Into The Woods: Cincinnati Nature Center

For over 50 years, the Cincinnati Nature Center (CNC) has aimed to inspire people, especially children, to enter nature and explore. Children have innate fascination and curiosity surrounding nature; CNC has a history of fostering this fascination and of getting children and adults alike “into the woods.” In 2020, students in our course Public Engagement with Science partnered with CNC to lead and judge a virtual poster contest, challenging K-12 students to create materials about planting native. This week, the Public Programs Manager Jason Neumann shared part of CNC’s story with the Center for Public Engagement with Science.

 The Cincinnati Nature Center came to be as people were becoming more aware of environmental issues; Silent Spring had recently been published, and new parks and nature centers were being founded. CNC is made up of two locations, Rowe Woods and Long Branch Farm and Trails, with two different stories. Prior to their donation, both sites were mostly farmland. Rowe Woods was the original semi-wooded site for CNC, named for and founded by Stanley Rowe. Rowe was involved in his community and was an advocate for nature and education. He and a core group wanted to found a nature center. They purchased land owned by the Krippendorf family who wanted to sell the land but avoid it being developed. From the beginning, Rowe meant for CNC to captivate children’s curiosity. Schools came there for field trips, founding members led educational hikes, and people bought memberships to hike the trails.

Long Branch Farm and Trails was donated to CNC in 1972 by owners who wanted it to be used to teach people about where their food comes from. Like Rowe Woods, it has hosted a lot of field trips over the years. It operated as an educational farm with domestic animals until 2005. When school curricula changed in the early 2000’s to no longer include agriculture, fewer school groups visited the site.

Since then, Long Branch Farm and Trails has been more focused on native plants, converting old farm fields to pollinator habitat, and removal of invasive species. More recently, native perennial edibles  plants such as pawpaw, persimmon, passionfruit, a variety of berries, black walnuts, and sumac have been added with future visitor engagement in mind. Mr. Neumann started a small foraging group that eventually grew to 500 members who hike at Long Branch Farm and Trails and learn to harvest these plants. They teach the slogan “right plant, right part, right time, right preparation” in reference to foraging safely. Mr. Neumann says that a food-based interaction with the natural world can inspire people by giving them deeper interactions with the natural world. Being able to recognize plants and animals on a trail; being able to recognize, sustainably harvest, then eat part of a plant adds yet another level to being outside. This can even include beer and wine! Currently some of the Long Branch Farm and Trails produce is taken to a local brewery and the resulting brews are served as story-laden beverages at member events. CNC is planning to scale this up in partnership with HighGrain Brewery to make things out of plants such as elderflowers.

Much of CNC’s story that Mr. Neumann recounted involved more recent events, since he began work at CNC 25 years ago. Although people still join CNC for access to the hikes at both Rowe Woods and Long Branch Farm and Trails, other programs and opportunities have continued to be developed.

Even with new programming, the core goals of CNC have hardly changed. Its mission still centers around encouraging children’s curiosity and getting people into nature, as well as being responsible stewards of their sites. In 2011, they opened one of the first “Nature PlayScapes” for children. Not just a playground, the space is filled with natural materials for open-ended play and is intended to be a place where children can build and dig, providing them ways to explore nature that are not always available in a city. Their efforts inspired other groups in the region to create similar spaces, including in local parks and schools.

CNC focuses on meeting people where they are and helping them learn. Their focus has shifted from purely natural history focus to applications of natural history knowledge, which appeals to more people. Cincinnati Nature Center staff create public programs, including the foraging group at Long Branch Farm and Trails, weekend children’s programs and a teen interest group. The teen interest group is designed for adolescents who enjoy nature and gives them a community of like-minded peers. They hike, work at Long Branch Farm, get involved in science summits, and do other projects.

In response to COVID-19, CNC began using reservations to control numbers and keep visitors and staff healthy. Even with the new system, CNC’s membership “skyrocketed” as people have sought safe diversions during the pandemic. Mr. Neumann is excited for the new creative opportunities that CNC has to serve members’ interests, both now during the pandemic and in the coming years.

Krippendorf house pre-1934, on the property that would become Rowe Woods