Column by Michele Altherr
As Los Alamos considers the merits and possibility of building a municipal nature center, it is worth considering the genesis of the idea and the value that it adds to our community.
Back in 1999 a large group of citizens gathered in Fuller Lodge to express their interest in a Los Alamos Nature Center. When asked for help in turning the idea into reality, a core group of deeply committed people volunteered. We began to meet in various homes, some of which were lost months later to the Cerro Grande Fire.
We were geologists, physicists, artists, managers, and teachers. We coalesced around the vision of a nature center for Los Alamos and for a brief time called ourselves “Friends of the Los Alamos Nature Center” even though there was no center.
Then we incorporated as a 501(c)3 and became the Pajarito Environmental Education Center.
PEEC eventually became a means by which we could demonstrate what a nature center could do for the broader community, whether they were retirees, teens or toddlers, or whether it served families, schools, or businesses. For five years we ran programs, published a newsletter, and sponsored the local Earth Day Festival, even without a space.
Then in 2005, we were fortunate to acquire rental space from LAPS in a 1950s era kindergarten building. Still a volunteer group, we rose to the challenge of running a facility, fixed up the space, created exhibits, and wrote and received grants that supported educational programs for children.
Over the years the center became a vibrant place that welcomes everyone and a volunteer group that reaches out in the spirit of service. After 12 years, we are indeed on the regional radar.
During the CIP project-ranking meeting a committee member commented that he was initially pessimistic about the idea of a nature center because he wasn’t sure that the town should “be getting into the nature business.”
Truthfully, we are already in the nature business because of the national lab. All science has its roots in the observation of nature and our attempts to understand it.
Experiences with nature extend our human curiosity. Why does the apple fall down and not up? Is there order in the chaos of natural systems? What is the universe made of? How do the cells of a caterpillar transform into a butterfly?
These natural systems inform the applied sciences, and discoveries are made in the fields of medicine, space exploration, and energy. Those who retain the capacity to think like a curious child often make the greatest scientific contributions.
They still play with ideas, wonder, observe, and test, just like any child spending a summer day building forts in the forest or chasing dandelion seeds floating through the air. The challenge of creating the much-needed scientists of the future is fostered by connecting children with the nature world in its entire splendor today.
How would a nature center benefit Los Alamos? Aside from nurturing of future scientists, there is also the matter of putting the world on notice that we are even greater than our proud past. A Los Alamos Nature Center means “discoveries are made,” not just at the lab, but also out our backdoors.
A nature center demonstrates that we are a town that values education through active engagement. A nature center reveals that Los Alamos is truly a healthy place to visit and live.
In short, a Los Alamos Nature Center brands the town in a new light, as a town that cherishes its natural environment and invites outsiders to share in that pleasure.
The proposed design of a Los Alamos Nature Center on Canyon Road has been repeatedly described as a “jewel,” something that is esteemed and precious.
At 6,000 square feet, it is small as the gem on a crown. The design is admired for its innovative energy and water efficiency. Its mission is clear and sharp as a crystal.
Finally, it is precious because it showcases the spectacular Pajarito Plateau that we call home.
Now is the time to advocate for a municipal nature center that offers better space and access to nature, improved educational programs for more children and adults, and a fresh role for Los Alamos in highlighting the treasured landscape of the Pajarito Plateau.
Michele Altherr is a teacher at Mountain School and a board member and educator at PEEC (Pajarito Environmental Education Center.)