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Alabama People: Renee Simmons Raney

PHOTO BY MIKE McCRACKEN

Teaching nature the imaginative way

Renee Simmons Raney grew up on a farm near Choccolocco, Ala., where she learned about the wonders of nature. Ever since, she’s dedicated her life to educating people about nature in unique ways.

Recently, she left a job with the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust to accept the position of park operations supervisor and director of events with Cheaha State Park near Talladega. When not leading a hike or telling stories to children, she writes books, including her most recent, Hairy Scary but Mostly Merry Fairies: Curing Nature Deficiency Through Folklore, Imagination and Creative Outdoor Activities. – John Felsher

How did your upbringing influence your career?

I was blessed to grow up on my grandfather’s dairy farm nestled in the valley just between the Choccolocco Mountains and the Cheaha Mountain range. My family encouraged me to be creative and to respect even the tiniest portions of the natural world. My imagination had no boundaries. I thought all children had this experience until I started school and realized that many children lacked the opportunity for outdoor play.

As I grew up and began my career in environmental education, my passion for merging science with art and creative play became my mission. Most people lose touch with the enchantment of youth, but I never did! I still live on a corner of that farm with my husband, my son, four happy dogs, 10 content chickens and a few hives of joyful honeybees.

How did your interest in fairies, folklore and storytelling transfer over into your career?

Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.” I believe every moment in nature is a “Once Upon a Time” moment. I have spent many years working with inner city and underserved youth in Alabama. Most of these children don’t have opportunities to connect with the natural world. When we take them to national parks or forests, they are terrified.

Once I have shared my natural history fairy tale stories, explained that they can pretend to be the size of their pinky finger and allow them to create their own nature home or fairy house, they become comfortably fearless. The insects and creepy things are no longer enemies.

In my book, I share my fairy stories from childhood through present day. I include lists of activities for each chapter to make it easy for parents and grandparents to play outside with their young folks. I have developed an “enchanted curriculum” for teachers to use these techniques to teach science, math, literature, physics and other topics. After reading my first book, Calico Ghosts, Alabama’s own Kathryn Tucker Windham handed me her old black click pen and said, “Take my pen and continue to inspire imagination across the South.” It was an epic moment in my life!

People say you have a unique way of presenting your environmental education programs. How is that?

I merge my skills as a biologist and anthropologist with my passion for creative drama and storytelling to create exceptional experiential place-based education programs for vast audiences. I’ve watched the magical joy spread across a child’s face when she holds her first glob of frog eggs in her hands and witnessed an 80-year-old man transform into a mesmerized 8-year-old as he listens to stories about farms and wild places not forgotten. I use live animals, or “creature teachers,” in most of my programs.

What is Nature Deficit Disorder?

I am part of the “No Child Left Inside” movement. A few years ago, Dr. Richard Louv wrote a book called Last Child in the Woods in which he coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Louv believed that the lack of outdoor play in childhood is causing a great disconnect between a generation of young people and the natural world. We know that 30 minutes a day spent outside can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase mental productivity and bring pleasure.

What are your goals for your new job at Cheaha State Park?

It is my goal to provide unique environmental education, cultural heritage and nature art programs for diverse audiences of all backgrounds and ages. I want everyone to ascend the cloud-shrouded mountain and discover Cheaha State Park, which we often refer to as “the island in the sky!” Our team is developing several programs such as a permanent “Fairy Trail” where families can create small structures from all natural materials while using their creativity to connect with nature.

Learn more about Renee Simmons Raney or order her books at www.reneeraney.com.