A Place To Grieve

By Karen I. Shragg

I am almost ready to retire from my career as a nature center director. I say “almost” because I have a few years left in this decades-long challenging and enjoyable run. I love what I do, but I was not trained for a lot of what this job entails. I am sure many in the recreation field can say the same.

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I was trained to be a naturalist and an educator. However, I find that I spend a great deal of time consoling grieving visitors who want to memorialize their loved ones with a plaque of some kind at the nature center. I listen to them tell their stories and try to find out how best to memorialize the deceased. I often suggest language for the plaques and locations for the benches. Did their loved ones like the open prairies or would a view of the forest be more appropriate?

Much to my surprise and often to my delight, I often feel I run a memorial park with a view. In my experience, nature centers are very comforting to those who grieve. Visitors want to preserve and honor the memory of their loved ones who either walked our trails or loved nature in a general way. I am delighted that this 150-acre slice of nature in the midst of the city means enough to people that they will take out their checkbook and invest in our infrastructure. In this respect, this has a dual benefit; it improves the look and function of the nature center and it gives the grief-stricken a level of satisfaction that serves to soothe their sadness.

Over the years, I have ordered more than 50 benches and countless leaf plaques—each with a unique story. Some memorials have been more elaborate and even transforming for our nature center’s landscape. Gardens have been created, pergolas built, and this past summer a children’s garden was built, complete with poems from Wendell Berry for a neighbor who was willing to give $5,000 to honor the memory of his father.

I recently suggested to my husband that we join the hundreds of mourners who have chosen Wood Lake as a place of remembrance. We raised funds for a wildlife overlook and bench to honor the memory of his deceased parents. I must admit it was a great thrill to create something beautiful in a place that overlooks the marsh and the forest that the nature center budget could not otherwise afford. It is satisfying to know that many will come to this this spot to relax, listen to the birds, and have a soothing place to reminisce.

Karen I Shragg is in her 27th year as the director of the city of Richfield’s Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, Minn. See it at www.woodlakenaturecenter.org.