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Bay Nature magazineApril-June 2015

First Person: Environmental Education Award Winner Julia Clothier

by Jacoba Charles on April 01, 2015

julia clothier
Photo by Daniel Dietrich, PointReyesSafaris.com

Julia Clothier has been working with nature since she was in her teens. For the last six years she’s been the director of the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center at Point Reyes National Seashore, providing place-based environmental education programs to kids from around the Bay Area. I met Julia in her clean, white-walled office inside the old farmhouse that now serves as the center’s headquarters. Along one wall a packed bookshelf is topped with a small altar of stones, feathers, and photographs. And there’s a view outside the window of a green meadow and mist-wreathed Douglas firs trees.

Bay Nature: Let’s start at the beginning: Where did you grow up?

Julia Clothier: I’m still working on that! But I spent my childhood in Palos Verdes on the Southern California coast. It’s a peninsula just south of Los Angeles. Catalina Island is across the channel. Southern California had around 8 million people when I was growing up, so it was nice to be able to stand on the beach and see open space when I looked west.

BN: What kinds of experiences with nature did you have as a kid?

JC: I didn’t grow up in a household with any environmental consciousness at all; my parents were both conservative Republicans. We had a very nice house in a very nice town, and didn’t have a lot of awareness about what was going in the world ecologically or socially—it just wasn’t in the zeitgeist of my family.

But my dad was a sailor, so that was my “in” to nature. I learned to swim in the ocean and I got to sail my whole childhood. My middle school and high school were both on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, and my biology classes were outdoors a lot. I went to summer camp in the mountains or on Catalina Island. So that forged my early connection to nature.

BN: When and how did you start on your environmental career path?

JC: I started reading environmental literature and worked at some summer camps in my late teens. Then I went away to college for a little while. My parents had split up unexpectedly just a couple of months before I graduated from high school, and it really knocked me off balance. But in retrospect it was the making of me: I had an absolutely clean slate to work from.

I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to be in college, and I got a job working at Canyonlands National Park. I just jumped in the deep end. There I was, a Southern California beach girl, and I packed up my Toyota and drove to Utah in February. I ended up in the Needles District, and when I got out of the car it was so quiet I could hear my ears ring.

I spent the next six months in the Red Rock desert doing backcountry patrols, giving campfire programs, writing backcountry permits, and doing my very first backpacking trips. And I read Edward Abbey, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Wallace Stegner. Later I went to the North Cascades for a seasonal job; I got to spend the summer in a fire lookout when I was only 23! I was flown by helicopter to the top of a mountain, where I lived by myself for a whole summer. It was wonderful. It was the same mountaintop where Jack Kerouac had worked as a fire lookout. It was a formative experience.

By then I was pretty clear that I was profoundly connected to the natural world and that my work was to help people reconnect. I went back to college and got my undergraduate degree in botany and then my master’s in natural history and my special area was ethnobotany.

I got a series of jobs as a naturalist in outdoor schools across California; I worked in the Sierra, the redwoods, and on the coast. During that time I worked at the Point Reyes summer camp. In fact, my first environmental education job was as a counselor intern naturalist here at Point Reyes.

Then I taught biology at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State for a couple of years, which was interesting. Working with college students is rewarding but my preference was to be outside more. And now I have one of those jobs where I mostly sit in front of the computer!

BN: Tell us about the programs you run now.

JC: During the school year we host about 1,800 kids and at least half of those are from the most underserved neighborhoods in the Bay Area. We provide full-immersion science, environmental, and human history programs.

Some of these children have never been anywhere like Point Reyes before. We have a pretty big scholarship program, including for recently arrived refugees and urban Native American kids whose ancestors lived on this land and still consider this their ancestral home. In order to bring their classes, teachers first have to go through a 20-hour environmental education and natural history course. Instead of getting a prepackaged program, the teachers are trained to run their own programs and teach their own students. The idea was that the learning would go deeper, the teachers would have more ownership, and that it would flow into the school and the community. And that’s what’s happening.

It’s a lot of work—60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks—but I love it. I go to a lot of meetings and I talk on the phone a lot. But for two months every year I get to be down at the environmental education center running our nature science camp and adventure camp programs. I don’t know too many people at this point in their career who get to be in the field for two months.

BN: What sort of changes do you see in the kids during their time at Clem Miller?

JC: When they first get here, a lot of them are nervous and afraid. They’re worried they might get lost; there might be a homicidal maniac around the corner; they might get dirty; or there might be an animal that’s going to hurt them. There’s no Internet or cell phone connectivity. But after a few days they’re relaxed in their bodies, they’re calm, and they don’t want to go home.

For a lot of the children, five to six days at Point Reyes is the best time in the whole year. It changes their idea of what their life could be and what’s important. There’s this sense of, “Oh my gosh, I knew there was more.” It’s profoundly reassuring. It’s validating for them to realize there are some people they share some core values with.

And then those teachers and our partners in community-based organizations recruit applicants for our summer camp scholarship program. So many of the youth who first come here with the school program fall in love with the Clem Miller Center, and being outside—and then they apply for a scholarship to our longer summer program.

And now some of the children who’ve been coming every year are aging out of our camp program, becoming counselors in training, and joining our staff. So first the camper community became more diverse, and now our staffer community is also becoming more diverse.

The more diverse the staff becomes, the more comfortable the youth who show up are going to be; the more diverse we are, the better we can reflect back the diversity of the community of children. Really, we have to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to ecological sustainability and social and environmental justice. There’s no room for a color line there.

BN: How do you get through the resistance of the kids who are afraid or say they’re not interested?

JC: During the school year, the children are here with their teachers, parent chaperones, and friends from class. Familiarity, safety, and respect go a long way to helping them stretch their comfort zone if the natural world is unfamiliar to them or they’re feeling frightened.

For the summer program, we highly discourage parents from sending children who don’t want to come, and if somebody is totally averse to being there we send them home. We don’t keep people here against their will.

I’m trained in nonviolent communication, and my entire staff gets this training. The basic premise is that every single person is in charge of her own dignity and has rights, and we don’t impose our will. We talk with our summer camp staff about weaving the basket really tight, so every single child knows they’re cared about, they’re safe, they have choice, their opinion matters, and their dignity is respected.

BN: What are the obstacles to getting more kids into nature education programs like yours?

JC: Nature education is seen as an extra. We need a values shift. Actually, what we need is tough and honest acknowledgment of the importance of healthy natural systems in our lives. But we live in climate-controlled homes and get in climate-controlled cars and go to climate-controlled schools and work in climate-controlled offices and shop in climate-controlled stores, and we have electric lights and heaters and air conditioners. The hard reality of the natural world, and our need for it to function in some sort of stable way, is very theoretical—for all of us. The problem with the environmental crisis is that it’s taking too dang long!

BN: How has working with kids informed how you experience the natural world?

JC: Children are generally way more present in their bodies and current with their emotions, and less in their intellect. They are less lost in the catacombs of their thought. They are also way quicker to laugh and play and improvise. It seems like children are much more in touch with their authenticity, creativity, and life force than adults are. So when I’m with children I also get to be much more in that place myself.

When I taught college and I’d give a lecture on why do environmental work, I would say, “Imagine that you come upon a horrible accident: What should you do in that situation? You might call 911, or run around screaming, or drive away, or decide you need a drink. Or you might roll up your sleeves and see how you can help.” I feel like that’s what we’re being called to do. You can’t focus on the big picture—it’s too overwhelming and often too depressing—but we can roll up our sleeves and go find a thing to do. And that’s what I’ve been doing in my career. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference in the big picture, but it’s what I need to do for me. It gives my life meaning.

BN: Are there particular animals or plants that fascinate your students the most?

JC: I don’t think so. Children have varied interests, so we expose them to lots of choices. Some want to hold a banana slug, and some don’t. We have a camp gopher snake named Rex, and some don’t even want to be in the same room while some want to hold Rex every day.

There are two things that are universally interesting to children. They’re fascinated by dead animals, maybe because we don’t see much death in our everyday lives. And they’re also fascinated by scat, animal poop. And there’s a bobcat that lives in the back meadow, so the kids are pretty darn excited to see that. And they like the seals that poke their heads up and watch us at Limantour Beach.

BN: Do you have a favorite place to go when you’re not “on duty”?

JC: Weirdly, I don’t go hiking in Point Reyes, because I want to be in places where there aren’t any other people. That’s what I seek out when I have time. My favorite wild places are where I’m not going to run into another human soul. There are high Sierra canyons and hidden coves on the Northern California coast that I love. Notice that I didn’t mention any specific places! I think there’s a special place in purgatory for people who write articles in Outside magazine that are like, “Best secret canyons in southeastern Utah that no one knows about.” 

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