A Natural Calling

 

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the January 2018 Issue

Naturalist Neil Garrison

A Natural Calling

Thousands of Oklahomans remember learning about the great outdoors from park naturalist, Neil Garrison. Even though he retired in 2009 after 30 years at Martin Park Nature Center, he has continued his role as a naturalist in the community.

How do you know a raccoon’s been here? Listen to that mockingbird! Whose scat is that? “I’m retired now, so I have the opportunity to fill my time with things that bring me pleasure,” Garrison said. “I thought, ‘What makes me happy? God planted a seed in me to be outside in the flora and fauna. I enjoyed nature education for 30 years, so I decided, ‘I’m still going to do nature education!’”

Garrison is leading tours, demonstrating survival skills, and writing a nature column—but these days, it’s all on a voluntary basis. For example, two of Garrison’s long-time hobbies are wood whittling and flint knapping, which is the art of making tools from stone. He regularly volunteers at museums and festivals to demonstrate the skill of shaping arrowheads. His love for archeology is overshadowed only by his joy of bird watching.

Eye to the Sky

Early into retirement, Garrison, a life-long bird watcher, joined the MAPS 3 Senior Health and Wellness Center. When he walked in and saw treadmills, he said, “What do you have to offer me? How about exercise out in the fresh air and sunshine where birds are singing?” Soon afterward, he was leading regular bird-watching field trips for seniors at various locations around the city. To Garrison’s satisfaction, folks show up even when the weather is windy or drizzling.

He also volunteers as an eagle nest monitor for the Sutton Avian Research Center. Garrison’s assignment is to observe specific nests in central Oklahoma to see if the eagles return to their nests each year and successfully raise hatchlings. “The data is an important way to protect the species,” Garrison said. “If there’s an option to route new road construction or an oil pipeline away from the trees containing eagle nests, then that prevents them from suffering negatively.”

Nature Writing

During Garrison’s career, he once wrote a monthly nature column for the Oklahoman newspaper. Topics ranged from “Nature’s Fireworks: Lightning Bugs” to “Keeping Squirrels from your Bird Feeders.” He enjoyed it so much that he thought he might like to write again. “So I approached them and said, ‘Hey, remember me? I can write for you again, but this time, I’ll do it for free!’ They said, ‘You’re hired, but can you do an article every week?’”

Writing 52 articles a year was intimidating at first, but Garrison quickly realized that nature never runs out of interesting topics. He appreciates the discipline that the weekly deadline adds to his life. It forces him to be creative, observant, and to keep up with current research.

“I derive enjoyment from writing. Whenever I’m wondering, ‘Is anyone reading this stuff?’ someone will approach me unsolicited to talk about my article, or some stranger I meet will say, ‘Did you see that piece in the newspaper about bird migration?’ And I say, ‘Actually, I did. I wrote it!’”

Saving the World

Garrison’s calling as a park naturalist came naturally. He spent his childhood years running barefoot through Oklahoma’s backwoods and cow pastures. His college career plan, however, met resistance from his mother, who was dismayed by his choice to enter into biology instead of banking or some lucrative career, but Garrison insisted that happiness meant more to him than money.

“I decided I want to enjoy life. I want my life to be meaningful. I want people to be more knowledgeable about the out-of-doors and spur them toward positive action,” Garrison said. “I miss interacting with the public like I used to do at Martin Park, because I liked talking to people and feeling like I was saving the world. So now, I’m finding ways to continue on that path.”

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