Today’s world is all about connection. You can take your bytes and bits and upload, download, reload, email, text, stream … ah stream. Connection is a confined thing these days. And if we’re not connected, we’re alone. People need not sever servers and whatever else they’ve jacked into, but perhaps there is a need to reconnect as has always been true. Nature isn’t going to set up a TED Talk on mindfulness. Instead, regardless of your internet plan, it’s giving each one of us 24/7 access to experiences and interactions so amusingly ordinary, every species on earth can tap into them.
Aldo Leopold Nature Center (ALNC) is championing the philosophies and ideologies set forth by the man himself. Cara Erickson, marketing and communications manager at ALNC, says, “Aldo Leopold is considered the father of phenology, and phenology is the art and science of observing and recording events as they occur in the natural world.” It’s going from that meditative oneness with the land to making everything more lucid. In order to do that, the ALNC provides context to capitalize on daily natural phenomena.
“The cool thing about the Nature Center is we don’t have a ton of land, but we have a variety of habitats on our land,” says Cara. “You can walk one trail, and you’ll be walking through the basswood forest, through the oak savanna, and then eventually out into the prairie wetlands. Each piece of the trail has its own ecosystem.”
Having a range of Wisconsin habitats means providing a stage to capture a lot of cyclical developments in fauna and flora. It also means being able to observe and record ecological disruptions, providing data points that may help contribute to further understanding on how environmental changes impact our world. Every visitor can embrace becoming a citizen scientist.
Start with self-guided hikes. The trails of ALNC have a digital docent system that visitors can access with their smartphones. Scanning the QR code links to information on native species, including the impacts of seasonal fluctuations and climate change on those species. For example, as temperatures rise, there will be more female box turtles compared to males because their sex is determined by temperature during incubation.
“We encourage people to stay on the trails, but at the same time, we want people to wander and to explore and to dip their net into the pond,” says Cara. “We want our visitors to be hands on with their discovery of nature. We are very much a come-and-experience-nature-here facility.”
Or instead of going straight for the trails, head to the ALNC building. “We have maps inside, so if you stop in at the desk, you can get a map of the nature center grounds,” says Cara. “We have a visitor map with a scavenger hunt as well as a couple questions about interesting things to look for when you’re out on the grounds.” In addition, each person working at ALNC actively partakes in phenology and can tell you what natural events are taking place that day.
Not far from the ALNC building, the trails are set up for maximum accessibility to nature, creating an abundance of learning opportunities. “The Nature Center has the easiest trails,” says Cara. “We do have one or two paved trails, but other than that, they’re wood chipped or fairly flat with grass. We mow them. Someone in a wheelchair would be able to navigate some of the trails.” As for the other trails, “they’re pretty fairly easy hiking.”
Some experienced hikers might worry they won’t find a full-day’s trek on the premises. “The nature center itself has about 20 acres of hiking trails,” says Cara. But that’s not the whole story. “We’re located right between Woodland Park, which is a City of Monona park, and Edna Taylor Conservation Park, which is a City of Madison park, and our trails intertwine. Altogether, there’s 100 acres of hiking trails in this area. We have quite a bit of land for people to come out and hike and enjoy and partake in nature.”
Along with the area to explore, there are some unique trail features. “We have an island in our pond. On the back end of the island, the bridge is pretty low in the water, and you can walk out and see other species. And then there’s several pond docks, or teaching docks, that we have on the pond itself.” When I last hiked the trails, I had the experience of walking out onto a wetland dock and being only a few yards from a wading heron.
Being up close and personal with wildlife invigorates curiosity. Since education is at the forefront of nearly every undertaking of ALNC, one of the best ways for the often young and always inquisitive to take on the trails involves the right tools. Cara says, “We have the family trailside backpack program, which is free for members and $3 for nonmembers, to checkout at the front desk. That comes with trail guides, binoculars, and other accessories. In the summertime, we put in a pond net and a tub so that families can go out to the pond and dip and pull their own species.”
Bottom line, you can’t rewind nature, but it’s always putting on a show. “A group of field trippers just saw, for the first time, a weasel down by the water. Some of our environmental educators got really excited because they have never seen a weasel near the pond before. There’s cool events that occur all the time if we keep our eyes open.” There’s no surefire way to know what’ll be playing at ALNC on any given day, but the matinee is nonstop, the admission is free, and access is unlimited.
Side note, every year comes with a multitude of children environmental educational programs for youngsters of all ages. Also offered are adult and teacher workshops, Scout programs, presentations, and special events. Find out more at aldoleopoldnaturecenter.org .
Kyle Jacobson is a writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.