BLUE HILL — There are a lot of ways to manage your land, explains Sandy Walczyk, standing among a grove of quaking aspens in Surry Forest on a bright, windy winter day.
“If you learn just a handful of trees you can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the woods,” said Walczyk, conservation forester for Blue Hill Heritage Trust (BHHT), in a video shot by the organization for its “Stewards Almanac” series. “There’s a whole range of things that people would like to do from their land … once you’ve figured out what you have, you can work on managing for those specific aspects.”
The video, posted on YouTube and available via the BHHT website, is just one of the ways the trust has gotten creative with its outreach programs during the pandemic.
“My job description has changed dramatically in the past year,” said Landere Naisbitt, the trust’s outreach coordinator.
Like most organizations, staff found themselves scrambling to figure out how to adapt their primarily in-person programming to an online world, trading group talks for webinars and hands-on workshops for self-guided hikes.
“We didn’t know how receptive the community would be,” said Naisbitt, but online programming has expanded BHHT’s reach on the Blue Hill Peninsula and beyond, including bringing in people from out of state who “have tuned in and just expressed how wonderful it is to stay in touch with their Maine communities.”
Since coming on full-time roughly two years ago, Naisbitt has been particularly interested in expanding children’s programming for the nonprofit.
“I started a Forest Days program with Surry School,” said Naisbitt, who has a master’s degree in environmental studies and education from Antioch University in Keene, N.H. “It was something I’d learned about at Antioch that’s prevalent in Vermont and New Hampshire.”
The outdoor learning program, which is offered free to Blue Hill Peninsula teachers and qualifies for continuing education credits from the Maine Department of Education, is aimed at “taking kids outside for as long as a teacher might have time for,” said Naisbitt, teaching them outdoor skills like fire building and tracking, with a focus on hands-on, child-directed learning and play.
In a collaboration with the Blue Hill Public Library and Community Friends, Naisbitt also started Wild Sun Catchers, a monthly workshop series for kids and families focused on local flora, with games and activities to match.
Pivoting those types of intensively interactive programs to engage kids at home via Zoom was no small challenge, said Naisbitt, although the dispersed nature of video recordings, which don’t require a speaker to be in a certain place at a certain time, have also offered some freedom.
“One cool thing about the videos is we’ve been able to ask community members who have expertise on different plants to come and do a little part of the video each month,” said Naisbitt. “We premiere the video on a certain day of the month and families can register and sign up to watch it live.” The trust also offers free kits with everything necessary for an accompanying craft or project — February, for instance, focused on seaweeds, and kids were offered a kit with wax paper for making prints of the seaweeds.
‘Families can come and pick up the kits at Blue Hill Public Library,” said Naisbitt, who also occasionally writes a story about whatever plant is on tap that month. “It’s kind of a cross between nonfiction and fantasy that relates to the plant.” Last month’s story was about a fairy named Chondrus Crispus, who snacks on seaweed pudding and wears shoes made out of slipper shells.
“That seems to be a successful combination,” said Naisbitt, of the craft kits and videos.
“We have maple tapping for the next month,” she added, with a video premiere on March 10.
Like most of us, Naisbitt is hoping to return to in-person programming soon. But forced isolation has also offered some valuable lessons.
“It’s made our programming a little bit more accessible and inclusive,” she said.