COVID-19 drives many Vermont outdoor learning classes into virtual realms

Interview with newt: Lynn Levine, a forester, author and educator based in East Dummerston, records a video of a red eft — a juvenile stage of the eastern newt — on July 24, 2020. Levine has produced 11 unscripted forest walks since May, and posted them on her own YouTube channel. Outdoor educators throughout the region have had to adapt outdoor classes and workshops to reach a pandemic-restricted public.

In the years before COVID arrived, Vermont’s summer forests, glades and hills were typically crawling with students of Mother Nature.

This season, many students have followed their teachers online.

A pivot to the great, virtual outdoors has been underway for decades. Who hasn’t gawked on-screen at a prizewinning photo or video? Or listened to bird-call from the other side of the world?

But the coronavirus pandemic has hastened the transition, local naturalists say: Masks, buttoned-up respiratory etiquette and social distancing just aren’t compatible with old-fashioned (and time-tested), hands-on discovery.

Not everyone can walk

In April, Lynn Levine, a Dummerston-based forester, author and environmental educator, canned her regular season of outdoor, large-group workshops.

She chose to shift her focus to writing — she had little interest in going full-on high-tech.

“When you’re outside, you’re smelling and touching things,” Levine said earlier this month. “You’re really absorbed with all your senses, rather than just your eyes.”

She adapted to the new normal, though. A fellow student in an online writing course, after listening to Levine describe her daily forest walks, asked whether she could join her — at a comfortable distance.

Encounter with a wild grape: Lynn Levine, a forester, author and educator based in East Dummerston, makes a video of an informal walk through the woods near her home on July 24, 2020.

Yet Levine’s new friend, hospice-bound, was in no condition to walk.

“I decided to find a way to do it,” said Levine, who is a firm believer that walks in the woods can’t help but be therapeutic.

The next-best thing

Armed with ample curiosity and an iPhone, she began the first of a dozen short, unscripted video segments, which she now posts to a dedicated YouTube channel.

As with her “live” walks, Levine lets serendipity steer some of her exploration.

“Sometimes I’ll begin with just, ‘Wow — look at that!’ she said. “Sometimes I’ll ask people what they see; whether it suggests any kind of art to them.

“Sometimes things in nature are like a cloud,” she added, “everyone sees things differently.”

Levine doesn’t see money in the project. Yes, some episodes have led to book sales. But having recently retired from her forest consulting gig, she says she is ready to branch out.

“This is all a gift,” Levine said. “And it’s a gift to me. It’s what I do instead of helping someone deliver food to somebody.”

Blazing a new trail

Mid-career naturalists like Bridget Butler have steered more quickly to an online business model that pays.

Bridge Butler, aka The Bird Diva, pauses at her backyard "office" in St. Albans while producing an online curriculum for one of her virtual workshops on July 24, 2020.

Butler, a wildlife consultant known professionally as The Bird Diva, spends more time than she’d like beneath a big beach umbrella, at her backyard home office in St. Albans.

Her picnic table doubles as a studio.

Here, Butler shoots videos that teach youngsters how to create “sound maps” in their own back yards.

She demonstrates professional birding software. She coaxes viewers to try imitating a dove’s call. She takes questions from dozens of birders who enrolled in her webinar on warblers.

Like Levine, Butler pines for in-person instruction.

“This was supposed to be my busiest year,” Butler said. “I had boat birding trips planned for the Missisquoi River; conferences where I’d been invited to speak; bird walks and all kinds of presentations.

“That all fell apart,” she continued. “This has been a dry summer in more ways than one.”

Yet Butler is surprised by the upsides, too.

Outdoor office for online work: Bridge Butler, who operates St. Albans-based wildlife consultancy The Bird Diva, pauses in her back yard while producing a curriculum for one of her virtual workshops on July 24, 2020.

“It’s forced me to think creatively,” she said of the pandemic. “And it’s pushed me to learn more.”

Bird enthusiasts from far beyond Vermont’s borders sign up (and pay) for attendance in her webinars. All of her classes have sold out. Schools are reaching out to her.

“People seem to realize that nature can help us get through this,” Butler said.

As far afield as you want

Limited travel in the region has driven local outdoor organizations to dig into subject matter that appeals even to someone under strict quarantine.

In the lower-tech range, Mark LaBarr, a conservation biologist at Huntington-based Audubon Vermont, has been posting regular “My Backyard” videos.

LaBarr’s approach, like Levine’s and Butler’s, is emphatically conversational: He delivers relaxed accounts of bird-house design and beaver behavior — the kind of chat a visitor might stroll up for.

Similarly, Audubon’s annual outreach-and-fundraising Birdathon, which typically musters a small army of birders outside every May, preserved the event’s playfully competitive culture when it went virtual this year.

Still chill but organized around a curriculum, Audubon assembled a series of online camps (“Camps-in-a-Kit”) that combine one-to-one time with instructors with group-chats and adventures that are totally solo.

Audubon also recommends you check out their partner organizations for guidance for walking or paddling where the wild things are:

Contact Joel Banner Baird at 802-660-1843 or joelbaird@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @VTgoingUp.

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