Into the woods of enchantment

The great naturalist John Muir once observed, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”

Within Fairfield County, an arboreal portal to a greater world quietly exists on the 149 acres of the Woodcock Nature Center, a wooded preserve straddling Wilton and Ridgefield.

Well, maybe this oasis of nature isn’t entirely quiet. It is not uncommon to hear squeals of excitement and a happy skein of questions and observations offered by grade schoolers who find endless wonder in this small slice of paradise. (Not to mention in Hooty the great horned owl, Monty the African ball python and Bonnie and Clyde, a pair of gray tree frogs, to name a few.) And that’s no mean feat for a generation that is more familiar with emojis than eagles.

Chubbs, an African bullfrog at the Woodcock Nature Center. Courtesy the Woodcock Nature Center.

“Kids that come here don’t think twice about not being with their devices,” says Lenore Eggleston Herbst, the center’s executive director. “They are ready to come and explore.”

Those entering the Woodcock Nature Center can take advantage of three miles of hiking trails, a wildlife center that is home to 30 animals native to the area and vernal pools — defined basins of standing water in the woods that are not connected to a permanent stream — that provide residence to a wider selection of delightful residents. The vernal pools have found their way into a program that began last year with the cooperation of the Ridgefield School District. 

“Every fourth grade student participates in the program,” Herbst says. “It is conducted in a field trip-type setting that allows students to study wildlife in a vernal pool. We have a curriculum for teachers to utilize at school, which helps the students learn about the environment, habitats and the purpose of the vernal pool in nature.”

Outside of the school setting, youngsters also take advantage of the center’s riches through the summer camp programs for preschoolers through eighth graders. For these campers, the forest becomes their classroom and their gym.

“We do hiking, rain or shine,” Herbst continues. “They just dress for the weather. Kids have a lot of fun — and they get really dirty.”

The older children also get a hands-on lesson in fire safety in the woods, with fire-building and campfire cooking lessons. “It’s something different, something they can’t get in schools,” Herbst says, adding that rave reviews from the campers have created some good-natured jealousy for adults. “Parents tell us that they wish summer camp came for adult ages.”

However, the grown-ups aren’t excluded from the center’s fun. Family programs scheduled for the spring include a pollinator garden planting event for Earth Day and a guided bird walk with Audubon bird guide Joe Baer. A birdhouse building seminar in March quickly sold out after it was announced. A new program being introduced this spring is called “Mommy, Me & the Natural World,” in which youngsters between the ages of 1 and 3 and their caregivers explore the center’s grounds through nature walks, animal encounters, stories and art projects.

Last year, Connecticut experienced an abnormally high tick infestation that became national news. Herbst reports that while that was not a concern at the center, all participants are briefed on the dangers from ticks and are advised to prepare against them while on the hiking trails.

“We tell everyone to dress appropriately, with long pants and high socks, to use bug spray if they feel comfortable with it and to do a tick check every day,” she says.

The Woodcock Nature Center has been part of Fairfield County since 1972, but its operations are not backed with any government funding. Herbst notes that private philanthropic generosity and support from the community helps to finance the organization’s $400,000 annual budget. Fundraising endeavors held through the year include the “adoption” of one of the animals within the wildlife center and events such as the “Where the Wild Things Run” 5K, the kids’ mini-marathon and the yuletide Family Wreath Making Day and Wreath Festival.

One of the newest additions to the center is, ironically, Herbst herself. She took on the executive director position in February after serving on the board of directors for two years. Although not a naturalist, Herbst brings 20 years of nonprofit management experience to the center. Before this, she served for 12 years as director of marketing and development for the Westchester Philharmonic. Herbst was aware of the center through trips she conducted with her children, who are now 9 and 5½, and she recalled how her kids always requested to keep going back on hikes.

In her new role, Herbst acknowledges the responsibility of bringing the joy of nature to tomorrow’s environmental protectors while reminding the current generation about the beauty and importance of the ecosystem. “It is very rewarding to have a direct impact on people and the community around us,” she says.

The Woodcock Nature Center is at 56 Deer Run Road, Wilton. For more, visit woodcocknaturecenter.org or call 203-203-762-7280.

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