of the log with a small, metal pointer that he extended with a snap, he provided the answer. “It’s connected to the outside by a PVC pipe right back there.”
Numer then turned our attention to the glass cylinder. “And take a look at this!” He pulled out a thumb-sized flash light and shined it into a small, excavated chamber. Translucent, marble-sized golden globes hung from the chamber’s ceiling. The globes were moving slightly from side to side, glistening in the beam of light. The scene was right out of a nature documentary.
“Honeypot ants!” we exclaimed.
“Honeypot ants, yes! And they’re native here in the park.” Numer added that the globes were the enlarged abdomens of specialized honeypot worker ants (Myrmecocystus mexicanus) capable of storing a honey-like substance used to provide food for the colony during lean times. Then he pointed out the glass cylinder’s partially open lid and a little pile of dirt on his desk. “How do you think that got there?”
“Yes, the ants! They leave the nest after I depart at the end of the day and roam the nature center all night.” He enjoyed waiting for our reaction. “They always return by morning. One day when I came in early, I caught them hauling up a dead moth they had found on the floor somewhere.”
Numer shared more of his knowledge about the ants, the bees, and the center’s other displays, and offered to take us outside. Joined by his assistant Olivia, he discussed their favorite points of interest until being interrupted by a raucous noise from above. An old raven was calling out from his perch in the large pinyon pine near a small building across from the center. Numer laughed then nodded toward the building. “That was my home for five years when I lived on site.” He looked back at us. “I’ve been here for nearly 43 years now.”
Numer continued sharing his knowledge about the desert chaparral in the park, scattered between the pines and junipers, and the recent drought’s impact on the manzanita. The gnarled, gray stems of several dead manzanita individuals were still pointing skyward. Pointing off into the distance he said, “A fire burn over that farthest ridge in 1953.” The area was still relatively bare. The pines and junipers had not come back well. Turning our attention into the canyon below, Numer encouraged us to explore it. “There’s a little turn off along the trail by a large log. You can climb over a few boulders there and have a great view of the park.”
Finalizing our review of Devil’s Punchbowl after our hike, we were surprised to realize that references to the chaparral, and nearly everything we were measuring in our evaluation, were missing at the nature center. Yet the place inspired us. It was the learning environment Numer had created over the past four decades, his questions and how he asked them, that caught our attention. The most compelling part of our experience was Numer’s enthusiasm and personal warmth, not the content of the exhibits. We wanted to come back.
In evaluating all of Southern California’s chaparral-connected nature centers and speaking with dozens of naturalists, our experience at Devil’s Punchbowl was affirmed. The state of chaparral education cannot be discovered by merely reviewing content. The people behind the desk, the outdoor educators, and the volunteer naturalists on the trail play a critical role in whether or not the content is meaningful to visitors. These people create relationships that establish the foundation required to encourage lasting change within the minds of those they inspire. This observation offers an alternative to how nature education is often approached. Rather than asking what we want to teach, a naturalist’s goals might be better served by asking what change we hope to achieve in those we will be teaching.
What change do we seek as nature educators? A general consensus emerged during our research – to inspire a love for nature that will foster curiosity to learn more and the desire to care for and protect the natural environment. For us, Dave Numer’s approach to interpretation achieved exactly that.