(A version of this article was originally published in the National Association of Interpreters Magazine, Legacy)
I’m an old-school interpreter, and Freeman Tilden’s first principle is near and dear to my heart. “Any Interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.” I work at Frying Pan Farm Park, a 1930’s-era farm that is a time-travelling revelation in one of the most densely populated, diverse counties in the United States.
One-point-one million people call 406-square mile Fairfax County home. That’s more people, in one county, than in eight states. More than 180 languages are spoken at home by the county’s elementary school students.
Communities vary from Alexandria’s urban, high-rise apartments close to the nation’s capital to Great Falls, where residents fight developmental pressures and try to sustain a semi-rural atmosphere that includes small horse farms. A few decades ago, Tysons was a farm crossroads with only a general store and a gas station. Today, it’s a rapidly developing urban center.
Fairfax County is full of dichotomy. It is the second-wealthiest county in the country with a median household income of more than $110,000, yet 28% of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunch programs. New single-family homes can be 4,000 square feet. Some immigrants rent single rooms, or even just a mattress, for their family.
This amazing and inspirational diversity of backgrounds, experiences, lifestyles and languages makes relating, interpreting and connecting Fairfax County’s wide-ranging natural and cultural resources to park and museum visitors a bit challenging.
Seed-scattered among the concrete weeds are more than 420 parks of the Fairfax County Park Authority that protect nearly 10% of the county’s land. One of those parks is one of the county’s dichotomies — Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Virginia. This 1930s-era working farm preserves a piece of the once-prevalent rural landscape of dairy and mixed-use farms that blanketed Fairfax and neighboring counties for decades. Reaching more than 10,000 school students and a half-million visitors annually, the interpretive team at Frying Pan brings farming, local history and rural life to a broad cross-section of visitors.
The Challenge for Interpreters
Sean Redmiles and Claire Thomas, both Certified Interpretive Guides (CIG), are front-line interpreters at Frying Pan who have observed how different visitors from that cross-section react. Students who live close to Frying Pan or in the county’s rural western suburbs can relate to the familiar farm scene. Many have been to the park with their families, or they live on or near a farm. Finding common experiences to build upon with them comes quickly. They are ready to listen, pet a farm animal, and make new connections. Students without those rural experiences begin their journey in another place.
“There are often unexpected challenges that can make learning on the farm difficult for visitors who are not from rural areas,” said Redmiles. “The one we see all the time is the smell; kids sometimes spend the entire program with their noses covered or don’t want to come into the barn where our classroom is.”
It can be a challenge for children to step from book knowledge of a cow, goat or sheep to meeting a 1,200-pound bovine that’s taller than them and moos loud enough to hurt their ears. “There are times where we’ve had kids who have never seen a goat before in their lives, presumably, and when I bring one in they are terrified,” Redmiles explained. “One child started screaming and throwing himself around the room the moment I brought our milking goat in.” It also can be challenging for the youngsters to differentiate between a goat and a sheep. The animals are about the same size and make similar noises.
“For people from the suburbs, you have to gently introduce them to the idea that farm animals, even well cared for ones like ours, are not pets. They are potential food sources,” added Thomas. While most farm visitors are omnivores, their only experience with meat is plastic-wrapped cuts at a grocery store or already cooked at a restaurant. Thomas finds a link. Although not ready to see the animals as food, they can relate to how the animals are treated. Youngsters may have pets, so Thomas talks about how farm staff care for farm animals by making sure they have shelter, good food and veterinarian care. When visitors are comfortable and make that connection, they may be ready for the next one — that these animals become food. That takes interpretive sensitivity.
The rural atmosphere can be a bridge to connecting with others. This 1930s-era farming is old-fashioned in the U.S.A., but many of those practices remain common in other countries. Visitors from those areas find the familiarity of the farm setting homey and reach out to staff, excited to share experiences from their home country.
Thomas recounted one of those moments: “Some visitors from rural El Salvador explained to me, mostly through mime and simple Spanish, that where they were from, they used the gourds we were growing to drink water from and that they were not just decorative as I had supposed. I’ve had a lot of moments on the farm where I’ve been able to connect with people from very different backgrounds than my own.
“I was once talking to a woman about how we milk our goats and how important they are to the farm when she told me that as a child she and her family fled from a civil war in Somalia and survived for two months on only the milk of a goat that they brought with them,” Redmiles added. “She said it was one of the saddest moments of her life that when they reached a town that took them in, her father slaughtered the goat for meat. She had tears in her eyes and she told me the goat we were looking at was the same type as the one her family had, and that she wouldn’t be here right now if not for that animal.”
Partnering with Schools
The park has teamed with a nearby elementary school to form a Green Team of students who combine school initiatives with park projects. The Green Team students maintain a vegetable garden on a real working farm. Few of these suburban kids have ever planted a seed or pulled a weed. Starting seeds in their school cafeteria under different kinds of grow lights, with or without heat mats, has become a school-wide science project. As the weather improves in spring, a group of 30 to 40 students come to the park with their parents and teacher twice a month. They transplant the vegetables they started at school and direct-seed more.
“The kids love to come and weed for about five minutes and then feed the weeds to the chickens,” said Frying Pan’s Senior Interpreter Patrick McNamara, CIG, who heads the project at Frying Pan. Worms can steal the show because some of the students have never held an earthworm. That’s an interpretive experience they will never forget and one of many “I didn’t know you could” moments they learn first-hand. Others are: I didn’t know potatoes grew like that, tomatoes could get that big, peas climbed a string, vegetables could taste so good. Some of the adults have that same first experience.
McNamara said that finding staff to share rural experiences is a challenge. In a generally affluent, well-educated county like Fairfax, understanding and support of environmental issues and protection is common. That’s a boon for recruiting staff at nature centers but not so much for a 20th century farm park. Many successful farm recruits come from visitors who live near the park or who brought their kids to enjoy the animals and are now looking to start a second career. Their passion for the park bridges the knowledge gaps of never having held a chicken, led a goat or learned early 20th century agricultural practices. Staff is hired for their communication skills, and the rest — tractor driving, animal handling and husbandry, crop production, and traditional homemaking — is learned on the job.
To “somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor” when those visitors have diverse backgrounds, experiences, lifestyles and languages is an art. Unique visitors are tile chips of different shapes, colors and textures that come together to form a beautiful mosaic.
Author Yvonne Johnson is the Site Manager of Frying Pan Farm Park, Fairfax County Park Authority, Virginia