By Marilu Morgan
Standing in silence in the middle of the longleaf pine forest with thirty 7th graders, we observe the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves in the trees overhead and the distant rumble of engines on Highway 20. I see kids scribbling their observations on worksheets and others stifling giggles—three minutes is a long time for 12 and 13-year-olds to stay quiet. When our trail guide “Diamondback” Dalton calls an end to the “surround sound” activity, the group lets out a collective exhale, and the enthusiastic sounds of middle schoolers who have escaped the classroom on a school day resume.
I am tagging along with E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center Assistant Director Dalton Allen on the wetlands trail as he enlightens a group of kids on the splendor of the natural world. In addition to observing the sounds of the forest, we discover “knockdown” trees (in which the root system is exposed), hog tracks, and even a golden orb weaver spider.
In their four days at the Biophilia Center, these kids, many of whom have never taken a walk in the woods before visiting, are fully immersed in the longleaf pine ecosystem. They study flora and fauna on Nokuse Plantation, a 54,000-acre nature preserve which is home to many endangered species. They find gopher tortoises in their natural habitat and learn about the importance of their burrows in a fire-dependent forest. They hold corn snakes and indigo snakes and realize that snakes aren’t dangerous if you just leave them alone when you encounter them in the wild.
They work in teams to identify characteristics of animal skulls and determine which animals are predators and which are prey. They have so much fun learning about the natural world around them that they don’t realize the STEM curriculum is preparing them for Florida state testing and simultaneously instilling “biophilia,” a love of all living things.
The students of Walton, Okaloosa, Bay, Holmes and Washington counties are fortunate to call the Biophilia Center and Nokuse Plantation an extension of their science classroom. Located in Freeport, the center was founded 10 years ago by conservationist and visionary M.C. Davis and named after Dr. E.O. Wilson, Harvard University professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist.
Dr. Wilson became enamored with small critters, especially ants, as a child in Mobile, Alabama, and he has continued studying the natural world his entire life. The Biophilia Center embodies Dr. Wilson’s passion for education and the environment through its mission to “educate students and visitors on the importance of biodiversity, to promote sustainability, and to encourage conservation, preservation and restoration of ecosystems.”
In addition to the 6,000 students who participate in the Biophilia Center’s programs annually (over 100 students per school day), the center opens up to the public two days each week during the summer. The Biophilia Center also has a membership program with special events throughout the year, such as the “Camp-in,” in which families can spend the night in the Exhibit Hall à la Night at the Museum, night hikes followed by a campfire and s’mores, and the ever-popular Egg-a-Palooza complete with Easter bunny and petting zoo—my daughter talks about it all year long.
Last year, the Biophilia Center unveiled Camp Longleaf, an overnight summer camp facility and brainchild of Biophilia Center Director Paul Arthur. Camp Longleaf features six cabins, a dining hall, and engaging nature-based programming designed to spark curiosity and excitement in campers from ages 9 to 14. The first year was so successful, the Biophilia team is thrilled to offer an even greater variety of summer camp options for 2020.
Through all that the dedicated staff and volunteers do at the Biophilia Center, the overarching goal is to help build a personal connection to the world around us, nurture an appreciation for the importance of biodiversity, and ultimately instill a sense of responsibility to protect the environment.
For more details about the Biophilia Center, including volunteer opportunities, membership information, upcoming events, and summer camp information, please visit www.biophiliacenter.org
Marilu Morgan is a reader, runner and nature lover from North Alabama. She met her husband at the University of Alabama and followed him to Destin. You can find Marilu on Instagram @marilumorgan and blogging at marilumorgan.com.