Call of the wild

The services and benefits of a community nature center go well beyond the delightful aspect of providing a floral form of “eye candy” for visitors. They are neighborhood “parks” with a purpose, affording their residents — the plants and trees as well as two- and four-footed creatures — with a natural habitat in which to grow and learn. They also offer miniature ecosystems that contribute to a healthy planet and keep our pollinators happy.

In the case of New Canaan Nature Center (NCNC), the traditional mission is further expanded by educational opportunities for all ages through events and programming. Its preschool program, which began in 1960, is the oldest, nature-based program in the country, says Executive Director Bill Flynn.

The roughly 40 acres of land on which the center was established, also in 1960, was a gift to the town by the estate’s former owner, Susan White Bliss, for the expressed purpose of making it a parkland for the community. The town of New Canaan owns the land, provides utilities and contributes baseline maintenance services. Overall, the center’s staff is relatively small, as this is mostly a volunteer-driven enterprise.

The nearby residents who enjoy visiting, planting or walking the nicely manicured 2-mile trail, give back in hours of work and devotion to their neighborhood haven. It was New Canaan artist — and October 2017 WAG subject — Olga Sweet, a tireless volunteer trimming strangling vines from trees when she and her son William are not releasing butterflies on the property, who suggested the visit and profile for this issue.

Speaking of the connection that she and William have come to relish over the years, Olga says, “I cannot think of a better way to teach a child how to be kind than to have him care for trees, animals, butterflies and anything else that needs our aid. William’s love of plants and animals has grown into a passion for defending endangered species throughout the world.”

It’s a sentiment that’s music to the ears of Flynn, a wildlife biologist who has been the director of the NCNC for the past two years, coming East about eight years ago after running a residential, outdoor camp in the mountains of Southern California, about two hours outside of Los Angeles. His wife, Anna Zielinski, is the art director of the preschool, and, together with Bill they are raising their toddler-aged son, Henry, in the caretaker’s house on the property. Flynn tells me he is fond of Connecticut — and of its winters  an avid ice hockey player himself — adding, “We couldn’t be more invested in this place.”

And it shows as we tour much of the 13 developed acres and walk part of the trails, peeking inside a 1980s-vintage greenhouse, currently home to classrooms and a succulent garden; the sugaring shed, recently closed for the season; and visiting all the winged and four-legged resident creatures that call NCNC home.

There is an aviary that includes a bald eagle, a vulture, a hawk and an owl. The center was recently
given four donkeys from a resident who relocated her animals and their barn to the property, and there are goats and chickens, reptiles and other species in the mix. There’s enough to interest the young and young at heart but not overwhelm.

Many beautiful specimen trees are longtime residents of this storied estate. And, adjacent to the formal garden up front is a robust herb garden, tended by volunteers. It may be early in the season, but much activity is underway at NCNC.  There are plans to further utilize other unused greenhouses on the property. One has community garden plots for vegetable and flower growing. 

Ponds and benches also dot this slice of landscape, for visitors who seek refuge from their busy lives and stresses to relax and enjoy the tranquility. They include students and out-of-towners.

Flynn is particularly proud of the educational component the center offers the community via not only the preschool but the programming for adults, truly making it nature’s classroom. This summer, it will be partnering with the New York Botanical Garden to offer programs in gardening, floral design, landscape design, botanical art and illustration and horticultural therapy. 

One last important highlight of the center is that it participates in a program called “Pollinator Pathway,” which, as its name implies, links commercial and residential properties throughout the region, providing a chain of gardens in which pollinators can make their way through the seasons up and down the Northeast corridor.

Adds Flynn, “We are all about celebrating nature and providing environmental education.  First and foremost, we provide opportunities for people to make a connection to the land. Then the advocacy and protection (of it) follows.”

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