For over 25 years, naturalist, activist and educator Ann Guenther has been introducing people of all ages to the wonders of nature. Like an environmental Pied Piper, Guenther has inspired thousands of people on her guided walks at the Mohonk Preserve or Mohonk Mountain House grounds with her infectious joy, adoration and depthless knowledge of the complexities of the natural world — particularly here in the belly and bosom of the Shawangunks.
Besides serving as an ambassador to the protected forests, prairies, lakes, ponds, rivers, peaks and valleys of the Shawangunk mountain ridge, Guenther, in her “retirement,” went on to become a major player in spearheading and carrying on the mission of the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition. “Our climate group encourages people in positive ways to live more lightly and carefully on our planet — to appreciate the wonders of this place where we live,” she said.
Thus, there couldn’t be a more deserving individual to be nominated for and receive the Mohonk Consultations 2015 Distinguished Achievement Award, which was presented with much love, song, stories and laughter this past Monday night at Mohonk Mountain House, where Guenther was surrounded by colleagues, friends, family and “kindred spirits,” as she noted.
Asked what she meant to the Preserve, executive director Glenn Hoagland responded by saying, “She was with us for six great years as an environmental educator. She has this amazing combination of sheer joy, unbridled creativity, knowledge and inspiration that she brings to the way she teaches people about the natural world. She has this way of responding so perfectly to that ‘teachable moment’ with people of all ages. Her ability to connect people to the natural world and make them inspired by that experience is what makes Ann so special.”
James Ottaway Jr., a longtime supporter of the Preserve, recalled taking a guided walk with Guenther in the thick of winter. “She was pointing out animal tracks, including a grey fox track and a red fox track, and all I could think was, ‘How do you know the difference?’ Well, part of the answer to that question or another question required us all putting our noses down to the snow to smell for deer urine!”
“She makes it fun,” added Hoagland. And indeed she does. Even as the New Paltz Times interviewed her, she was making jokes, hugging people and exclaiming, “I can’t believe how many kindred spirits came! It’s like having a party and everyone you invite comes!”
“This is all a bit formal,” she whispered, reflecting on the award program, the seats lined up in the Parlor Room, people congratulating her, speakers lined up to sing her praises. “I mean, it says ‘achievement’ award. I didn’t achieve anything. I did what I love and had such a hoot doing it!”
With that sweet girlish smile, Guenther leaned in and said, “I know what I’ll do! I’ll go to the microphone and announce that we’re all going for a grand walk in the woods and to follow me!” “That’s perfect,” said Ottaway.
Dr. Ilka List, an artist, teacher and naturalist who worked with Guenther pioneering the Mohonk Preserve’s now-thriving Environmental Education program, said that she was “delighted” when asked to nominate her former colleague formally for this prestigious award. In fact, she came all the way from her current home on Martha’s Vineyard armed with great tales from the trail with Guenther and their years of environmental education at the Preserve. She described Guenther imitating a frog to second-graders by Duck Pond so well that List began to think of her as “an amphibian posing as a human!”
List described Guenther’s humor and uncanny ways of drawing in children of all ages as well as adults into the natural world, despite their too-frequent inexperience with the environment. “One child was crying as we were hiking, and Ann asked her what was wrong. She said that she was afraid because the trail was going up.” As Guenther discovered, it turned out that the child had recently moved to the area from Florida and had never experienced a mountain.
Lee Anne Albritton, who was with the YMCA for 16 years, concurred. “I grew up in Florida, so I can vouch for there being no hills!” Albritton said that when she wanted to leave the urban environment and live in a more pastoral place, she found New Paltz and got a job working in activities for Mohonk Mountain House. She described Guenther coming in and enthralling the children in her charge by naming various plants, birds, rocks, creatures, pond-dwellers et cetera. Albritton found herself so excited and hungry for Guenther’s knowledge that she pointed to something very intriguing and said, “Ann, Ann, what is this?”
A long pause. “Blue bubblegum.”
Albritton went on to learn more than she ever could have dreamed from Guenther throughout her career with the YMCA, wanting so much to connect the children in her charge with nature, having Guenther come in and work her magic.
As Guenther herself is much more comfortable being on the sidelines and cheering or entertaining than being in the limelight, the New Paltz Times thought to ask her some questions that she might enjoy answering.
What is your favorite bird?
The cardinal. My mother always used to exclaim, “Oh my, oh dear, look at the cardinal!” The song of the cardinal just speaks to me, musically and to my heart and soul. It’s an affirming song.
What’s your favorite place on the Preserve?
Anywhere that is deep, deep into the woods. Any trail that is not well-trodden.
What’s your favorite creature to encounter in the woods?
That’s so hard. We’re really getting deep here now! Well, when I was walking up the hill to here, I saw a woodchuck. That’s my kindred animal spirit and my e-mail address. I relate to them because they’re not showy, they’re humble, they’re not in the limelight — but they really know how to enjoy life!
And who has helped more people enjoy the natural beauty and treasures of life than Ann Guenther? Asked what expression or moment she enjoys most when taking people on nature walks, she nearly swoons. “So many! But that one expression, often unspoken, that tells me that person has looked at something and found a connection. It could be something as ordinary as a leaf, but for that moment they were giddy with recognition and it transported them; it made them fully present. Those moments are so precious.”
And so much more precious is our own Ann Guenther, who makes learning fun, age just a number, the environment something that fascinates and begs us to protect, as well as a mentor who has and will continue to inspire future environmental educators, environmental activists and those who help connect people to their natural world, of which we are all “just a cell.” Hats off to you, Ann Guenther!