Now in the fifth week of the eight-week online program, Nature in Your Neighborhood has had 570 people sign up for the program and 130 people join the weekly virtual presentations.
Rebekah Korenowsky and Heather Harding sometimes compare their relationship to lichen.
“I’m the fungi,” Korenowsky said. “I make the structures and set up the outlines, and then Heather comes in as the algae and fills it all in with spongy, good material.”
It’s an apt description for the two-person team that in just one month created and launched an online naturalist learning class, available for free to anyone with an internet connection.
In March, the Jefferson Land Trust was gearing up to host “Tidelands to Timberline,” an annual natural history course in which participants go on all-day field trips every Friday for two months to explore topics such as local plants, animals and the native environment.
But when the nonprofit conservation organization had to send its employees to work from home and shut down the in-person course, Harding and Korenowsky put their heads together to come up with a virtual alternative.
“When we had to cancel the Tidelands to Timberlines course, the development and outreach team started a big brainstorming document of all of the things we could do in its place,” Korenowsky said.
It was Harding who came up with the idea of a virtual naturalist class. When she pitched it to the development team, they asked if she could make it into something much bigger.
“I said, ‘No problem.’ I adjusted the whole idea and concept and then Rebekah and I went into a ‘think tank’ for a week and the two of us created ‘Nature in Your Neighborhood.’”
Now in the fifth week of the eight-week online program, Nature in Your Neighborhood has had 570 people sign up for the program and 130 people join the weekly virtual presentations. Even more are watching the online recordings and participating in the program by photographing plants, animals and other natural phenomena found in backyards and neighborhoods, emailing in questions and thoughts and observing the outdoors in their “Sit Spot.”
Transitioning an in-person naturalist course to the internet has not been easy.
“All of the presenters are professionals in their fields,” Harding said. “But that’s what we do — we work in the field.”
Harding and Korenowsky didn’t want to create a virtual course unless it got people outside and involved in nature.
“It’s not about couch learning, it’s not a PowerPoint presentation,” Harding said. “A lot of presenters are used to doing things that way. But we’re doing a virtual nature walk, and that is different.”
It took some out-of-the-box thinking to design a course that could not just be watched from the couch. That’s where the pairs’ combined skills came in handy.
Harding is a volunteer at the land trust, and in Tidelands to Timberlines teaches a course on Pacific Northwest ferns. She’s been a naturalist and a guide for years and has helped the land trust develop courses for training new naturalist guides.
Meanwhile, Korenowsky calls herself the resident “millennial” at the land trust. She’s an “engagement coordinator” and when the organization had to switch to virtual meetings, she dove into learning the tips and tricks to use online programs like Zoom.
In designing the program, the two formed a joyful partnership.
“We spent hours on the phone,” Korenowsky said. “Sometimes we would talk with our earphones in, walking on the trail, coming up with different ideas and testing them out.”
The weekly online explorations are guided by an experienced naturalist who kicks off the learning with a virtual nature walk. The guide then distributes “assignments” to explore and observe “hidden wonders” close to home.
Because of the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy,” order, the course focuses on exploring nature nearby — in backyards from porches, or on a neighborhood walk.
The foundation of the course is what’s called a “Sit Spot,” Harding said.
“Sit Spots” are used by naturalists everywhere as a way to observe the natural world.
“You find a spot very close to your home, in nature, and you sit there for at least 20 minutes and observe,” Harding said. “It’s totally simple. It helps people learn how to observe. In our experience, that is the beginning of being a naturalist.”
The students also participate in an online study group wrap-up and discuss their adventures and observations from the previous week. There is an email they can send questions to and a Facebook group where they can post photos and observations.
“This is about connecting to each other, as well as connecting to nature,” Harding said. “We have a lot of ways to generate community. And people are just thrilled with it. We’ve had tremendous feedback.”
While the course takes place on a screen, its main goal is to encourage people to explore the outdoors and connect with each other over their learning.
“So much of our world has been reduced to occurring through a screen,” Korenowsky said. “We’re trying to make this an invitation to explore. The learning starts at each of the events, but it does not stop there.”
Both Korenowsky and Harding bring their love of nature and outdoor exploration to the program, and they’ve curated a list of nature experts who present the classes, such as salmon recovery conservationist Byron Rot, amphibian expert Geoff Hammerson and others.
And beyond hoping students in the class will come away with new knowledge, Korenowsky and Harding hope the class will bring peace and connection in a difficult time.
“I think that we are in quarantine from people, but we’re not quarantined from the community of nature,” Harding said. “We start to feel connected to something — the family of trees, or of insects or birds. There are all these organisms living all around us.”
There is still a month’s worth of classes to participate in for those who haven’t signed up yet. To do so, go to saveland.org and see the full schedule of classes.
For those who can’t attend the live virtual nature walks, they can be watched later. And at the very least, participants can pick a “Sit Spot,” and learn to observe the natural world around them.
“How lucky we are to have such a beautiful place that we live in,” Harding said. “The amount of interest in this shows that people really do appreciate where they live and they long to get to know it better. I feel very moved by that.”