The hope is: With each passing season, more “city folk” discover what is hiding in plain sight.
On the first day of hat and coat weather, Nahant Marsh burst to life Saturday with more than plants and wildlife. In nearly every direction, somebody was learning something.
“If you’re out here at night, you’ll see what looks like a swirling cloud of red-winged blackbirds,” Nahant facilitator Brian Ritter told the couple dozen people who followed him on a trail tour. “You’ll see a bird on just about every cattail out here.”
At a nearby picnic table, Elizabeth Jurich placed sliced apples into a press, urging the children around her to watch closely as the fruit turned to cider.
“The apples are from a tree just down the road,” she told the kids.
And in the education center behind Jurich, Amy Loving helped a 2-year-old and her mother make a cornhusk doll.
An AmeriCorps naturalist from Iowa State University who is about to begin a second assignment at Nahant, Loving said she can’t get enough of the diverse marsh and the joy she finds in advancing children’s understanding of nature.
“The reason I continue to come back is that I love Nahant Marsh,” the Peoria native said. “I love the diversity. One day, I’m in the field, tearing down a beaver den. I can be out the next day, investigating a new flower that’s starting to bloom.
“I love to see kids’ eyes light up when they see a snake.”
Jurich, who came to the marsh via Western Illinois University, said she also has signed up to work a second, full-time assignment at Nahant through AmeriCorps.
On weekends like this one, when Nahant workers and volunteers put out a spread and plan activities for the public, she is reminded of why she loves the place.
“I feel like this place is a truly amazing place to have in the heart of the city,” she said, pulling the sleeves of her hooded sweatshirt over her cold hands. “The message that’s here is a good message. A lot of people have no idea it’s here. It’s just a wonderful natural place that city folk can come and enjoy.
“Unfortunately, it’s still a secret to a lot of people. When they finally come, they love it here, too.”
And that is largely the motive behind events such as Saturday’s Autumn Fest — to introduce the public to a place that may at first appear private.
On a curving back road in southwest Davenport, the education center looks like a private home to the unknowing. The lush prairie connects to the Mississippi River shoreline, where tall native grasses give borders to manmade walking trails.
Darren Speth walked into the education center Saturday morning and pushed the knit hat from his forehead. A volunteer at the marsh through Friends of Nahant, he smiled at the telling of a child’s enthusiasm for seed harvesting.
“That one was a seed-harvesting fool,” he said of one young visitor. “We’re going to replant the seeds eventually, somewhere. We want to enhance the prairie.”
Several of the children admitted they never had heard of seed harvesting. And that is where the workers and volunteers find so much satisfaction — introducing people to the natural environment they love.
“We made ice cream out of (fruit from) a pawpaw tree,” Loving said. “After you work with it, it becomes sort of the consistency of bananas. We’re roasting chestnuts, too. We found chestnuts down the road, and we went out and eagerly gathered them up.
“I don’t think most people realize what is involved in this ecosystem.”