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Dedicated volunteers help 'nature docents'

John McCoy
When inclement weather interrupts one of the tours she conducts along the Huntington Museum of Art's nature trails, nature docent Susan Shields can simply move her entourage to the museum's conservatory, which is filled with rare and exotic plants.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- A small but dedicated band of volunteers helps visitors to the Huntington Museum of Art enjoy the flora and fauna on the museum's 52-acre campus.They're called "nature docents." For more than 30 years, they've led tours along the museum's 1 1/2-mile trail network, pointing out interesting trees, wildflowers, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals."We currently have seven nature docents, and they are all very experienced," said Cindy Dearborn, the museum's education director. "They all have strong interests in nature, in people, in teaching, and in getting out on the trails and having fun."Susan Shields has been a docent for 20 years. She saw leading tours as a way to put her education as a biologist to use."It's a lot of fun," she said. "It's also very rewarding, especially when you're taking someone down the trail and you see their eyes pop out when you show them a really beautiful wildflower."Many of the tours involve groups of schoolchildren. Shields said that sometimes her job as a docent is to help those completely unfamiliar with nature to adjust to an environment where the path is not paved and where creepy-crawlies sometimes lurk."I had one little guy recently who was scared of the woods," she said. "But after he saw that nothing was going to hurt him and that there were lots of pretty things out there, he absolutely loved it." Docents don't have to have biology degrees or master naturalist's certificates. Knowledge of nature certainly helps, but periodic training seminars ensure a proper grounding in the fundamentals."We've had professors from Marshall [University] taking us on tree walks, bird walks, wildflower walks -- things like that," Shields said.Perhaps the most challenging part of being a docent is dealing with the always unpredictable West Virginia weather.
During a recent visit from students at a Kanawha Valley elementary school, a rainstorm swept over the area just as the buses arrived. With the trails wet and muddy, Shields and her fellow docents had to figure another way to give the youngsters an educational nature experience without going outdoors.Some of the docents took groups of students on tours of the museum's art exhibits. Others whipped up an impromptu hands-on crafts project that walked another group of youngsters through construction of simple bird feeders. Shields took one group at a time to the museum's C. Fred Edwards Conservatory, a high-tech greenhouse filled with rare and unusual plants from around the world.She walked them through the conservatory's orchid collection, showed them banana plants, kumquat trees, chocolate trees, pomegranate trees and coconut palms. She raised their eyebrows with interesting details about the plants, and fielded every question with seeming ease.Education director Dearborn said teachers who bring their students to the museum generally have kind words to say about the docents."Most of them are very appreciative that we were able to get the kids out on the trail and allow them to burn off a little energy," she said.
Though the trail tours are available throughout the year, Dearborn said the docents are busiest from mid-spring to mid-fall."During the winter, [tour requests] are pretty slow," she added. "But during the busy part of the year, it's not unusual for us to do one to two tours a week with groups that range from six to 50 or more people."The 90-minute tours, which museum officials have dubbed "Walks in the Woods," can be arranged by calling Dearborn at 304-529-2701 at least two weeks ahead of the anticipated visit. There is an admission charge to the museum. The tours are free.Reach John McCoy at or 304-348-1231.  
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