Story walks and virtual wanderings

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DUMMERSTON and WALPOLE, N.H. — If you want to take someone with you on a walk in the woods, Lynn Levine is the perfect choice. However, if you want someone to tell you what you're looking at, that's not the way it works with her.

"I want people to tell me what they see," said Levine, who has more than 40 years of being an environmental educator, tracker and consulting forester in her daypack. While Levine can recite the taxonomy of that fern, that tree or that shrub, she wants people to develop an understanding of the natural world using "their own language."

"I might ask, 'What shape do you see? What does it make you think of,'" said Levine. So, rather than leading people with her knowledge, she lets them lead her so she can help them discover their own answers.

"To me, the woods are a museum," said Levine.

Levine, the author of "Identifying Ferns the Easy Way: A Pocket Guide to Common Ferns of the Northeast" and "Mammal Tracks and Scat: Life Size Pocket Guide," recently sold her forestry business to Andrew Morrison, of Putney. After more than 40 years of drawing up forestry plans, planning timber sales and devising plans to counter invasive species, Levine is spending more time playing the piano, writing books and focusing on her nature workshops and walks.

"I recently signed up for a six-week writing class at Keene State College," she said. "I've never taken a writing class."

Towards the end of the class, Levine wrote about how she treasures a walk through the woods as a way of relieving stress, with light sparkling off the leaves and birds chirping in the trees. One of the other participants, a woman living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, said she would absolutely love to go on a walk with Levine but couldn't because of her condition. She wondered if Levine could bring her into the natural world virtually.

"The idea of sharing my walks with other people got really exciting for me," said Levine, who is a self-admitted novice at creating videos for sharing on the internet. Her learning curve included holding the phone correctly, not putting her finger over the lens and figuring out how to upload to internet.

"It's taken me hours to figure out how to film and record and upload," she said. "But with my daughter's help I was able to figure some of it out."

She shared her first video with her classmate and with another friend who is also living with ALS. She said the response was so overwhelming that she decided to do another and a third and now even has her own YouTube channel where she can share the videos.

Admittedly, said Levine, since the pandemic took hold, she hasn't had much of an opportunity to take people out into the woods, but the extra time on her hands means she can meander acres and acres of land with camera in hand talking about what she is seeing.

"It's exciting to be able to bring people who are older or disabled out into the woods," said Levine. "There are so many different ecosystems here. I hope to get around to all these different places ... and I won't really have to go very far."

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Creating videos can also be a challenge for Levine, who struggles with her own anxiety. She's had to find ways to be both informative and entertaining at the same time.

"This pandemic has forced all of us into a new way of thinking," she said.

But the virtual visits to the woods are not all Levine has been up to.

Julie Rios, a librarian in Walpole, N.H., has been thinking for a while about something called a "story walk." The idea was developed by Anne Ferguson in 2008, who was then a specialist in chronic disease prevention for the Vermont Department of Health in Montpelier, in collaboration with the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition and the Kellog Hubbard Library.

StoryWalk is now a registered trademark and describes a process in which a book is taken apart, laminated and presented page by page in a natural setting.

Rios thought that Distant Hill Gardens, also in Walpole, was the perfect spot.

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"When they asked me I said 'Yes, and I have the perfect person for you,'" said Michael Nerrie, who has been tending Distant Hill with his wife, Kathy, for nearly 40 years. Levine has given fern identification and tracking workshops would be the perfect location for a story walk.

Nerrie suggested Levine's "Is it time, Yet," a children's book about a Salamander who returns to a vernal pool with the help of a child.

"It's perfect for Distant Hill," said Rios.

"We have five vernal pools on the trail, eleven total on the property," said Nerrie. "There's salamander egg masses to see. The book was perfect for this."

Distant Hill Gardens and Distant Hill Nature Trail consist of 128 acres of biodiverse forest, fields, and wetlands straddling the town-line separating Walpole and Alstead.

"Michael let us tie the pages to the trees in a really natural way and set them up so that it's fun for kids to find them," said Rios.

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As a librarian though, slicing a book with a razor was a challenge.

"Lynn sent us a copy and we bought another copy because you need two to make it work," said Rios. "It broke my heart to take the books apart."

But, said Rios, the result has been magical. "It's a perfect combination of reading and being in nature."

"Is it time, Yet," will be displayed through the end of June and will be replaced by a book about worms, said Rios.

"Distant Hill is a real treasure," said Rios. "And with the pandemic, more people are discovering it. I just thought it would be so much fun to be outside with a story. I've heard from so many parents that their children are having a wonderful time at Distant Hill."

With the help of Justine Fafara, Town of Walpole Library Director, Rios has posted her own video of the story walk to Distant Hill's Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/distanthillnaturetrail/].

Rios said people who visit the story walk are welcome to post pictures of their visit to the Walpole Town Library's Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/WalpoleTownLibrary/].

The story walk is on a trail that is wheelchair accessible.

Nerrie said hosting a story walk fits well with the educational nature of the gardens and trail.

"We're trying to get people outdoors and enjoy nature," said Nerrie.

And that brings it back to what Levine is doing with her wilderness wanderings, getting people outdoors, even if their bodies won't let them.

"I'm having so much fun," said Levine. "This is what I like to do. Take people out and get them excited about the natural world, but I never thought I would do it virtually. It never occurred to me that it was a possibility."


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