A Natural Gem

On paper, trailing a group of excited fourth graders through the woods outside of Ocala doesn’t look like a difficult assignment. But these children are smarter than I am — they brought bug repellent. I, on the other hand, am being slowly eaten to death by Florida’s state bird. In desperation, I use my hat to shoo these horrible mosquitoes, but taking pictures is impossible — if you stand still it’s an invitation to last call.

While a bead of sweat trickles down my unmentionables, I learn from our guide that Florida woods are really “hammocks.” A name coined by heartier folks than me, early pioneers who decided that forest areas are cool, shady and inviting, sort of like a hammock on the back porch during a hot day. Interesting. And if I can learn that while being horribly distracted, think what these young people are learning while they’re wonderfully excited about nature.

THE SILVER RIVER MUSEUM Environmental And Education Center is probably the best-kept secret in Ocala. It is the brainchild of a former Marion County history teacher, Guy Marwick, who is also part archeologist, part collector and part storyteller. As the facility’s acting director, he’s still teaching — it’s just that his classroom has gotten a lot bigger. Literally.

Granted a Christa McAuliffe fellowship in 1987, Marwick continues to raise much-needed monies and credits the Marion County School Board, community organizations, private citizens and volunteers for the center’s success. Opened in 1991, Marwick’s dream has now grown to include a fully interactive Cracker Homestead, history wing, research library and pontoon boats for student tours down the Silver River.

On the morning of my quest, students from Orange Park Elementary in Clay County are having a scavenger hunt in the natural science center. As they excitedly search for reptiles and nocturnal animals, this controlled chaos has a purpose — they’re learning but they don’t know it’s school. It’s an experience they’ll long remember; it’s also an experience that’ll help them score well on the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). The FCAT is an annual test designed by the Florida Department of Education to measure student achievement. In other words, the test hopes to find that students are where they should be for their grade level. And as most educators know, the key to retaining knowledge lies in gentle reinforcement.

With the precision of military operation teachers, staff and volunteers fan out to assist students. This out-of-classroom exercise happens every day during the school year — 300 classes a year, two classes a day. After all Marion County schools (4th through 7th grade) pass through the Silver River Museum, the program is then opened for out-of-county schools. This week Marion County schools are out for spring break, but here at the center, it’s business as usual.

In addition to out-of-county public schools, Silver River Museum is also open for private and home-schooled students.

“We [the Silver River Museum] follow the Sunshine State Standard curriculum and the children are having so much fun that they don’t even realize they’re learning. Our activities reinforce what they’re learning in the classroom — geology, paleontology and the natural sciences,” Marwick explains.

This is an important factor because life science, natural science and Florida history are covered on the FCAT .

MARWICK IS A CONSUMMATE STORYTELLER and he spins tales of treasure hunts and vengeful Native Americans and Spanish explorers. He has a way with words — what was once lost in time is found again and some of it is even on exhibit here. Most moving to me are the Native American artifacts and centuries-old canoes displayed throughout the building. Each of these dugouts commands enormous dignity and I still sense the presence of an ancient craftsman unhurriedly going about his work.

As fascinating as the exhibits are (most of them on loan or donated by friendly patrons), my favorite is the skull of a new species of Saber-tooth tiger. It was featured in National Geographic Magazine and just goes to show you, we’ve got stuff down here just as good as anything up in the Smithsonian Museum. But I digress.

Part of the interactive museum includes trips to the Cracker Homestead, where the children learned to grind corn and pump water. We visited a cracker home where the lady of the house explained intricacies of out houses and chamber pots. If you can measure education by stunned looks, then surely these children will remember who in the household had to empty chamber pots every morning. (Here’s a hint: It wasn’t mom or dad.) Kind of makes you appreciate modern day plumbing, doesn’t it?

Our day ended with hikes through a Florida hammock and a lazy trip down the Silver River. Marwick, who if he isn’t someone’s grandpa sure ought to be, was almost more excited than the children were. Then again, good teachers love to teach and he believes experience is the best teacher.

“A lot of these kids have never been on a boat, never been in the woods and have never been in a museum. We’ll give them an experience they’ll never forget,” Marwick says.

The staff certainly obliged. As I watched children inevitably switch sides on the boat (much to the chagrin of our tour guide) to catch glimpses of alligators, turtles and blue shad, I have to agree with Marwick’s assessment. Most of these children have evidently never been on a boat. Indeed, they took so much joy in it I began to wonder how many of them had ever seen an alligator in its natural habitat.

One thing is certain — as long as Guy Marwick is around, a whole lot of Florida children will get to do just that. And so much more.

Jo Pope, world traveler with more imagination than money, lives in Tavares with her husband, two ferrets and a cat of dubious origins. She can be reached at jo@ocalastyle.com

Silver River Museum & Environmental Education Center
1445 NE 58th Avenue
Ocala, Florida 34470
(352) 236-5401

* Open to the public on weekends and holidays from 9am-5pm.

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