It was only a matter of minutes, but Anita Sanchez’s first encounter with the Arboretum proved to be a lasting one.
Anita was working at the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center when she responded to a request for a wildflower talk from Fred Lape, the Arboretum’s founder. She was greeted by the elderly Lape and was immediately struck by his “great gentility” and “his Old World courtesy.” She knew that she was in the presence of a remarkable person – and a remarkable place only ten minutes from her newly acquired home.
Anita has since given many walks and workshops, sometimes in conjunction with her husband, Science Educator George Steele. She noted that she often refers to her Arboretum visits as “going to my branch office.” Walking its trails helps her to overcome a writer’s block or unravel a snag in her work – combining work and play.
A nature writer with a wide age-ranging audience, she admits an affinity for the less appreciated of the plant world. Her first book, The Teeth of the Lion, explored the familiar and often despised dandelion. Her current work, Leaflets Three, Let It Be!, extols poison ivy’s invaluable role in nature. “I look for characters that get a strong emotional response from the reader.” she confessed. Other works include a history of the Shakers during the Civil War and a history of the invasion at Sandy Bay, Massachusetts during the War of 1812. With a release date in 2016, her newest book for young adults, Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything, is a tribute to the great botanist.
Anita earned a degree in ecology and conservation from Vassar College in the heady years after the first Earth Day. She began a career in nature-centered education for children nearly 40 years ago, becoming an educator at heart as well as by profession. Concerned about the growing trend of children’s isolation from, and sometimes, fear of nature, she has developed programs that reassure children “who grow up in the suburbs with manicured lawns” that nature is “fun and safe.”
She would encourage people of all ages to visit the Arboretum – “for selfish reasons,” she said, noting that recent studies have shown positive health effects from being in the natural world. “Forest bathing,” it’s called, and it can significantly reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels. “Volunteering at the Arboretum would be really good for you,” she said.
Anita often thinks of that meeting with Fred Lape many years ago. “There’s so much bad environmental news these days .… . It’s easy to fall into apathy and despair. But I tell kids one person can make a difference,” she mused. “It started with an idea and a love of this place. I think about the hundreds or maybe thousands of people who’ve come here and learned. I think about what he has done for future generations, not only of people but of plants and animals.”
Just as Fred Lape made a difference in Anita’s life, so Anita has made a difference in the lives of others.