HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- A small but dedicated band of volunteers helps visitors to the Huntington Museum of Art enjoy the flora and fauna on the museum's 52-acre campus.
They're called "nature docents." For more than 30 years, they've led tours along the museum's 1 1/2-mile trail network, pointing out interesting trees, wildflowers, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.
"We currently have seven nature docents, and they are all very experienced," said Cindy Dearborn, the museum's education director. "They all have strong interests in nature, in people, in teaching, and in getting out on the trails and having fun."
Susan Shields has been a docent for 20 years. She saw leading tours as a way to put her education as a biologist to use.
"It's a lot of fun," she said. "It's also very rewarding, especially when you're taking someone down the trail and you see their eyes pop out when you show them a really beautiful wildflower."
Many of the tours involve groups of schoolchildren. Shields said that sometimes her job as a docent is to help those completely unfamiliar with nature to adjust to an environment where the path is not paved and where creepy-crawlies sometimes lurk.
"I had one little guy recently who was scared of the woods," she said. "But after he saw that nothing was going to hurt him and that there were lots of pretty things out there, he absolutely loved it."
Docents don't have to have biology degrees or master naturalist's certificates. Knowledge of nature certainly helps, but periodic training seminars ensure a proper grounding in the fundamentals.
"We've had professors from Marshall [University] taking us on tree walks, bird walks, wildflower walks -- things like that," Shields said.
Perhaps the most challenging part of being a docent is dealing with the always unpredictable West Virginia weather.