For 50 years, people young and not so young have visited Lowry Nature Center in Carver Park Reserve, near the city of Victoria and a short distance from Lake Minnetonka.

They come to the quiet place to hear birds, enjoy vistas, walk trails through maple and basswood forests or across grasslands, and to explore wetlands from boardwalks. They come for exercise, to be surrounded and renewed by nature, and in many cases to learn.

Since its opening, countless learning experiences have taken place because, like the teachers in a school, the naturalists at Lowry Nature Center are responsible for learning. The classroom is the building full of displays and hands-on materials but it's the outdoors, too. The naturalists guide learning about the environment we share with the plants and animals around us. The more a person knows about ponds and lakes, bogs and marshes, forests and prairies, clean air and groundwater, wild animals (from tiny insects to fast-moving deer), the more likely an individual will be a good steward for these precious resources.

Let's go back to a typical Lowry Nature Center late September day in 1970 when I was one of the center's naturalists. A bus carrying two classrooms of fifth-graders from, say, a Minneapolis, Hopkins or Mound school would roll into the parking area. Three of us naturalists would meet the group (I worked there from 1970 to 1989). Already we knew the teachers through telephone conversations about pre- and post-trip classroom activities, the lessons for this day outdoors, and instructions for lunches. We'd break into groups, each naturalist taking 15 to 20 students. Let's say that the teachers had decided on a pond, plus forest/grassland studies. The naturalists would decide who would take what trail, and we would head out with our individual groups. About two hours later, we all met for lunch in the nature center.

My morning group would discover pond life, making use of a boardwalk, small catchers and a one-page picture key. The students would catch (and I helped identify) snails, water boatmen, whirligig beetles, and four types of duckweeds. They'd also note larger living things, such as Canada geese, mallard ducks and common cattails.

We'd walk in the afternoon through a thick forest and learned to identify sugar maples, basswoods and red oaks mostly by leaf shapes. We'd see zigzag goldenrod in bloom and found wild grapes to taste. We'd watch eastern chipmunks and gray squirrels. There were no whitetails, but we'd find fresh tracks and trails. Out on the grassland we'd see monarch butterflies and small flocks of birds heading south. Each student would stand on a hillside and let the wind carry away a brown milkweed seed and its fluffy white tuft of silky hairs. The children would find red-legged grasshoppers, several spider species, garter snakes (which they were taught how to hold), and many other grassland treasures.

All and all, it'd be a special day full of genuine memorable learning experiences, much excitement, and just plain fun.

That is how stewardship is built!

Jim Gilbert's observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.