One of my minor disappointments living in the planned town of Columbia, Maryland, is that while it’s an exceedingly nice place to live, it’s sort of… Characterless. Like, if you were writing a nondescript mid-atlantic medium-large semi-urban community to use as a setting for a TV show, and you didn’t want anything too distinctive or quirky that might make take your audience out of the vague sense of familiarity with the setting. You’d basically be writing Columbia, except for the fact that it might come off a little too generic without any specific named points of interest to send the characters to. I mean, we’ve got just about every chain restaurant you can think of, but hardly any non-chain restaurants. And we’ve got a Wal-Mart and a Target and multiple GameStops and a Pier One and Home Depot and a Lowes, but I can’t think of a single mom-n-pop store. The town was built with a deliberation that “normal” towns aren’t, so it largely lacks the character that comes from a long history of piecemeal development and redevelopment. And it’s only about ten years older than I am, so it doesn’t really have much history of any other sort either. I know this sounds like the whitest white guy complaint in the history of white guys complaining about things that aren’t coal mining jobs, but that’s part of the problem. Columbia is the khaki-wearing white guy of towns. Not that it isn’t a racially diverse community in the literal sense, but in the sense of being a projection of our dominant cultural image of what “generic normal entity with no distinctive features or rough edges” looks like (This is not an endorsement of “white guy in khakis” being or dominant cultural image of what “default human” looks like. Again, it’s part of the problem). Even the whimsy (there’s part of town where all the streets are named for things out of Tolkien) feels manufactured.You know how some cities have “Keep [city] Weird” bumper stickers? You’d never see a “Keep Columbia Weird” bumper sticker. I think the last Columbia-themed bumper sticker I saw bore the legend “Choose Civility”.
I should probably also moderate myself a bit by pointing out that Columbia does pretty well in terms of cultural events. Mostly at Symphony Woods. But there’s plenty of concerts and local theater and wine festivals and art festivals. And this is great, but it’s also very temporally bound, and that can be a big burden when you’re a parent with a full time job and basically have the time you have, and also kinda hate people as a class and are more interested in the experience of place rather than event. This is why I’m glad that a couple of weeks ago, the dad of one of Dylan’s friends tipped me off about the James and Anne Robinson Nature Center. “Nature Center” maybe isn’t something I’d naturally seek out on my own, having memories of boring field trips to the local wildlife refuge to see local trees and fauna which, being local, I could already see by going to my back yard.
That is, I think, part of what the Robinson Nature Center is about. It’s got nature trails and gardens and tree planting projects and scenic overlooks the Middle Patuxent River, and oyster shell recycling, and an area where they demonstrate compost. But in addition to all that, there’s also this big L-shaped building right at the center, and that’s the part that made this a thing I wanted to do with my son.
The indoor part of the Nature Center is essentially a small nature museum. It’s kinda like they just ripped the nature room out of a really good science center and plopped it down in the middle of a park. The indoor exhibition is small, but it’s really well done. As you enter, there’s a small gift shop on your left next to the admissions desk. We didn’t stop at the gift shop on this trip because I was pretty much letting Dylan drive and he didn’t notice it. To the left is a sort of small reading room, cozy and softly lit, lined with bookshelves, with a fireplace and comfy chairs. Reminds me of the first floor lounge in the Humanities building back at Loyola, in the part of the building that still retains its original Tudor stylings from when it was the Jesuit residences half a century ago.
The temporary exhibits are beyond. Currently, they’re exhibiting some mixed media photographics by local artist Denée Barr. There’s also a large wooden tractor on loan from Port Discovery for the kids to climb on as part of the “Here We Grow” exhibit, running until July. The rest of that exhibit, downstairs, consists of a beanbag toss game based on Maryland agriculture, and a collection of wooden parts and plastic connectors with which children can try to invent their own novel piece of farm equipment. Other agriculture-themed displays line the downstairs hallway.
The first permanent exhibit you come to is on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The main feature is one of those tilt-table displays where you tilt the table to control a helicopter as it flies around the Chesapeake Bay area, hovering over points of historical and ecological interest to bring up little information screens. I think this maybe could have used an audio component for younger visitors, but Dylan had plenty of fun just flying the helicopter around even if he didn’t care to hold it still long enough for me to read him the text about the fate of watermen or the dangers of agricultural runoff.
An alcove to the left houses the “Changing Lives, Changing Landscapes” exhibit, showing, I think, the history of human inhabitants in the Howard County area. Dylan pulled me through too fast for me to get a good look. It’s pretty brief, close as I could tell, basically just one panel on Native Americans, and then a somewhat larger one about European settlers. A reproduction flintlock rifle and ax are mounted to the wall, but I didn’t get a chance to read the text. It was kinda similar to the first part of the Chester River room at the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center, but a lot more abbreviated. It also contains an animatronic model of an 18th century grist mill, which Dylan liked a lot, but not enough to stand still for the entire length of time it took me to explain the process of grinding wheat into flour. You turn a big wall-mounted wheel to set the thing off and watch elevators and archimedes screws and grinding stones all move and turn and it’s kinda cool and I wish I knew of a nearby museum that was all just this kind of exhibit.
The real centerpiece of the collection is the “Life of the Forest” exhibit, though. This is a big section all about the various things that live in different parts of the forest environment. It’s subdivided into three distinct sections. The upper gallery is this large, open, naturally-lit room where images of forest life appear on leaf-shaped tiles hanging from display trees. Information panels describe life in the treetops, with buttons scattered about that activate birdsongs. Binoculars mounted in places give you a chance to look out into the surrounding woods to see the local inhabitants firsthand. Dylan grew increasingly excited as we proceeded through this section, almost enough that we didn’t really get to see much as his anticipation kept driving him onward.
You descend down a long ramp to the lower gallery which focuses on the forest floor. This was probably my favorite part, and Dylan lingered here longer than anywhere else as well. The upper gallery is very beautiful, but the lower one is very dense and full of lots of individual things to look at. Dylan was, for reasons of his own, really excited by the sticks. Because there were sticks. I mean, duh.
One word of caution here: when you reach the bottom of the ramp, the very first thing you will see on entering the forest floor is a dead deer being eaten by buzzards. It’s under a sign bearing the legend, “Nature’s Recycling”, or words to that effect, explaining the whole circle of life thing, and it’s a good and important exhibit and very well-made, but I don’t know what they were thinking making it what they chose to lead off on. In this section, mounted flashlights illuminate messages carved into tree trunks about nature. Spring-loaded panels can be pulled out from below the displays to read information about the animals.
I was particularly impressed by the quality of the water displays. Lucite-filled cavities in the simulated forest floor give you a cross-sectional look into shallow pools and rivers. There’s a small pond prominently displaying stages of amphibian life, with frogs and salamanders frozen in various stages of development, and a larger section displaying beavers hard at work building a dam. There’s a hollowed out log in which one lizard protects its eggs as its mate loses a fight to a snake, and a hollow tree trunk you can step inside to see baby bats asleep on the ceiling. All the animals are models, just in case you were concerned. I’m sure a place like this would only have used ethically taxidermied animals if they were real, but the use of models removes any worries about that.
The final part of the forest section recreates the forest at night. It has a little bit of a haunted house vibe, with only the minimal lighting necessary for safety purposes. This part is a great concept, but the execution isn’t as good as the other sections. Some buttons as you enter activate the sounds of nocturnal animals, but I couldn’t always tell if they worked. One display was out of service. There was also a dark wall which momentarily lit up as we passed, showing nocturnal fliers — bats, owls, flying squirrels. It seemed like maybe it wasn’t working quite right, or else we were doing something wrong to trigger it, since they kept lighting up and disappearing in random sequences never giving us enough time to see them. Dylan strangely panicked at this part. He’s been okay with me through haunted houses and dark rides before, but this time he just desperately wanted to rush through to the other side. As you depart, the final wall of the section shows suburban housing from a distance, simulating the experience of being a nocturnal animal, living adjacent to civilization. As you pass, two small lights come on, accompanied by the sound of a car engine. Really clever idea, and I hope it’s effective if you’re not being dragged along by a scared five-year-old.
Once you’re out of the woods, you find yourself outside the planetarium. Now man, do I love planetariums. Sadly, they only do one show during the day, and we’d missed it. The planetarium is also an additional fee, I think. I’ve never seen a planetarium with a separate fee, but this is a small place and admission is cheap to begin with, so I assume it’s hard to cover the upkeep. There are also nighttime programs there. Around the corner is “ViewSpace”, a small room with a large TV showing a live NASA feed. Dylan wasn’t interested, and it’s kind of a strange choice. It’s basically just a little TV room, so they could be showing anything in there. I would have welcomed sitting down for five minutes and watching something.
The other public exhibit on the floor is the “Backyard Habitat”, a room with chairs and books, overlooking a garden outside, and featuring a plexiglass-fronted apiary. Sadly, the bees have currently moved out to seek bigger digs and I guess it’s not bee season so a new hive hasn’t moved in yet. Dylan was fascinated by the enclosure.
Also on the lower floor are two classrooms and an auditorium which can be rented for events. There was a children’s party scheduled for one of the classrooms that day. The classrooms also host seasonal science workshops for homeschoolers. There’s also an outdoor mezzanine with a scenic overlook here, which I think you can rent for weddings.
Back upstairs, the last thing on our agenda was to hit the children’s room. It’s got dress-up stuff, books, blocks, chalkboards and a puppet show stage.
One wall displays a number of terrariums, really stacked way too high for a kids’ room. Dylan was scared to let me lift him up high enough to see the snake. There’s also a touch tank, but we were apparently outside of touching hours as there was no staff member present. A beach-ball orrery hangs from the ceiling, with a little asterisk next to Pluto.
Once we’d finished in the kids’ room, Dylan was ready to head outside. There’s a neat playground right next to the building, described in the literature as the “Nature Place”. It’s got a checkerboard and tic-tac-toe board made of tree stumps. Dylan invented a sort of three-player tic-tac-toe where Ghost Rider got to make a move between Dylan’s turn and mine. There are things to climb on and in, and a table of toy kitchen utensils. There’s also some small bag-type hammocks for the kids to swing or relax in, and a corrugated tube slide that Dylan spent about ten minutes going up and down.
Our fingers numb from outdoor January tic-tac-toe, we were about to leave when Dylan decided he’d like to spend a few minutes walking one of the nature trails. We followed it down to where it crosses under Cedar Lane. There, they’ve preserved the ruins of the old Simpsonville grist mill. Despite his attention span having failed inside, Dylan recognized that the ruined building was the place where they used to do the thing he’d seen in the model inside. The ruins themselves are fenced off, which has almost completely deterred graffiti artists, but not quite. The shallow creek that runs beside it has a sandy bank suitable for a five-year-old to spend five minutes playing in the sand. In January.
Tired and cold, we headed back up to the car, then off to the mall (About a five-minute ride except that they had the most direct route closed for construction) for an early dinner.
This place was great. The exhibits are really well-made. And the building itself is really cool. Got a sort of contemporary chalet thing going on. Dylan went back and forth on it; he mostly liked it, but I think the whole time he was hoping we could skip through really quick and then head over to the B&O Railroad Museum annex in Ellicott City. He was disappointed when he found out we weren’t going to have time.
I’ll be honest with you. This probably isn’t a place you should go out of your way to visit. We didn’t quite manage to get two hours out of the place, less than an hour from the indoor exhibits. They’re great, but it’s small.
Also, maybe a Saturday afternoon in January wasn’t the best time to visit. We didn’t see many other people while we were there, except in the kids’ room and on the playground (And even there, they didn’t stay too long). The absence of the bees and the closed touch tank are both suggestive that the winter is their off-season. Nature was kinda sorta on vacation; the trees bare, the flowers wilted, the animals sleeping, and it being pretty darned cold for the first time in a week.
But check it: adult admission is five dollars. A family membership is fifty. At eight bucks for the two of us, I think Dylan and I got real good value for our money even in January. If we’d showed up in the morning on a warm spring day? This would be fantastic. I didn’t have as much fun as I would have at the Aquarium or the Science Center or something like that, but it only cost me eight bucks, and it’s only ten minutes from my house, with none of the ordeal of driving to the city. If Dylan’s amenable, I think we’ll definitely be going back soon. It may not be worth making a special trip from outside the immediate area, but if you live nearby? It’s one of those Columbia things that just makes it nice to live here, but it’s got a little touch of distinctiveness that makes for an interesting experience.
The James and Anne Robinson Nature Center is located at 6692 Cedar Lane in Columbia, MD. Open Wednesday-Saturday, 9-5, Sunday Noon-5.