The Magic, Love and Curiosity of Shawnee State Park Naturalist Jenny Richards
She’s a student, teacher, self-described “weirdo” and MacGyver of the Ohio woods.
When Columbus Monthly’s photographer Tim Johnson and I finally get to Shawnee State Park in late April, it is our third attempt at making the trip to see naturalist Jenny Richards in action. Tim and I are working on a story about how to enjoy and experience nature like a naturalist as part of Monthly’s June cover story on Ohio state parks and nature preserves.
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We arrive early, hoping to catch Jenny in her element with a school group from Portsmouth. As we park, we see Jenny making her way down from the top of a dam on the south side of Turkey Creek Lake. Behind her, a band of rowdy fourth graders, binoculars in hand, are coming back from bird spotting.
She greets Tim and I with a big wave, a toothy smile and a singsong “hello.”
We don’t have Jenny’s attention for long, though. As soon as she gets to the bottom of the hill, she drops off one band of kids and starts back up the hill with another, right after teaching them all how to use the binoculars.
The school group on this day is just one of dozens this year that Jenny will entertain, teach and explore with. Oh, and answer their very important questions, such as, “Where do snakes pee?”
This is the busiest time of the year for Jenny, who’s been at Shawnee for 23 years. “It’s exhausting and awesome,” Jenny says. “I just say to every school I can until I can’t.”
It’s easy to fall in love with Jenny. She’s electric, a self-described “weirdo,” her passion for the natural world streams through every word and inflection.
Tim and I follow this second band to the top, stopping each time Jenny finds something to geek out over, or to answer a question from one of the very inquisitive kids.
Jenny is a MacGyver of the woods, at one point showing the kids how they can examine delicate bluets up close by turning the binos around. “You’ve got to be a real geek to make it work,” she says as she lies really close to the ground, her face nearly touching the flowers.
Jenny was born outside, she says. Raised by two hippie parents in Washington state, she lived for the first two years of her life in a tent. Since then, she’s been attached to the soil and the trees around her.
The naturalist profession, though, didn’t come to her until later, after spending time as a mapmaker and traveling the world for a few years learning about biodiversity.
When we make it to the top of the dam, Jenny instructs us all to get into one big line and lie down. “Close your eyes!”
We do a listening activity. How many birds can we hear?
“Peeter-peeter-peeter,” Jenny says, imitating a bird call in the distance. “Do you hear that? That’s a tufted titmouse.”
“How does the sun feel on your face? Take a break from your busy life and just be outside in the sun and take a few deep breaths,” Jenny instructs the elementary students. “Did you know the sun fills you with love?”
Naturalists like Jenny occupy a very special place between scientist, educator and entertainer. In a world where we must know everything and must never admit we know nothing, naturalists invite us to explore the world through a childlike curiosity. Jenny will be the first person to tell you she doesn’t know something. But she’d also be the first person to find out the answer.
“The Earth is my church,” she says. “Mother Earth was our original teacher.”
She has a knack for seamlessly blending the inherited knowledge of the world with her genuine awe of it all. Each natural phenomena explained by Jenny isn’t merely a recitation of facts but perhaps a lesson that could be applied to our human world.
“I think I’m the most drawn to trees,” Jenny says. “They’re real life givers. And I feel the knowledge of trees is really amazing. They stay in one place for their whole life. They’re all like intertwined and they’re relying on each other for their community. I can’t even talk about it. Sometimes I just cry when I think about trees.”
Watching the way Jenny moves through the world, I find myself envious. I get the sense that Jenny could hear and feel something I couldn’t—a distant heartbeat, a quiet breath of the natural world.
“We’re always going from one thing to the next thing. We miss all these wonderful little, beautiful details that are here for us if we will just take the time to enjoy them.”
Editor’s note: Look for Columbus Monthly’s cover story on Ohio state parks and nature preserves on newsstands at the end of May.