Nature Camp

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Nature Camp, located in Vesuvius, Virginia, is a private, non-profit, residential, co-ed summer camp for children in grades 5-12 that specializes in natural history and environmental science education. The current director is Phillip "Flip" Coulling and the assistant director is Maggie John.


In 1939 Helen Worth Gordon, Conservation Specialist of the U.S. Forest Service hosted the executive committee of the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs on a tour of points of interest and educational value within the George Washington National Forest. During that tour Mrs. Gordon suggested a nature camp for children as a worthwhile project for the Federation. Lillian Schilling of Afton, Virginia, kept that idea in mind and revisited it two years later, during a meeting of the Conservation Committee of the Federation in Richmond. As chair of the committee, Mrs. Schilling proposed that the most effective way for her organization to attain any worthwhile and lasting results in their efforts to aid the conservation movement would be to appeal to and teach the youth of the country. Thus the concept of Nature Camp was born. Mrs. Schilling’s vision was truly radical at a time when most Americans knew little about the destructive impact our actions can have on the environment, global warming and acid rain were unknown phenomena, and such terms as ecology and biodiversity had not yet entered the common vernacular.

The following summer Nature Camp began at Sherando Lake in Augusta County. The inaugural session opened on 20 July 1942, with 24 campers in attendance. At Sherando Lake Nature Camp shared facilities with other groups that used the Forest Service’s recreational area during the summer. The schedule expanded from one session to two in 1943, but competing uses precluded a longer operating season. After ten years it became apparent that Nature Camp could not continue—and certainly could not grow—without a permanent, exclusive home. The Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs considered a number of alternative sites, including Goshen Pass and the head of Crabtree Falls, before deciding on the valley of Big Mary’s Creek, which had been suggested by the Forest Service district ranger at the time. Although this new site offered the advantage of much greater seclusion, it lacked any existing facilities.

A building campaign began in the winter of 1952, but construction of new bunkhouses, T-houses, dining hall, and office building had not been completed enough to hold camp the following summer, the only gap in Nature Camp’s otherwise unbroken history. Nature Camp reopened in 1953 with three sessions and expanded to its current format of four sessions the following year. The new location at Big Mary’s Creek allowed Nature Camp to serve a much larger population of campers during the summer. All of the existing buildings were built in the 1950s and 1960s under the guidance of Lillian Schilling, who served as camp director through the summer of 1969. Brent Heath, now a third-generation bulb grower in Gloucester, Virginia, succeeded Mrs. Schilling as director and held the position for two years.

In 1972 Col. John H. Reeves, Jr., professor of biology at Virginia Military Institute, began his 25-year tenure as director of Nature Camp. Perhaps his most significant and valuable contribution was to empower the staff of counselors to serve also as class instructors. Under Mrs. Schilling’s direction, most of the classes were taught by college professors, game biologists, and amateurs with extensive expertise in a particular field. Col. Reeves had the insight to recognize the uniquely effective and inspirational relationship that could develop between campers and counselors both in and out of class.

Col. Reeves retired in 1996 as was followed as director by Jim Jordan (1997–1999), professor of anthropology at Longwood University, and Paul Cabe (2000–2003), associate professor of biology at Washington and Lee University. In 2006 the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs concluded that it could no longer afford to operate Nature Camp, but a grassroots coalition of current and former campers, counselors, parents, and friends—under the leadership of the Nature Camp Foundation—launched a successful effort to keep Nature Camp open. Nature Camp now operates in conjunction with the Nature Camp Foundation and independently of the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs, although through its member clubs and districts, this organization continues to support Nature Camp financially and to provide several annual scholarships to campers.

Current director Philip Coulling has been affiliated with Nature Camp for over 30 years and has served as camp director since 2004.

Educational Program[edit]

Once described as a place “where fingertips are taught to see,” Nature Camp is an academic camp that emphasizes hands-on, field-based, experiential learning. Campers learn in a variety of settings, including classrooms both inside and out (although even these are non-traditional, such as a semi-circle of wooden benches under a tree canopy), and they can expect to take notes in most classes. Campers also spend much of their time out of doors investigating nature up close: behind the eyepieces of binoculars, knee-deep in a cold stream, running behind a butterfly net, and on hands and knees with eyes peeled on the ground. Nature Camp is surrounded on three sides by several thousand acres of National Forest land which provides an extensive outdoor classroom of forested mountains and streams.

Classes last 90 minutes and meet twice per day, in the morning and afternoon, except on the middle Sunday and the last Friday of each two-week session. At the beginning of each session, campers choose one subject as their “Major” class. Major classes meet on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the first Saturday, for a total of 15 hours of instruction. This allows campers to explore one particular subject in depth. Campers rotate through the other “minor” classes on alternate days (Mondays, Wednesdays, and the first Friday), attending one class in each subject. Each camper keeps a notebook during the session and is expected to complete a written project for each class, to expand on the material covered in class and to provide them tangible evidence of what they learned at Nature Camp, and what they are capable of doing. Assignments typically begin with field observations but may also require directed or independent research using the many resources available in the Nature Camp library. There are no grades, although class instructors provide positive, encouraging comments on all reports. Campers organize their reports in a folder at the end of the session, and a prize is awarded to the camper who has compiled the most outstanding notebook.

The educational curriculum during a camp session typically includes 11 subjects. Over two weeks, this allows campers to attend ten class periods in their chosen Major subject, and one period each in the other ten subjects. A core set of seven classes is taught nearly every summer, although the instructors and particular emphasis of each class will vary from year to year. These core classes are:

• Botany • Ecology • Entomology (the study of insects) • Geology • Herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) • Limnology (the study of freshwater ecosystems) • Ornithology (the study of birds)

Additional classes are offered when a qualified and knowledgeable instructor is available or develops an innovative idea for a new class. In recent summers the curriculum has included such classes as Appalachian studies, astronomy, conservation, dendrology (the study of trees), environmental ethics, “larvotany” (the study of insect larvae and their host plants), meteorology, mycology (the study of fungi, including mushrooms), nature journaling, spiders, wildlife art, and even environmental microbiology and forensic entomology. The variation in classes from year to year means that returning campers are guaranteed to have a different experience each summer, but having a familiar set of classes gives them several opportunities to learn a particular subject.

Educational opportunities are not limited to formal class periods. For example, occasional, optional early-morning bird-walks (before Reveille) or nighttime excursions in search of salamanders, to call owls, or to catch moths give campers additional opportunities to experience nature on its own timetable. During recreation periods counselors may offer hikes seeking plants, rocks, or stream inhabitants or organize investigations using the microscopes in the lab.

Conservation Practices[edit]

Nature Camp has always defined itself as a camp that emphasizes conservation. We seek to fulfill our mission to inspire environmental awareness and responsible citizenship by cultivating an interest in nature, rather than preaching rhetoric of environmental destruction. We also recognize the importance of engaging in practices which are consistent with this mission and which limit our consumption of natural resources and minimize our impact on the earth.

At the beginning and end of each session, campers recite the Conservation Pledge which hangs above the mantel in the Lillian Schilling Building. This pledge was written by writer Ben East after a meeting of conservationists in 1937 that led to the formation of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Widely adopted by scores of other organizations, the Conservation Pledge reads; "I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country: its air, soil and minerals, its forests, waters and wildlife."

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