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Call to Mother Nature

Residents volunteer for Nature Center’s docent program and outreach

Posted: January 14, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 14, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Janet Kubler, left, leads a group through a trail during volunteer-naturalist training at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center in Newhall. Janet Kubler, left, leads a group through a trail during volunteer-naturalist training at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center in Newhall.
Janet Kubler, left, leads a group through a trail during volunteer-naturalist training at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center in Newhall.

About 30 people walked carefully within the string of stones bordering the trail when abruptly, the group leader hopped the rocks and crossed over to a spot among the crumbling oak tree leaves.

“Look at this over here,” Janet Kubler said in the 11 a.m. sun and chill outside Placerita Canyon Nature Center.

The group crouched in a ring around an object, peering with intent as Kubler pointed out soft, circular grooves and tiny, eaten-away holes in the fallen log.

The markings demonstrate the decomposition process and provide evidence of interconnectedness, said the ecology teacher for the nature center’s docent training program.

She was showing the group fungi.

“Ecology is the scientific study of homes, and the study of connections,” Kubler said during Thursday morning’s docent training session.

Roughly 20 volunteers began the nine-week program last week. Once they graduate, they will join the 30-50 active docents to make the largest group to date, said Ron Kraus, lead docent for the county park and nature center in Newhall.  

Every Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon, docents and outside professionals will lead a topic-specific lecture on their subjects of expertise before breaking the group for lunch and heading out for field work — usually a hike through the surrounding ecosystems.

“We want to teach people how nonliving things are connected to you and to them, why we value them so much,” Kubler said to the peering docents, explaining their future responsibilities as nature guides.

A biology professor at California State University, Northridge, and a Valencia resident, Kubler had provided an educational foundation for the hike during her morning ecology lecture.

The start of the environmental movement in the 1960s focused on raising awareness about the connectedness of humans to their environments, Kubler said in the center’s eco-friendly main building.

“Now we’re not asking, ‘Is it all connected?’ We know it is,” Kubler said. “We’re focused on the idea of sustainability.”

Today the environmental movement has shifted in focus and form as individuals take on projects specific to their own passions, rather than participating in a broader, unified movement, Kubler said.

After the lecture, several members described the paths that lead them to the center.

“I didn’t know anything about nature until I came here,” said Michael Elling, a Sylmar retiree and second-year docent who had returned for a refresher course. “We get good-quality education, and it’s even better the second time,” Elling said.

Fresh from the surrounding school systems and searching for ways to use or further their education, several recent graduates also joined the ranks.

“I’m a recent CSUN graduate, and I’m between jobs,” said Connie Viola, 28. “I’ve been trying to do this for years, and now I have the chance.”

An anthropology major, Viola expressed interest in the culture of the native Tatavium population. As a previous College of the Canyons preschool teacher, she hopes to lead tours for school kids.

The center’s school tour guide program focuses on second- to sixth-graders. Led by the docents, it reaches roughly 10,000 kids a year from the Santa Clarita, Antelope and San Fernando valleys and Los Angeles school districts, said lead docent Kraus.

“Sometimes they won’t get out of the bus because they are so scared there’s going to be lions or bears here,” said Jim Southwell, a 14-year docent. He pointed to animal cages outside the lecture room. “Some of them haven’t seen a tree without a metal grate around it.”

Saugus resident Brielle Jaramillo, 21, said she wants to share her enthusiasm for animals.

“The snake just likes to wrap around your arm. It’s like a little hug,” Jaramillo said of her first experience holding an animal at the center. “I really love animals. I want to be a zoologist or zoo vet.”

Kubler described her own reason for coming to Placerita after years of studying different ecosystems.

“I wanted to learn the ecosystem we live in,” she said. “We are all in this network. You are all connected.”


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