Susie Spikol is right at home in the outdoors

  • Susie Spikol of Hancock is a naturalist and author. Photo by Ben Conant—

  • Susie Spikol of Hancock is a naturalist and author. Photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/11/2019 5:32:41 PM

Growing up in Brooklyn, Susie Spikol wasn’t afforded the opportunity to be immersed in nature.

But the Harris Center naturalist credits her parents with finding the areas of the city that fostered her love of the natural world. Her family owned property in southern Vermont and she spent many summers there.

“That was kind of where I was the happiest,” Spikol said.

Spikol, who lives in Hancock, still vividly remembers the days of helping salamanders cross the road, and the joyous moments of her youth, exploring and growing an appreciation for the outdoors – one that’s never subsided. Those early interactions with those amphibians stuck with her.

“That was the beginning of it for me,” she said.

It’s those experiences that led her to a career at the Harris Center that began in 1991, and one that Spikol didn’t see lasting all these years.

“So many of my peers have had many jobs and moved around,” Spikol said. “I feel grateful that I found such a good match. They’ve allowed me to grow as a naturalist and develop those deep community connections.”

When Spikol decided to embark on this career path, her first inclination was to research wolves. She admits there aren’t a lot of wolves in New York City, but something fascinated her about the animal. She had a record about wolves narrated by Robert Redford that she listened to so many time “I wore the grooves out,” Spikol said.

But along the way, she felt this great pull to help create a connection to nature for others.

“I just had this idea to teach people about nature and it would be my job,” she said.

She spent a summer as a counselor at the Massachusetts Audubon residential summer camp and had an internship with the Central Park Conservancy, where she dove into the history and experience of the infamous city landmark.

While Spikol majored in English literature at Barnard College in New York City, she took “a ton of science courses” and it helped when she went on to get her masters in environmental science. Back then, a lot of her writing and reading centered around nature and it has continued to this very day.

Spikol is in the midst of writing a book, which she calls a guide for parents on how to foster and develop a love of nature with children. She hopes to have it set for publishing next year, but it’s all about finding that chunk of time to write around a full-time job that doesn’t have a typical schedule and three children, ranging in age from 8 to 19. She’s had a few other books that were close but never published, and has written essays for magazines and publications put out by the Harris Center.

“I wish I had more time to write,” Spikol said.

She began her tenure at the Harris Center as a summer camp counselor and has worked in many different capacities. She was hired full-time two years later as a naturalist in schools, where she traveled to local elementary schools and worked with students to learn about the world around them.

From an early age, Spikol said she was really aware of “how humans were impacting the natural world.” At the age of 12, she became a vegetarian and only recently has she gone back to eating fish and poultry.

“I’m a reluctant omnivore,” Spikol said.

In order to eat chicken again, Spikol said she learned how to process her chickens for consumption, but for the longest time she couldn’t bring herself to eat them.

It all goes back to her connection with animals and nature. She spends most of her time outdoors, both for work and pleasure. She likes to trail run, mountain bike, kayak and hike with a plan to summit Mount Washington this summer.

When it comes to her job, though, it almost doesn’t feel like work. She’d probably be outdoors anyway, so a meet-up for Babies in Backpacks and Toddlers in Tow, a group for parents to bring their children on a walk through the woods, and Shinrin-Yoku: A Forest Bathing Experience – what Spikol calls a forest immersion – is what makes her feel complete. Spikol loves to teach and answer questions, and nothing brings a greater joy than watching children catch a frog.

“It’s about finding ways for the Harris Center programs to make connections with people and the Earth,” Spikol said. “There’s always something to look at and something I don’t know about, and I’m always trying to better my skills as a naturalist.”

She’s been to Iceland, but hasn’t really been much of a traveler – although there are many national parks she’d love to visit, along with Alaska and some of the smaller islands off the coast of England.

“I don’t really have wanderlust,” Spikol said. “I’m happy and there’s so much to look at here and so much that I see each day that inspires me.”

Spikol is an amateur beekeeper, but took this year off after moving.

“I love looking at the bees, watching them work,” Spikol said.

She also likes animals with a bad rap, like fishers, weasels, skunks and porcupines.

“They’re like the underdogs and they need an advocate,” she said.

She doesn’t go anywhere without Willow, her one-year-old pup that she was brave enough to take kayaking.

If she could meet one person it would be Jane Goodall. She read “In the Shadow of Man” so many times it started to fall apart, and really looked up to Goodall as a role model, something she tries to achieve with the young students around here.

That’s why she runs the Lab Girls program at South Meadow School and Great Brook School. Spikol said it helps girls stay connected to science when they are most likely to gravitate away from it.

“It’s special to me to give girls the role models I didn’t have,” she said.

While Spikol couldn’t be happier with what she gets to do every single day, she still would like to see a wolf in its natural environment. Maybe if she ever goes on a grand adventure she’ll have her chance.

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