November Community Member Spotlight: Susie Spikol
Each year, the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD) honors an individual or organization with the “Educator of the Year” award. This is done to celebrate the recipient’s efforts to steward a conservation ethic and awareness through their personal and professional work. This year we are excited to announce Susie Spikol as our 2023 Educator of the Year!
Susie Spikol is a local naturalist, author, educator and mother, having spent over 30 years inspiring people about the wonders of nature. She serves as the Community Programs Director and a Teacher-Naturalist at the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock. Susie is known for leading engaging public programs and writing on the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world.
“No matter where you are in life, there are things in nature that will touch you”, says Susie.
She is living proof of this philosophy, having spent her childhood in Brooklyn, NY watching ants commute along pavement cracks and rescuing worms from sidewalk puddles. Her family also spent time in the Vermont woods, where she broadened her exploration to different animals and ecosystems.
She holds a deep curiosity and love for the natural world, which developed in childhood and has carried throughout her adult life. This curiosity inspired her to want to be a wolf scientist, but the academic demands of the scientific fields lead her instead to major in English at Barnard College in NYC.
While at Barnard, she interned with the Central Park Conservancy—educating and introducing kids from Harlem and Morningside Heights to the natural world. This experience sparked her realization that you could be a naturalist and make a difference in others’ lives using the experiences and skills of her childhood. This understanding brought her to work as an educator for Audubon and after college to an environmental center here in southern New Hampshire.
Signs (and colleagues) pointed her to Antioch University, where she took courses and received a Masters degree in environmental studies and her teaching certification in 1992. As part of her program at Antioch, she interned with the Harris Center, an opportunity that kickstarted her 30+ year career with the organization.
She never thought she would stay at one place for long, but notes that the Harris Center has always been flexible, creative, and provides plenty of opportunities to try new things. Their mission of helping people fall in love with the place where they are, is one she believes wholeheartedly. The enthusiastic and curious energy of her colleagues inspires her to keep following this path.
Every day is different for Susie, one day she will be out searching for frogs with middle school students and the next will be leading a group of young families with their babies through an old growth forest. She believes that people of all walks of life, affiliations, abilities, and ages should be outside and is honored to be able to provide those opportunities through the Harris Center. Thinking about the evolving inclusivity of the Harris Center, she says “You want to be who you are in nature but may not instinctively feel safe. When you’re surrounded by your people, you can recognize that this space is for you. Nature is home for everybody.”
Remarking on her favorite parts of her work, Susie says that “nature is always going to surprise you. You could be out ponding*, and a kid is going to catch a weasel! I’m always considering the possibility of what we might see.” The endless opportunity is part of what attracts Susie to environmental education work in our community.
“I’m a believer that you have to let people, especially kids, have those moments where they’re really physically engaged in appropriate and compassionate ways with the wildlife and wild things around them.” By simply describing the natural world, it becomes “like a museum behind glass”, ignoring our naturally-curious minds and the influence we have in our surroundings.
She encourages people to visit with animals, and to be curious, gentle, and thoughtful. Speaking of salamanders, “they respire through their skin so if you have [bug spray, lotion, sunscreen] on your hands, use a barrier between you and the salamander.” You hold them and look just for a moment before letting them go. “There’s a lot of value in letting a wild animal go—deciding that we aren’t keeping them for ourselves.” She says that this teaches curiosity and respect for those around us.
Susie’s educational philosophy flows into her writing. She has been writing stories since childhood, and much of this work articulates her perspective on the interconnections between humans and other animals. She remarks that so often we think we’re different from nature and other animals. “We’re told as teachers ‘you cannot anthropomorphize** because it’s not scientific’” but she believes that this has allowed us to ‘other’ and exploit the natural world.
“At the heart of a human, we’re animal. And we’re seeing the world through our animal gaze. And of course, as animals we’re going to look at something in nature and think “how is this like me?” In her work, she chooses to use language that acknowledges the connection.
“We’re looking each other in the eye. I’m looking at you and you’re looking at me and you’re seeing the animal in me.”
In 2022, she released her first book, The Animal Adventurer’s Guide: How to Prowl for an Owl, Make Snail Slime, and Catch a Frog Bare-Handed. She loves how language can evoke your emotion and sees that the natural world is full of interesting stories waiting to be discovered.
“Nature isn’t just when an eagle catches a fish or a brilliant sunset. Nature happens in every tree, with a pigeon bobbing their head. The everyday animals are just as wild and inspiring as the humpback whale.”
She goes on to state that nature is an open-ended, creative and magical place. It teaches us that almost anything is possible, so we can let our imaginations run wild. Maybe that stump was created by woodpeckers, or maybe it was carved by fairies or gnomes. Playing off the inexplicable and wonderful happenings of the natural world, she is writing a book on forest magic, helping kids imagine the gnomes hiding under rocks, forts to build and treasure hunts to be had.
Living in a more virtual world, she has noticed a change in how families spend their free time, with fewer students participating in outdoor recreation like hiking, fishing and camping. She notes that nature isn’t just something nice to do, it’s a biological need of ours as humans. But she says “it’s not the fault of ‘kids these days’. It’s our responsibility to support the community around the children.”
When asked what gives her hope, she points to young people, sharing that “most kids are curious in the natural world. Encouraging and acknowledging this gives them permission to fall in love in a very deep way.” Furthermore, “kids see things we forget to see. They are just waking up to the world. Kids will be so excited to see an ant or anthill, and you forget that “oh my, it is an ant”.
The Monadnock Region is rich in natural resources, and Susie says that sharing this with families and communities makes us celebrate where we live.
“People come here to vacation and hike Mount Monadnock from far, far away. This is your place, your home. Get out in it.”
The Cheshire County Conservation District is immensely grateful to Susie for sharing her passion for the natural world with so many in our community. It is with great pleasure that CCCD presents Susie Spikol with the 2023 Educator of the Year Award. We invite you to join in congratulating her by picking up The Animal Adventure’s Guide or participating in a community program through the Harris Center. Congratulations, Susie!
We will be celebrating Susie at the Cheshire County Conservation District Annual Celebration on November 1st from 6:00-8:00PM at Stonewall Farm in Keene. An ode to community conservation, this event will feature live local music, a delicious dinner, conservation stories and a silent auction. We would love to see you there! More details at https://celebrateCCCD.eventbrite.com.
To learn more about Susie and explore her written works, visit susiespikol.com
To find out about the Harris Center, visit their website at harriscenter.org
To read about our 2023 Cooperator of the Year, Pete’s Stand, or discover past years’ recipients, visit our website at cheshireconservation.org.
*ponding – exploring ponds and wetlands for biodiversity, often using tools dip nets, containers and magnifying lenses
**anthropomorphize – to attribute human characteristics or behavior to a non-human being or object
Note: in her interview, Susie noted that many of the ideas she presents are not new, and instead were thought up by colleagues, indigenous thinkers, and inspirational naturalists and writers like Sy Montgomery, Robin Wal Kimmerer and Frans de Waal