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.