Nature Center Guru retires….

Siah St. Clair: “A place like Springbrook brings out people who feel passionately about this place.”

Departing director St. Clair reflects on 35 years at Fridley nature center

  • Article by: KELLY JO McDONNELL
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • March 12, 2013 – 4:17 PM

The job description of a nature center director isn’t an easy one. Duties can range from conducting classes with third-graders on aquatic invertebrates to repairing a plank on the boardwalk. From speaking at a Rotary club and writing grant requests to repairing a broken toilet.

No one understands the complexity of the position better than Siah St. Clair, who’s done those things and more during his 35 years at the Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley. He will be retiring as director in April.

He reflected on his experiences in a Q and A session last week.

Q: What changes have you seen through the years?

A: Technology. When I started, there was only one typewriter in the whole place, and it was the secretary’s typewriter. I would dictate, and she would type the letters. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Recently I was leading a hike on birds and pointed out a robin’s call. Thirty seconds later, we heard another robin call behind me, but it’s someone’s bird app on their phone, and they were playing the robin’s song on their phone. Everyone was listening to the app [thinking it was the real thing]. That’s a change.

But a lot of things have really stayed the same, like leading a hike on birds. People are still just as fascinated with birds today as they were 40 years ago. Or learning about wildflowers or prairie habitats. The part where you actually have people outdoors, identifying a mushroom, or a tree … all of that is the same.

Q: What about challenges — then and now?

A: The challenges have stayed the same. The challenge is always finding enough resources to accomplish your needs. We’re constantly increasing our ability to find resources. So we’re writing grant proposals, figuring out improved ways to bring revenue into the center to pay for materials we need. I think we’ve gotten better at it over the years, bringing in more revenue and finding more resources than we did 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

Other challenges are also the same: how you maintain the prairie; storage for props used for classes that we teach; finding part-time and full-time naturalists — those kinds of challenges continue. You get more resourceful because of your experience. Or maybe you’re not as intimidated, as you’ve done it so many times.

Q: What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?

A: I can think of three people who were full-time naturalists [at Springbrook] who went on to become directors of their own nature centers. I think that’s a good feeling; you’ve worked with people and had them able to move on into a position where they are now directing a nature center of their own.

Also, over the years, the use of the center has increased tremendously, way beyond what anyone had ever dreamed, and it’s part of my job to try to plan for how we’re going to address that increase in use. We’ve met with the Springbrook Nature Center Foundation and community groups and a plan was developed: Improve the outdoor classroom in the front of the park, and create space inside the building.

We’ve gone to the Legislature and requested bonding funds, and we’ve made it through three times. We made it to the governor’s desk three times. We were vetoed three times, but that was a big accomplishment to just get there. We’re working at it again this year.

It’s not just looking at the needs of today, but the needs for the next generation and how we can address that.

Q: What were the lessons you have learned along the way?

A: I’ve learned over the years that it’s hard to take credit for much. A lot happens, but there are an awful lot of people involved in making it happen. It’s never just yourself that’s doing that. It’s all these other people.

A place like Springbrook brings out people who feel passionately about this place. It’s the place that brings the people in, and makes them so committed. It’s a privilege to simply be in the middle of all of that, and to work with all those people who have a commitment to see the nature center continue in a vibrant way.

Q: Your favorite memory?

A: One night, during one of our summer camp kid/parent nights, we took the kids and their parents for a walk back in the park. I remember it was June, late and quite dark, when we were leading 20 children and 40 parents down into the woods.

We came out into a clearing in a meadow near one of the ponds, and it just happened to be a hatch night for the fireflies. There had to be 10,000 fireflies in this little meadow, and they were all flashing. Everyone just stood in awe of these thousands of fireflies that were flashing. You could have heard a pin drop. I’ll never forget those fireflies.

Another one isn’t a favorite, but one I’ll never forget: It was July 18, 1986, and I had taken my family on a vacation in Michigan. I got a phone call and was told to turn on the TV. And there was the famous Springbrook tornado, being filmed live. It was on the front page of the Star Tribune the next day. I had to leave my family and get on a plane and come back. I’ll never forget that date.

Q: What’s your funniest memory?

A: We have animals here at the nature center, snakes, frogs, salamanders, hissing cockroaches and tarantulas. Occasionally, for some reason or another, a few escape.

A number of years ago we had purchased new tiny baby tarantulas so we could use them in our programs. At the time, they were smaller than your thumbnail, but one of them escaped. About two months later, one of the female staff came running out of the ladies’ room. Let’s just say she was agitated. This little tarantula, which was now three times the size, came walking up out of the floor drain. I ran in there and captured it. We named the little tarantula Houdini. She’s quite large now, and we use her for programs all the time.

Q: You’re retiring after 35 years. Now what?

A: I do have some plans. I do nature photography, and I’ve planted a wildflower garden at my house. I have offered to continue to help with a number of activities at the nature center, though. There’s a bird banding program on Sunday mornings; a garden club and a photography club that meets every month; there’s a butterfly count, a dragonfly count, and we do a frog-calling survey that takes several nights. I’ve offered to help with those.

It’s hard to get my head around it. I’ve been working full time as a naturalist for 41 years. I can’t remember being unemployed since I was 16. But I’m trying to figure out what to do when you don’t have a job!

Kelly Jo McDonnell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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