Building a bridge to discovery and wonder, connecting children with the natural world.

Nancy Lin is a 20-year resident of Winchester, and Winchester Trails Guide whose background is in environmental science. After college, she began as a naturalist instructor at High Rock Park Conservation Center, on Staten Island, NY, then became a New York City Park Ranger on Staten Island and, soon after, an Education Coordinator for all five boroughs of the Park Ranger program. This Ranger program was innovative in that it coupled stewardship with a major educational component. In about 1984, Nancy was part of a team of educators brought to Boston to introduce the Park Ranger concept to the Boston City Park system. Thereafter she worked as the first Director of the Cambridge Conservation Commission. As a result, she became very involved in many local environmental organizations. In 1988, Nancy became the Education Coordinator for the Wetlands and Waterways Program with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection of which she is now the Manager of Outreach and Education.  

Interview with Nancy Lin

Tell me a little bit about yourself. What called you to this volunteer work with Winchester Trails?

Shortly after moving to Winchester in 1997, and with my work already devoted to environmental science, I visited the Winchester Trails booth at Town Day, and found that Trails’ mission of bringing nature education to elementary school aged children fit precisely the way I wanted to become part of my new community.

I found in Winchester Trails a wonderful opportunity to bring all of my nature knowledge and experience to help children connect the concepts they are learning in school to the relevance of nature in their lives both now and in the future. While each Trails Guide comes from a diverse place in terms of experience, I found we all shared the common goal of inspiring children to appreciate nature, in its order and its complexity. From my earlier experiences as a Park Ranger, I knew that rather than “giving the fish” — the basic book learning — to the young students, teaching them “how to fish” — how to hone their skills of observation and to explore their curiosity in nature and in science — would give them tools for all their future learning. For some students, an in-classroom-only experience does not allow them to use all their abilities, and may not allow them to excel through the modalities they use best. Learning about nature in the field gives them an opportunity to “do,” to use all their senses, actively observe, and question. For me, “Each child has the potential to save the world!”

What did you observe as a need within our community that your interest in nature and the environment might begin to fill?

I have observed that so many children now have structured lives outside of school that they don’t experience nature the way children even a generation ago did. So it is vital that children have experiences in the natural world that inspire their curiosity, inform their understanding of how crucial our earth and the environment is to our existence. Hopefully, this will help them to appreciate, love and care for the natural world and its creatures.

What Trails does so well is offer opportunities for students to creatively integrate learned concepts from the classroom with what they observe in their nature walks with us. When kids are outside in our small groups of eight or ten students, we see many “aha!” moments as they connect concepts with live observations in the field.

Encouraging students to go out into nature in non-structured ways gives them time to explore — allows their minds to be both present at a place and simultaneously for their thoughts to wander and make fascinating connections. Kids and nature are wired to be together. Even if raised in a totally urban setting, kids who may be apprehensive at first when immersed in the natural world, very quickly adapt to the calming and reflective atmosphere of the natural environment. All my life I have appreciated the effect that nature provides as a judgment-free zone.

Look ahead a bit, and tell us how you see your interest in nature enriching our common life? Any further dreams?

Locally, our Winchester Trails program, with its morning school walks for Fourth Graders in October and Fifth Graders in May are a great asset to our public schools and its students. Many Guides have been with Trails for 20 years or longer and it is our dream that this program maintain its vitality with young parents and new residents who are willing to volunteer as a guide. No previous knowledge is necessary because we individually mentor each potential Guide until they tell us they are ready to lead. If you have an interest in nature and helping children learn about their environment, reach out to us on our website.

In broadest terms, sharing nature with each other is a place where we have a common language whoever we are: without words we can communicate a sense of wonder, a sense of joy, and a sense of awe. Teaching is a way of empowering our next generation to love our planet and to be the next great innovators, the stewards and the protectors. Like democracy, our public lands and our planet should not be taken for granted.

When one teaches, two learn is a known adage. What have been the highlights of your experience so far?

Experiences with children on the walks is so rewarding and give all our Guides and me new perspectives and new insights. There is no preconceived notion of what children will see when they are out in nature; often what they say gives us great tools by which we can help to connect observations for other students. For example, with poison ivy, you can see it has three leaflets together, the center leaf has a stem which is longer and the two side leaves are tucked right up to the center stem. On one walk, a young student said, “it’s like a head, neck and shoulders!” So from then on, I have used that single child’s observation to teach all the others!

Over a number of years, I created a program at Vinson-Owen Elementary School for students in every grade to explore their existing Science Park as an adjunct to their curriculum. One of the highlights for me was when a fifth grade girl, who had gone from kindergarten through fifth grade in the program, said that she too wanted to become an environmental scientist!

I believe that every educator needs to be a constant mentor for others; every interaction matters regardless of your field or when the interaction takes place. It is so important to share what you have learned, to cooperate, and to collaborate; and each time I do, I learn and I receive the gift of new insights.

Since this is the month honoring women, who is a woman who has inspired you and why?

I’d say my most inspirational women have been in very different fields: Marian Wright Edelman, who sees the value and potential of every child and is a staunch advocate for equal education for all; Maya Angelou, poet and advocate with her ability to lift us from our preoccupation with ourselves to strive for something better; Rachel Carson, who inspired the creation of the environmental movement; and my mother, Ruth LiHen, who loved nature, shared her creativity, encouraged me to learn for myself and helped empower me.

Rachel Carson was the one who was able in her writings to interpret science and nature to make them accessible to everyone. It took guts and insight for her to write Silent Spring which caused tremendous backlash and criticism; but she had the courage to speak the truth despite huge opposition to what she had to say. We can all learn from her example of speaking the truth.

My mother, Ruth, born in Fukien, Mainland China, was the first girl in her village to go to college. Her own mother, whose feet had been bound, discouraged her from getting an education; but it was her father, then a General in the Nationalist Army of Chiang Kai Shek, who was adamant that she go to college. My mother studied at night — hiding under the covers the light of her peanut oil lamps. Thereafter she studied to be a doctor at the Peking Medical School for two years; but the Communist takeover aborted her studies. Because of her father’s “background” in the Nationalist Army, she had to escape to Taiwan, where her father had recently preceded her. There she went to Teacher’s College, because it was free, and became a high school biology teacher. My father, who initially had also escaped to Taiwan, then moved to the United States to complete his PhD, Eventually she and my brother and I, their two eldest children, were able to join him in Newark, NJ.

Thus, my parents are part of the immigrant story: they emigrated to Taiwan to escape the Communist rule, then moved to the U.S. to forge a better life for their family, and to be able to freely pursue their hopes and dreams. Most of all, my mother shared with me her love of science, of nature, and her belief that girls could do ANYTHING!

Any advice to share?

With so much conservation land around us — I encourage you all to get outside into nature. As a community we are so fortunate. Whenever each of us is out in natural world in non-structured ways it gives us time to explore our thoughts, make mental connections, be present and be appreciative of what we have and of what is around us. My husband, Mark and my grown-up kids, Kate and Alex, and I continue to get outside into the natural world whenever we can. Nature keeps us centered, refreshes and nurtures us. Earth is our home —taking care of it is the rent that we pay for this priceless gift.