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Marketing the Environment

by Dale Goodner

A six-year-old boy sat perfectly still as the bumble bee approached. The droning buzz got louder and menacing as it circled close. His heart pounded and all he wanted to do was strike out or run. But he remembered the words of his grandmother: "If you don't hurt it, it won't hurt you." He sat still, the bee left, and he sighed, comforted in the knowledge that "me and that bee have something in common."

That was 1954 and my first exposure to interpretation that I can remember. My grandmother was a farmer and a naturalist by avocation. She had related a concept to me which was simple to understand and based on my own experience. Moreover, it influenced my attitude, had a positive effect on my behavior, and thereby enhanced my enjoyment of the outdoors.

Photo by Mary Goodner
Naturalist Dean Johnston explores
world of insects with children

Promoting appreciation and enjoyment of our environment is one of the most meaningful and relevant responsibilities of Park Districts and Forest Preserves. It is imperative that we provide access to natural areas, but until we effect appropriate attitudes, behaviors, and participation, it's no different than building a new facility and then failing to program or market it to our constituents. How do we market the natural world, and in what types of facilities, publications, and programs?

In his book, Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden outlined six points which provide a base for recreational learning, which we call interpretation. It bears more than a passing resemblance to marketing.

    1. Relate to the persons's personal experience.
    2. Not information, but rather revelation based upon information.
    3. Interpretation is an art, utilizing many art forms.
    4. The hallmark of good interpretation is provocation.
    5. It's holistic; focus is not on the "pieces but rather on the puzzle.
    6. Programs should be tailored to the audience.

Good interpretive programs and exhibits are attended as a recreational (not just educational) choice. We all love to participate in things which are meaningful and fun; therefore, program registration and ticket sales provide a measure of success. As in McDonald's Restaurants, each member of our staff needs to be committed to making customers glad they came. Our enthusiasm is contagious; our indifference is too.

The benefits to customers are many. A modicum of knowledge reduces anxiety. By relating to natural processes we have less urgency to strike out or run (as I did at age 6); yard care becomes less toxic; visits to the woods more meaningful; interludes in the parks less traumatic; phobias less intense and debilitating; and conservation itself becomes more rational, and worthy of priority.

Relate to Personal Experience

Tilden's first point, for example, is that you should relate to the personal experience of the visitor. When my Grandmother said, "if you don't hurt it, it won't hurt you," she was paraphrasing the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I could understand that at age six. We can very likely all remember hearing this from a relative when we were children. Now try applying it to the environment.

When school children participate in a nature tour, they already know about interdependence. They have spent their

28 • Illinois Parks & Recreation • March/April 1995

lives in community or family relationships. The challenge to the interpreter is not to introduce the concept, but rather to reveal to them how this principle relates to the forest. This can best be accomplished through discovery and exploration, not necessarily by means of lecture. Locate a chickadee. Don't just point out that the bird is feeding on canker worms. Through leading questions or possibly through role playing, you can get the group to connect the bird to the tree. The tree depends on the bird to keep hungry leaf eaters in check.

One way to relate to children is to understand the age old questions, what is that? Normally what they really mean is what does it do, or why is it important? Interpretive zoo exhibits, for example, focus on these implicit questions. This represents quite a shift from the old days. Think of it more as exhibiting verbs (processes) than nouns (things). Emphasis is not so much on the animals as on the processes and behaviors of living.

Revelation Based Upon Information

The second principle according to Tilden is that interpretation is not just information, but rather revelation based upon information. Revelations can be expressed as the "ah ha" reaction when that light of understanding goes on. In other words, properly presented information can help reveal larger concepts and relationships. What do colors and camouflage patterns of animals, for example, reveal about the environments to which they are adapted?

Once in a tour group comprised of people of various ages, we learned how to identify the older canopy trees around us as oaks by examining bark and bud characteristics. All of the younger saplings were sugar maples. Armed with this information, and motivated by the question, "what will this area look like in a couple of hundred years," a girl about age 12 proceeded to explain to our group (without the fancy words) the concept of plant succession. This is fundamentally what is referred to as reading the landscape. The information was not particularly interpretive, until the girl verbalized the revelation of plant community transition. This is where land stewardship begins.

Interpretation is an Art

Tilden's third point is that interpretation is an art. It utilizes many types of art forms in order to motivate interest and reveal meaning.

A favorite of mine is the art of story telling. The use of story cannot be overemphasized in terms of its significance to interpretation. When starting this article, I wanted to stress the value of interpretation in building attitudes and affecting positive behaviors. I felt that I could most efficiently relate the point through a story from my childhood.

As a naturalist, I used to focus upon spider webs in order to reduce some people's anxiety and to teach about predator/prey relationships. One day on a whim, I made up a story instead. I was amazed how incredibly focused a fourth grade class became as I began, "long ago and far, far away."I told of a young fellow named Demosthanes whose favorite meal by far was fish. But try as he may, he was unable to capture any, even though he attempted all day to jump on them along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Eventually he sat on the dock near the water totally frustrated and dejected and hungry. As he sat there about to cry, he noticed a spider web exactly like this one right here (pointing at an orb weaver web). As he stared at the patient spider (as we did also), a mosquito happened by and became caught in the web. The spider had lunch. Demosthanes had an idea. Guess what he invented!
Dale Goodner
Photo by Mary Goodner
Dale Goodner interpreting at the Prarie

Of course you can embellish the story, use voice fluctuation, pause, eye contact, and so on. The salient point, however, is that the kids are attentive, thinking, and empathizing with a spider. This "gross" critter, which many children as well as adults fear, has become an inspiration rather than an abhorrence. With a moderate amount of skill you, too, can weave a net to capture your group's imagination and help them to look at nature from a brand new angle.

Nature Centers used to have an image problem. Market surveys showed that they were considered stuffy and didactic. In response, we turned to art and hired a cartoonist to design our next brochure. Also we started an Old Time Folk and Country Jam, a session for musicians to gather on the second and fourth Sundays of each month throughout the year. Our musicians were recently featured on a local TV station, thereby adding to our fun image.

Artistically designed exhibits using color, balance and effective graphics can hold a visitor's attention as long as it isn't too crammed with information. Of particular interest to the sight impaired, there are some exhibits which, by means of motion detectors, will deliver a verbal message or animal call as the visitor approaches. These can provide a stimulating focus for people to learn of your agency's mission and goals.

One of the very best magnetic exhibits for customers is a well designed, well stocked store. Not only do you benefit from revenue, but carefully selected books, clothing items,

Illinois Parks & Recreation • March/April 1995 • 29

and souvenirs can reinforce your agency's mission. Be sure to include a large selection of children's books, jewelry, and refreshments. This will generate return visits and word of mouth advertising.

Good Interpretation is Provocation

Provocation is Tilden's fourth, and probably most important, principle of effective interpretation. The extent to which you are provocative determines how effectively you can capture and hold attention, or stimulate appropriate behaviors. "Hissing cockroaches" from Madagascar, or other easily handled live specimens such as snakes and tarantulas, can motivate audience participation, discussions, and stories. I spoke at a Soil and Water Conservation banquet a couple of years ago. My program came right after that of a representative from a chemical company. He talked about "chemophobia" to this mostly rural audience, suggesting this was why so many people were opposed to the use of pesticides. When my turn came, I told the group that I was going to discuss the cause of chemophobia— arthrophobia—and went on to introduce them to my three-inch-long Madagascar hissing cockroach. Even the man from the chemical company was interested and, in fact, touched the huge insect.

I couldn't help offering another bit of interpretive advice from my grandmother, in response to my being grossed out by a hole in an apple from one of her trees. She said, "If the worm won't eat it, maybe you shouldn't either."

Photo by Mary Goodner
Dale Goodner accompanies a
group during a prarie

After that program, I received several requests for presentations at banquets from other Soil and Water Conservation Districts. This was my assurance that I'd achieved at least moderate success in provocation. I've come to view interpretive programs as entertainment rather than education, per se.

Another avenue for honing your provocational interpretive skills is in writing, for example program titles, descriptions, and articles. Through use of imagery, alliteration, and metaphor, you can draw people into articles as well as classes. It has to sound appealing enough to compete with myriad other choices for time, such as TV, sports, or shopping malls. Places to seek inspiration include newspapers and books of poetry. Good poetry is based in good imagery.

A sports writer once produced an article about a new state record carp someone had caught. Instead of referring to the "big fish," he started the article "There it was, the Sultan of Suck." Is this provocative? Does it inspire you to read on? We once noticed a decline in attendance at our Nature Story Hour (actual title), so we renamed it Paw Paw Patch and added activities and games. The attendance tripled ... provocation!

Provocation is not always positive. For example, I attended an anti-litter program given by an interpreter at Yosemite, and it was a litany of photos detailing the harmful impacts of refuse on wildlife and the environment. The negativity in this case was thought to emphasize the harmful impacts of litter in order to stimulate the desired behavior.

Focus on the Pieces

There is a saying I have stuck to my guitar case, "think globally, act locally." This is an example of Tilden's fifth principle that has to do with the holistic perspective. In what sense does my behavior, or some obscure species I happen upon, relate to or reveal the "big picture"?

A visitor once found a cowbird egg in a nest of a red-eyed vireo. The revelation in this is that the vireo is a neo-tropical migratory bird, while the cowbird is a nest parasite and depends upon other bird species to raise its young. The rest of the interpretive story, however, is in the holistic perspective.

The cowbird has greatly benefited from the profound changes which we have wrought on the Illinois landscape and has expanded its influence. The result for vireos, spotted thrushes, and warblers, among others, has been nothing short of disastrous. Their populations continue to decline as they continue to raise cowbirds, which in turn continue to parasitize even more bird nests. The upshot is that the tropics continue to experience significant declines in insect eating migratory birds during winter months.

It is the holistic perspective which defines how we relate to our environment. Think of the gas we would save each day if a billion of us took our bicycles to work. Our individual actions are extremely significant! Through ecological restoration and preservation, we are having a positive impact on avian nesting success as well as erosion control. Our stewardship project represents hope. On the one hand, we as a species have never been in a position to cause more extinctions. On the other hand, never have we been in a position to prevent extinctions.

Tailored Programs

Tilden's sixth and final principle which defines good interpretation has to do with knowing your audience or customer. You would not, for example, merely dilute a bird presentation which you gave to Audubon for a Cub Scout pack. You need to custom tailor your presentations based upon the capabilities and interests of your audience.

Having said that, I must admit that one of my most memorable and enjoyable birthday party tours was for a lady who had just turned 65. I basically did a sensory tour with a couple

30 • Illinois Parks & Recreation • March/April 1995

Sarah Goodner
Photo by Mary Goodner
Sarah Goodner learns about
insects through interpretation

of anecdotes, and the ladies had a great time. They even got their souvenir sharks teeth. Birthdays normally are geared for kids between ages 6 and 10, and being cyclical, they allow us to focus on that concept, for example finding flowers which are only in bloom on the child's birthday. Birthday parties have a further benefit in appealing to first-time visitors. We've gotten numerous calls from people invited to a birthday party who needed directions.

Connecting with the Community

Interpretation, like marketing, connects with customers. Each and every day we receive phone calls with questions regarding any and all aspects of the environment. In many cases, the only personal contact people have with the park district may be at the nature center, zoo or botanical garden. More than just diversions, these are places where people have fun, reflect, and learn. The interpreters who greet customers are our ambassadors.

Peoria Park District recently conducted a needs assessment in order to ascertain community attitudes, opinions, and priorities. Responses indicate that the community feels that the conservation of open spaces and the protection of endangered species ought to be the primary goal of the park district. Moreover, there was a strong feeling expressed that we should aggressively promote what we do. I'm confident that nearly three decades of interpretive programming has played a part in this.

Effective interpretation is like seed corn, its quality is critical to another season's promise; don't consume it. What we are really about, after all, is creating a bright future with environmental quality, where kids and bumble bees can have something in common.

Dale Goodner is the Supervisor of Interpretive Services for the Peoria Park District. •

Illinois Parks & Recreation • March/April 1995 • 31

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