It is a beautiful spring day in 1930, where do you go to look for shy wildflowers, or enjoy the green leaves emerging on plants and trees? You head out to your nearby Cleveland Metropolitan Park reservation, of course. You can explore the woods on your own, or you can take advantage of the new nature trails that have been created by the park naturalists and enthusiastic volunteers.
The term “nature trail” seems a bit redundant, I mean aren’t all the trails and paths in the parks considered nature trails? So why just call certain trails by that name? Well, the specific nature trails were created to take advantage of certain pockets of wildflower, or groves of trees, and were the beginnings of the outdoor education offered by the parks. The first nature trail was laid out in the summer of 1928 in North Chagrin Reservation; three more were added in 1929 in Brecksville, Rocky River and South Chagrin reservations. In 1930, The Cleveland Natural Science Club volunteered to create a fifth trail in Bedford Reservation.
Edmund Cooke from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History wrote the 1931 guide to the nature trails in the parks. In this guide he noted “That the world of nature has to be interpreted for us is perhaps one of the most accusing commentaries upon our urban culture.”
To address that loss of familiarity with nature, strategic signs allowed visitors to learn about the natural world around them, if they were so inclined. The hope was that once people understood nature they would appreciate its value. Early naturalists, just like our modern naturalists, understood that learning about nature should be fun and kind of casual. Kids who sat in school all day enjoyed the freedom of the “outdoor classroom” where physical activity was encouraged. No raps on the knuckles for fidgeting! The biggest rule was not to pick the wildflowers so that they could continue to bloom and reproduce another crop to delight next year’s audiences. A 1929 label for the trillium plant made this clear in a very dramatic fashion noting that “when the bloom is plucked from the plant’s means of subsistence is destroyed too. And so death.” Wow. Pretty graphic!
Other signs included “teaser” questions to encourage thinking about nature. Common names, rather than scientific ones were used to avoid sounding stuffy. Folklore and “gossip” about the plants were sometimes included to entertain as well as educate. Guides to the trails described what to expect at each reservation and noted the different types of plant life found in each location.
A glance at the Emerald Necklace for any month shows the many opportunities we have to explore and learn about nature. Those early trails “paved the way” (pun intended) for the wonderful naturalist programs offered today. But, the goal is the same; to encourage love and respect for the world around us.
Full disclosure: I was never an outdoor girl growing up, being more of a bookworm than a student of worms. But, my job with Cleveland Metroparks has allowed me to discover a world I took for granted. I have become an enthusiastic cheerleader for our amazing, knowledgeable, hard-working naturalists!!!! We are so lucky to have this group of people ready, willing and able to introduce us to nature, no matter what age we are. Come out and join them on hikes, attend their programs, or just wander into a nature center and have them help you identify the odd bird or cool flowers you saw in the woods. Then give them a big “thank you” for all that they do.
(Below are the maps of the original nature trails. Take a look at a modern trail map to see how they line up.)