The Buzz

Meet a Naturalist: Heather Van Zyl, always curious and always learning

A woman standing in front of a tree along a trail.
(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

It’s often said that learning is a lifelong process, and Heather Van Zyl is in it for the long haul.

Van Zyl, an interpretive naturalist at the Forest Preserve’s Plum Creek Nature Center near Beecher, said she often has “I wonder” moments, both in her work and professional life, that allow her to turn to her love of reading to take her down a rabbit hole of research. Along the way, she often stumbles on even more “I wonder” moments.

“I’m a huge library user. They laugh because I will have 100 books checked out at any given time, whether that’s for personal reading or for work,” she said. “Even as I am researching one topic, new things will occur to me, so I keep a list. Then those are things that end up getting fleshed out later.”

Her passion for learning and always wanting to know more has served her well in her professional life, both as a naturalist and before that as an elementary school teacher. “The more you learn, the more you learn what you don’t know yet,” she said.

She started her professional career as a teacher and has taught preschool through second grade and sixth through eighth grade. She took time off from working for a few years while her kids were young and then eventually took a part-time job as a facility office manager at Plum Creek. She left the Forest Preserve for a few years before returning as a naturalist about a year and a half ago.

At Plum Creek, Van Zyl is a go-to person when people have gardening questions. She also leads many programs about native plants and gardening. She’s an avid gardener herself, and it’s a topic she has learned a lot about through the years, starting from scratch when she moved into a house with a yard that was essentially a blank canvas.

Gardening in particular is a topic where people can learn how to apply what they learn at home. “Our tagline here is ‘Nature in your own backyard,’” she said. “I think that it’s important to have the spin, that you can do this too.”

Van Zyl also regularly leads Nature Play Day and other child-focused programs, and it’s part of the job she particularly enjoys. Seeing kids — and their parents and caretakers — learn something new or even just become more comfortable with the natural world is always rewarding, she said. She recently led a Nature Play Day program about spiders and was thrilled that both the kids and adults were enjoying themselves and learning along the way.

“I love when parents are like, ‘I didn’t know that.’ That’s fun because you’re meeting them where they are, which is wanting to enjoy their kids in a new space, or get out of the house, and you’re giving them an opportunity to take it a little bit further.”

As a former teacher, children are an age group she continues to enjoy working with, and she’s able to do so regularly when Plum Creek hosts students on field trips.

“Field trips, I think, are really empowering, because we’re not just talking at them, we’re doing things,” she said. “We have hundreds and hundreds of kids who come through, and we only get them for a couple of hours. You’re wanting it to be special, but also a meaningful experience.”

For many kids, getting up close and personal with nature is a brand-new experience, and that’s an opportunity to grow their knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the world around them, she said.

“Some of these kids, they’ve never had this experience because maybe their parents never had this experience. It’s either not interesting to them or they don’t know where to start,” she said. “By giving these kids this opportunity, because the school brings them here and not their family, we can affect change for generations.”

For some kids, being outside in nature can make them fearful or anxious, especially at first, Van Zyl said. Soon, though, many of them start to relax and are getting their hands dirty as they flip logs or dip nets in the pond. Those early exposures can help take the fear out of nature.

“That’s huge, just to not be afraid of your environment,” she said. “If you’re not afraid of insects, you don’t have to squish every one you come across.”

Whether working with kids or adults, she said one message she tries to leave people with, be it while leading a program or when talking with visitors at the nature center, is to start where you are at.

“You don’t need to know anything or have any experience to get started,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to try something new by taking one step. Learn one new thing. Try one new idea. Then build on it at your own pace.”

Helping people start where they are at is why the Forest Preserve offers so many different kinds of programs. People don’t have to be ready for a long hike or be an expert on a particular subject, she said. They can start at their level and build from there.

“Maybe you just leave with one thing, and that’s one fact about a mushroom or one tree ID or one question that you had answered or just one new preserve that you’ve never been to before,” she said. “And that’s just like a jumping off point for the next adventure or the next question.”

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