At a recent meeting of Fontenelle Forest’s staff, Debbie Beck passed around a box of acorns and asked each person to take one.
Beck, a naturalist at the forest since 2006, then asked each staffer for one word to describe the acorn they had selected. The vast majority of the answers were the standard fare: tree, brown, food, forest.
Then Beck told the story of the tree from which the acorns had fallen: the forest’s Constitution Tree, an oak estimated to have started growing about the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
“All of a sudden, that acorn became more interesting,” Beck said. “I asked them again for one word to describe their acorn and the answers were much more intangible: Freedom, pride, country, loyalty.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what Beck has accomplished in becoming Nebraska’s first National Association of Interpretation-certified interpretive guide and interpretive trainer.
The craft of nature interpretation, she said, is all about building a context around singular elements in nature — an acorn, a leaf, a tree, a forest — and drawing a connection to an individual to enhance his or her awareness of the natural world.
“The field of interpretation really is a conduit between the resources of the forest and its visitors,” Beck said. “The whole goal is to make a link, intellectual or emotional, to the people who are going to come back and be long-term supporters. If they don’t have that link, that personal feeling, it’s much harder to get people to support the mission of the forest.”
As a study, interpretation essentially began with the publication of Freeman Tilden’s 1957 book “Interpreting Our Heritage,” in which Tilden laid out six principles for interpretation and gave the practice its de facto credo: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”
Interpretation rapidly gained currency among naturalists and other conservators of the ecology, building to the founding of the National Association of Interpretation in 1988. A decade later, the organization began offering workshops to certify individuals in the field.
To become certified as an interpretive trainer, Beck underwent 32 hours of coursework, passed a literature review and essay exam, drew up curriculum for her own training sessions and passed a peer review which included the creation of a 20-minute video of her posited teaching program.
“My teaching style has changed as a result,” Beck said of her approach to tours in the forest and training with other guides in the wake of her training. “I’ve gone away from just straight lecture and turned it more into a discussion session.”
Beck is now helping other guides at Fontenelle Forest develop their interpretive skills, with the goal of getting more of the forest’s personnel certified in the interpretive pursuit.
“It’s in our strategic vision to be doing things like this,” Fontenelle Forest Director of Communications Brad Watkins said. “To be a local, regional and nationally-recognized organization, this is a great step for us to have Debbie become the first person in Nebraska to gain this certification. This is the direction we see ourselves going.”
And in so going, Beck said the forest will constantly be creating new stories for itself and its visitors.
“It increases the qualifications of all the educators here and of the organization itself,” she said. “And when we do that, the public’s experience is enhanced. When you make that personal connection through universal experience, that’s how you bring people back and get them involved.”
Beck said visitors to the forest seeking an interpretive experience in their tour can request her as a guide and she said as the forest’s other guides become more adept at the interpretive tour, more people will be able to have the experience.