by Joli Reynolds, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation

As an environmental educator, observing nature is a big part of my job. But despite a lifetime of practice and nearly 15 years of professional experience, I think I’m still not very good at it.

What does it take to be an expert observer? I think that watching and listening and is good, but to really see something you should create.

For me, it all starts with a “sit spot”. This is a place to sit quietly and observe what’s happening in front of you. A favorite park bench or your back porch works just fine. For me, it’s the back patio at Quest. I go out there almost every day to eat my lunch and watch the birds. The great thing about this routine is that over time you notice changes in the activity from day to day and season to season. In the spring, a pair of bluebirds nested in the box at the edge of the tree line. Over the summer, green anoles dashed across the sidewalk and up the siding. This fall, I’ve enjoyed the brilliant contrast of clear blue sky and saturated shades of oak and sweet gum leaves.

While a sit spot routine is a good start, I find that engaging my creativity supercharges my observation abilities and the power of my connection with nature.

I have this strong desire to be really good at nature journaling. I want to draw colorful little sketches of things I see, label their parts, and write meaningful phrases -- all with some expensive colored pencils and pens. I wish I had pages to upload here to share with you of dainty bluebells and brilliant cardinals that I’ve drawn over the years, but sadly, I have none of that.

While I’ve not put in the effort to become a self-identified artist, I have found a different approach to nature journaling that works for me. I can’t paint or sketch a picture that pleases me, but I think I am pretty good at using words to create the mental image of whatever inspires me. Below is a sample from something I wrote last winter for a journaling workshop I did online and some photos of the scene.

A fallen queen of the forest lays sprawled beside the trail, her branches still reaching -- but why? No leaves nourish them and so sun shines on them. The wet of the day soaks her bark into a dark, desaturated hue all along her twisted body. But desolate she is not. Adorning the surface of this decaying ruler of a forest gone are stripes of shelf fungi. At first glance you see repetitive patterns of the same, but on closer inspection a whole world of diversity reveals itself. Turkey tails with their reddish rings, plump polypores, crusty lichens, and tiny liverworts keep company with the queen as she slowly melts into the land that produced her.

Can you picture it? Here's some of the lovely fungi I found encrusting that old, fallen tree.

What creative skills do you have that you can use to supercharge your own observation skills? We’d love you to stop by and share the results with us!

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Conservation Conversations: Asbestos Town with David Boraks, WFAE

By Michele Miller Houck, Carolina Raptor Center

I live in Asbestos Town, and for years, I had no idea. For a number of years I took almost daily walks by the Linden Cotton Mill and through the Historic West Side of Davidson. Until there was a sign on the hill “Do not walk on the grass” I really wasn’t even curious. That was over 5 years ago.


Built in 1891, the building was originally a cotton mill that primarily hired White residents of the town. In 1930, the facility was purchased by Carolina Asbestos Company and was used to produce shingles, insulation and brake pads. Opportunities were given to a more diverse group of workers, and a significant number lived in the historically African American West Side of Davidson, down the hill from the plant. The plant was sold in the 1960s and closed in 1970.


A number of area residents were interviewed for regarding their memories of working, or playing in and around the site and these are their stories:

Ruby Houston, who lives at the base of Asbestos Hill, recalls the white run off that flowed down the hill into the creek toward Roosevelt Wilson Park. Her mother forbade them from playing in it. But others used the Asbestos waste to fill in their yards and cover driveways. An EPA and State DEQ project in 2017 tested more than 90 properties and cleaned up 32 properties then. An additional 11 properties including the park have been remediated since that time.

Frank Jordan, 75, started out feeding raw materials into processors and eventually worked his way up to lead man in the facility. He recalls the interior being filled with asbestos dust, but also says that workers had no idea that the asbestos particles were deadly. Many of his friends and coworkers have died from asbestos related disease. He has been checked out and does have asbestos in the lining of his lungs but is not sick. Experts say that it could take as long as 50 years to show up.

Former Mayor John Woods says that as a child they would bike to the plant after school and would bet on the color of the retention pond out back, every day. Was it going to be blue or white or purple? He recalls that it was all in fun, what ended up being deadly fun for some of the children of the West Side, who sometimes swam in the colored run off from the plant.

West Side resident and former Town Board member Garfield Carr lost both his father and his grandfather from asbestos related illness after they worked in the plant for years. He discourages developers from disturbing the site because of the negative consequences that could befall the West Side and distrust between the town and West Side residents.


This is a story of environmental injustice that was perpetrated on the African American residents of my town that was hiding in plain sight for years. It appears that it is coming out into the light. I am sure that the story is not over, but I do know that the residents of the West Side and this reporter will not let it fall by the wayside anytime soon. These are the kinds of stories that we are looking to tell during the Conservation Conversation series. Check out the calendar at for more information about upcoming events.

For more information about asbestos in Davidson, and to listen to the hour long special, “Asbestos Town” go to

Latta Nature Preserve is chock full of interesting and busy critters. Lots of people think there's no wildlife to be found because they didn't see a fox, deer, or raccoon on their visit. I think those people aren't looking close enough. It's true that megafauna (a.k.a. large animals) are not something we see every day in the preserve, but smaller creatures like lizards, birds, and invertebrates (those without a backbone) are easy to spot if you take your time and look a little closer!

Tips for watching tiny wildlife:

  1. Slow down. Not every walk in the preserve needs to get your heart rate pumping. Slow your pace and open yourself up to nature.

  2. Use your senses. Often you'll hear a creature before you see it. Many frogs and crickets have excellent camouflage so try to follow your ears to the source!

  3. Be patient. We are conditioned for instant gratification, but nature doesn't work like that. You might not find The Most Exciting Creature ever on every walk in the woods, but you never know on which walk that creature is waiting!

  4. Get into bugs! Insects, snails, and slugs are literally everywhere. You should have no trouble finding wildlife as long as your definition of wildlife includes these guys.

  5. Get in close. Many of my discoveries of hidden creatures come about because I stopped to take a picture of this mushroom, or identify that wildflower. Look closely at the plants and you'll be surprised what you find.

  6. Do no harm. Remember to be respectful of the creatures you find. Not every lizard needs to be chased nor every toad picked up. While the wonder of holding these things in your hand is incomparable, be sure you're not causing them too much stress or even injury!

If you head out on your hike and don't find anything exceptional, you can always come visit us at Quest! Get up close to tiny wildlife in the exhibit hall, including an anole, treefrog, and salamander, or look even closer at invertebrate specimens using MicroEye microscopes.

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