In Bernheim’s 90 year history there have been many people whose giant contributions have made this arboretum and research forest possible. Without doubt, Isaac Bernheim was foremost in that group but he was far from alone. Most of the other names are not familiar to Bernheim visitors but their vision and efforts have been key in making this forest sanctuary available to us all. It is appropriate that we look back at some of those contributions. This is the ninth in a series to highlight those efforts. (click here to read part 1; click here to read part 2; click here to read part 3, click here to read part 4, click here to read part 5, click here to read part 6, click here to read part 7, click here to read part 8)
The mission of Bernheim is simple and direct: connecting people with nature. It is a mission that has always been accomplished superbly. Every person who walks or drives through the entrance is able to make that connection in our beautiful setting in the Kentucky Knobs. It is a simple process that allows little opportunity for error. Bernheim Forest could stop at that point and there would be little argument that Isaac Bernheim’s wishes had been fulfilled. In fact, in the very early years of the Bernheim Foundation, Mr. Bernheim firmly stated that he did not want any of the Foundation’s resources spent on education. None. Fortunately, the Foundation’s trustees were able to successfully appeal to him and convince him that the fundamental purpose of his gift clearly called for the public to be assisted and informed of the multitude of benefits to be found in spending time in nature and in preserving our natural areas. Ensuring that all of our visitors have access to that assistance has been the mission of Bernheim’s Education Department and its Interpretive Programs Manager, Wren Smith.
Wren arrived at Bernheim in 2000 with considerable experience in developing and nurturing the knowledge and love of nature. Wren was born and spent her early years in Shelbyville, KY. She spent much of her childhood exploring nearby woods, fields, and streams, both with her family and on her own. Her adventures were supported by her family but occasionally caused some apprehension. She once surprised her mother when she repurposed one of the family’s good pillowcases into a home for a hognose snake. Her family also did not fully share her enthusiasm for some of her early cooking attempts. Wren often sought, with uneven results, to reproduce the recipes of Euell Gibbons, a popular advocate of foraging and natural foods, with ingredients she found in her walks through rural Shelby County. When she went off to college, she had a burning desire to prepare for a career in alignment with her love of nature. She was repeatedly discouraged by faculty members who tried to convince her that there was no career path available, particularly for a woman. She persisted and received her degree in Environmental Education form Eastern Kentucky University.
Wren arrived at Bernheim with a substantial resume. Her early professional work took her to coastal Georgia where she led camping experiences and also led group expeditions to Oakland Island and Sapelo Islands. She returned to Kentucky and spent eleven years as a naturalist at Otter Creek Park. Her next stop was with the Kentucky Foundation for Women as Manager/Naturalist at Hopscotch House near Prospect. While there she developed a large variety of programs for retreats that lasted from a week to a month. Fortunately for Bernheim, she recognized that great opportunities and challenges existed here and became a key member of the Bernheim Family.
Her arrival at Bernheim heralded a big advancement in the way education in nature was approached in the forest. Wren continued to interact directly with visitors through classes, nature walks, and other programs. She even refined her early Euell Gibbons inspired foraging and cooking skills and offered classes in delicious wild edibles. Her most valuable accomplishment has been the development of Bernheim’s Volunteer Naturalist program. Every year, Wren takes in a new group of raw volunteers interested in helping others in making a deeper connection with nature. Through a well thought out series of classes, additional training experiences, and mentoring, she is able to transform this diverse group into a team that eagerly assists our visitors in a multitude of ways. Members of her team can be found interacting with toddlers at Pollywog Play Parties, expertly guiding hikes for all ages, and sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm at ECO (Every Child Outside) Kids discovery stations. Her Volunteer Naturalists lead the Creatures of the Night and Star Stories and Sky Watch programs, serve as guides at the fire tower, host Lunch and Learn programs, answer visitor questions at the Forest Giants, are enthusiastic hosts at Bernheim’s festivals, and many other events and programs. Every one of those volunteers has been trained, mentored and inspired by Wren. Many have gone on to receive Certified Interpretive Guide training from the National Association for Interpretation in a program also conducted by Wren – and which also attracts participants from throughout the country.
While she clearly excels as a trainer of Volunteer Naturalists, Wren has many, many other talents. She is an artist, a story teller a poet, an essayist, a performer, and is gifted at every aspect of helping people forge lasting connections with the natural world. Her value definitely hasn’t gone without notice beyond Bernheim’s boundaries. Among the many awards and honors that she has received include the designation in 2010 as Kentucky’s Naturalist of the Year and last year the National Association for Interpretation presented her with their Shining Star award. Wren truly brings Isaac Bernheim’s dream of connecting people to nature to life.
–Ken Johnson, Bernheim Volunteer Naturalist
In 2019, Bernheim celebrates 90 years of connecting people with nature. At over 25 square miles, Bernheim is the largest privately held forest dedicated to conservation and education in the region. Our arboretum is home to plant collections of over 8,000 varieties, public art, and educational programming for thousands of students. Our pristine forest hosts hikers and outdoor adventures alongside research and conservation projects which will serve to protect the environment for future generations.
As a 100% member and donor supported organization, we could not fulfill this important mission without you. We hope you’ll continue to support our efforts throughout the next 90 years. Join or donate by clicking here.