I was instructed in the activity they had requested: Fossil Casting. I cleared my afternoon so that Sarah could teach me how to mix up Plaster of Paris and water in correct amounts, how to slowly pour it into the fossil molds, and how to extract the cast without breaking it. It took about 30 minutes to dry in good warm weather.
I showed up on the day and was sent to the amphitheater, right beside the lake. As I unloaded bags and boxes of supplies, the "ranger" came up on this strange four wheeled vehicle to meet me. I was the only one who worked at the museum that he'd never met, I didn't know why until much later. Anyway, he asked me if I needed anything.
"Is there a water source nearby?" I asked, hoping he'd point me to a spigot or fountain.
"There's a fifty five acre lake right behind you." he said.
So I spent the morning trying not to fall in as I scooped up the water needed to make casts. Some of the casts had small leaves or stuff in them. Oh well.
Lunch was provided that day at a central location. As I sat down to eat, a guy down at the end of the table struck me as being familiar, so I struck up a conversation with him. "Excuse me, you look really familiar to me. Have we worked together before?"
He looked up, grinned really big, and said "You tell me, Little Monroe!"
It was Terry Napier, the man who'd given me that nickname when I was an Explorer, a junior cop, riding along with my dad. He was now my city's Director of Parks and Rec. We caught up and it was neat. I may have to tell the story sometime of how he went from cop to Parks and Rec because it's inadvertently hilarious.
In February I was laid off from the Gray Fossil Site. On the advice of my friend April, I started looking into work at several different parks nearby, and I had emailed the Nature Center Director at Steele Creek to see if there were any jobs open. Nothing permanent, but there was a summer camp position open. Since I was going to focus on teaching positions, and I qualified for unemployment and the minimum wage thing wasn't an issue, it seemed perfect to do summer camps again, like I had in college.
I went in for the interview, and found out my boss would be the Ranger from the Park, Jeremy. His boss's boss was Terry, my dad's friend. It wasn't much of an interview in the traditional sense of the word, it quickly fell into "Oh, and this one time at camp...." back and forth. Terry wandered in half way through with a wry grin and and a coffee cup and said "Oh, boy. A Monroe. Scraping the bottom of the barrel this time boys!"
I felt so at home.
Next week my dad died. I spent the next month cleaning everything up. I had made an appointment on Thursday to sign paperwork for his insurance policy with the city. That Tuesday I got a call that went like this:
"Are you the Emily Monroe that's coming in on Thursday to sing paperwork for your dad's life insurance?"
"Oh, good! Well, when you're done, step one desk over to my cubicle and sign your paperwork for the Nature Center Assistant position!"
I hung up the phone and laughed.
After things had settled down, I started work at the Nature Center. (Jeremy admitted that they actually delayed me starting, under the circumstances.) Steele Creek Park was, without a doubt, the best thing that happened to me in 2012.
Jeremy's title is Nature Center Director. We found out quickly that we had been at ETSU the same time, with the same teachers, but we couldn't remember if we'd had the exact same classes or not. He has a Master's Degree in Reptile Paleontology, which is why he knew everyone at the Fossil Site; he's the alligator expert.
Don also went to ETSU, a lifetime ago. Don has been a Naturalist so long, working in education and camps for several different agencies. Apparently, when Jeremy was a kid in camp Don was his counselor. Don swears he doesn't remember it though. His degree is somehow about plants, but his hobby is insects. He's the one who's responsible for our insect displays and the fact that we have a black widow in captivity. Ugh.
Larry is a retired mailman! In his retirement he became president of the Bristol Bird Club, and he's also studing moths and butterflys. He's a self taught expert on all that's airborne.
At the Nature Center I learned to feed and care for the critters we keep (mostly reptiles and amphibians; I tried to feed the black widow but she attempted escape and I told Don she was HIS problem now). My biggest challenge was sticking my hand in the cricket tank to get them into the jar so that I can feed them to things. You might recall I have a small cricket phobia. Don thought it was high comedy watching me work at it.
I learned to identify all sorts of birds and trees and flowers. Along with the kids I learned about weather, micro-climates, building fires, how to tell a venomous snake from a non venomous snake (in East Tennessee, it's not the shape of the head, it's the eyes!). I learned how to tell what kind of animal left that poop. I learned to recognize tracks and signs, and I learned about bird calls and animal behavior. I swear I learned more in six weeks than I ever thought I could. I thought I knew my mountain home. I knew it's history, it's geology, it's language and culture, I would've said "Sure, I know some plants and I know we have wildlife." My eyes have been opened to a whole other world filled with Fence Lizards and Five Lined Skinks, Goldenrod Galls, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Spotted Salamanders, 15 different species of turtles... I would never have guessed that there would be coyotes within our city limits. Who knew copperheads were so common? Or that trail side blackberries would taste so good.
I've kept learning. As the summer ended and it became clear I wasn't going to be a teacher again, I stayed on. Eventually the unemployment ran out and I had to get a job or starve, and OfficeMax was hiring. I told Jeremy I would love to stay on, even if it was just one day.
"Well, Don and I usually fight over who gets Sunday off."
So Sunday became my day. And what was supposed to be a temporary distract-myself-and-have fun job became a permanent position. Apparently I was too much of an asset to just let go, the bosses (Mike and Terry) agreed.
I work every Sunday, and a few Saturdays for special things (like Wildlife Weekend). I said once that I'd do it for free and Jeremy joked not to let Mike or Terry hear that!
Doug teases me because I'm there on about half of my days off anyway now, hanging out with my new friends, learning more about the natural world, hiking a little bit. One day I went to take a short walk on the far side of the park I don't get to visit much. We have over 2000 acres and 25 miles of hiking trails. In fact, if you go through my "Hiking" tags, most of them were in this park. But now I am much more observant, now instead of seeing forest, I see tulip poplars and spring beauty's and Christmas ferns. Now I see woodpecker holes and bear tracks.
Wait. Really? I snapped a picture with my phone and drove around the park to see the guys. Jeremy literally shoved a bucket, a tub of plaster of Paris and a spoon in my arms and said "Go make casts! We have eyewitness sightings in that area, but we don't have physical evidence yet! And I KNOW you know how to do this!" So I clocked in and went back out, and made casts of the bear tracks.
Ultimately they didn't turn out too well. The soil wasn't a good matrix, too gravelly, stick-y and leafy. But there I was in the forest, waiting for bear tracks to dry, nervously watching the sun dip behind the mountain, thinking about my fate.
If I hadn't have quit Sprint, I wouldn't have been laid off at Virginia High. I wouldn't have been able to take the job at the museum , where I learned to make casts. And if I never worked there, I would never have met Jeremy and Terry at wild life weekend, and I wouldn't have asked about the job and been hired by the city, and I would never have learned to really SEE the world around me. And even if I had been out in the woods on this particular day, I would've walked right by, and maybe even stepped on and obliterated the bear prints.
"So," my thoughts went, "if I get eaten by a bear tonight, it's going to have been my own damn fault for leaving Sprint."
Anyway, I wasn't able to help with camp this year. Even if Officemax would give me the time off, it's still just a minimum wage job. The new girl is good though. I learned to deal with the crickets, even if I don't exactly enjoy it, but she refuses to hold the education snakes, which I love to do. Between the two of us we make a competent employee!
What made my day though, was to see her job title. I've been the Nature Center Assistant since June of 2012, it's what they've always called the camp helper. But I'm still the Nature Center Assistant. She's the Camp Assistant. That made me incredibly happy.