By Richard Gambino
“Look deep, deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” So wrote Albert Einstein in 1951. I would add only that it can also be great fun. And, as a matter of fact, I recently had an excellent learning experience that truly was great fun at the South Fork (SoFo) Natural History Museum & Nature Center, on Bridgehampton – Sag Harbor Turnpike. Frank Quevedo, its Executive Director, and one of its five full time staff/educators/guides, who work with many other naturalists, led me on a tour there, the same tour available to all visitors. We used a superb field guide, also available to all visitors. Its text is brief, easy to read, very informative and is very well designed as a guide both to SoFo’s exhibits and to nature itself here on the East End. Its color pictures are great.
The exhibits on SoFo’s second floor are terrific, containing live creatures that surround us here. The exhibits are designed to fill the senses, as happens when we are outdoors surrounded by natural life, not only its sights and sounds, but people can also sniff ports, set at the level of kids’ noses, which convey the scents of what is observed. Children and adults get to interact with and explore the exhibits by opening doors and draws, lifting bark off trees, and in other ways uncovering ecological details of natural scenes, of nature and of natural history.
Mr. Quevedo brought me to a second-story deck overlooking the 1,100 acre Long Pond Greenbelt Preserve — giving all visitors a breathtaking view that not only changes from season to season but from moment to moment with the changing light of any and every day. More, on the platform are permanently mounted high-powered spotting scopes. I looked through one at a pond a distance away, and clearly saw two painted turtles sunning themselves on one of the pond’s banks. As I entered the scene, the scene entered me — such interrelationships are critical to building a love of nature, and SoFo is designed to provide such experiences, in ways that motivate people to develop them further in nature itself.
A great highlight of my visit occurred on the ground level of the facility, the home of many more live creatures. Mr. Quevedo held a very much alive and lively eastern tiger salamander in his hands, as I took a photo of it. I’d never before seen one, and indeed very few people have — it is a rare and endangered species in New York. The species lives here, as do all the species at the SoFo Museum & Center. (I also photographed a live sea horse, an “exotic” creature living just off our shores in eelgrass meadows.)
Visitors, including children, can also hold in their hands creatures from a glass see-through “marine touch tank,” including sea stars and crabs.
SoFo is open seven days a week, 12 months a year, and a yearlong family membership, allowing kids and their parents and grandparents to enjoy the museum and center as many times as they choose costs only $50. (The cost of a one-day admission for non-members is $5 for kids ages 3-12, free for kids 2 and under, and $7 for adults.)
SoFo also conducts a great many outdoor programs (related to the four seasons), and programs with live animals — all also free to members and at small prices to nonmembers. For example, there will be an Owl Prowl in Bridgehampton, on the night of December 10, to search for sights of owls, a nature walk on December 11 to observe seals at Montauk, a Meet Live Birds of Prey (up close) on November 12, a Feeding Time feeding the live animals at SoFo on November 13, a Wildlife Live & Up Close opportunity on November 26, a Winter Water Birds tour in Montauk on December 3, and many other programs for children and for adults, including indoor talks. Mr. Quevedo told me that SoFo hopes to have two more indoor lecture/classroom spaces added to its facilities. SoFo’s gift shop has books for kids and adults for sale, at discounted prices for members, and members may borrow books from its archival library. For more information, Google “SoFo Museum” for its website, or call: 631 537-9735.
Learning about nature used to be just the fun a beginning or advanced naturalist has in learning the names and ways of living creatures. These are fascinating, or even “fantastic,” as the fact that a tiny acorn easily held in a child’s small hand can someday be a high and mighty oak tree, like the ones kids strain their necks trying to see their tops.
In recent decades, a much fuller form of natural history has become popular, with, one, an emphasis on the ecological interrelationships of all living systems, including humans, and two, with advancements in understanding genetics. The wholeness of life they present gives us a deeper sense of what it means to be human, as biological beings, but also as moral beings and, yes, as spiritual beings. Our sense of natural history today unites us with all other life — we are totally joined with the ecological health of all great living systems, including some under stresses here on the East End. So arise moral imperatives, from enlightened self-interest in how we relate to nature, to our moral duty to preserve its health for future generations. We also have a new understanding and respect for the intrinsic natural values of living things, including humans: E.g., we’ve added an understanding that the tiny acorn in a kid’s hand contains a vast amount of genetic-cybernetic information needed to form an oak tree. We have a new respect for the unique natural values of each species, and for individuals each unique in its species.
In fact, we humans literally are nature becoming conscious of itself, understanding itself, and valuing itself.
The great mission of the Sofo Museum of Natural History & Nature Center, just south of Sag Harbor, to cultivate these understandings and appreciations in us and in our kids, and the fun in doing so, presents us with very great and wonderful opportunities. Let’s enjoy them.
RICHARD GAMBINO’s reasons for living on the East End very much include awe and love of nature.