Interpreting The Landscape

Naturalist Stacia Hendricks shares her love of the Georgia coast and its flora and fauna

When she was 11 or 12 years old, Stacia Hendricks, now 50, lived with her family in Pacific Grove, a coastal town near Monterey, Calif. “Every day after school I’d take the dogs out for their walk,” she says. “Every tide pool was a miracle! Living there really made an impression on me.”

So much of an impression, in fact, that now, nearly 40 years later, Hendricks finds herself living and working on the Atlantic coast, examining tidal pools and monitoring wildlife on the beach and marsh. Hendricks is a staff naturalist at The Cloister on Sea Island, a role that gives her the opportunity to marry her love for all the natural “ologies” and education, or as she so eloquently describes it, “I interpret the landscape for those who don’t speak the language.”

A military brat, Hendricks was born in New Mexico and lived in 12 states, as well as overseas, before attending the University of West Florida, in Pensa-cola, where she majored in biology and arts/sculpting. “I suspect I always had a sense of my ability to teach,” Hendricks says. “Although I’ve never taught a school curriculum. I’ve been part of it, as a student and guest lecturer or instructor, but never taught directly from a book.”

While in college Hendricks participated in research projects in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. “It was hands on,” she recalls. “That was when I connected the systematic nature of the sciences, connecting the pieces of the puzzle of habitat and wildlife.”

After graduating, Hendricks worked in an Environ-mental Protection Agency wet lab for a number of years. “Research life was fabulous,” she says.

But even there, Hendricks was the person called on when a lab novice or visitor needed a tour. “For whatever the reason, I was able to convey how what we did in the lab connected to the bigger picture outside.” In 1984, after several years of straight research, Hendricks found an opportunity that tapped into her knowledge base and interest in sharing it with others.

Hendricks became staff naturalist at Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island, a pristine barrier island south of Jekyll Island. Though much of the island is managed by the National Park Service, the privately-owned Greyfield Inn compound includes more than 200 acres owned by the Ferguson family. Only 300 humans can be on the island at any given time and the only access to Cumberland Island is via private boat or the ferry from St. Marys. There are no paved roads, no stores.

Hendricks loved it. “I don’t want to sound all airy-fairy about this but I felt as if I’d been there before,” she says. “I’d lived a lot of different places, but I sunk my teeth deep into the coastline. When I found the [Georgia] coast, it grabbed me.”

Hendricks remained at Greyfield Inn for 13 years, until the Jones family, owners of The Cloister on Sea Island, asked her to consider working with them to develop the “natural” side of their guest offerings. “It’s been an evolution,” she says. “When I first arrived it was mostly marsh walks, beach walks.” But now there’s much more on tap for budding naturalists who visit Sea Island.

Hendricks’ staff includes an assistant naturalist and, during the summer months, a “turtle tech” and a “wildlife tech.” The focus of Sea Island’s programs is experiential education. “We engage folks in the remarkably diverse landscape, to bring it close-in,” Hendricks says. There are kayak tours of the tidal salt marsh, eco-adventures by boat, purse-seine net fishing, bird walks and horseback rides exploring the breadth of Sea Island’s natural wonders. In turtle season, guests take nighttime walks looking for turtle tracks and nests and, occasionally, are able to watch hatchlings heading to the ocean.

“Getting people eye level with the landscape is important,” Hendricks says. “When they can touch the experience, there’s a fantastic level of proprietorship.”

For many people, especially children, these supervised outings are the first significant face-to-face encounter with coastal Georgia’s flora and fauna. It’s an eye-opening experience and one that never gets old for Hendricks, who lives in nearby Darien. “My day starts when it needs to start and every day is different,” she says. “I love watching the landscape reveal itself to people. We’ll go out for a turtle walk at night, but people end up seeing the Milky Way for the first time in their lives. It’s astonishing, but wonderfully gratifying.”

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