Know Who Your Friends Are

When the COVID-19 shutdown first hit its peak back in April, I quit going to the gym and got my exercise by riding my bicycle around the streets of my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. They were eerily quiet. People were staying home—mostly. I say “mostly,” because there was one place, at least, I found jammed with cars: the parking lot of our local nature center. And the drivers and passengers of those cars weren’t attending programs or studying exhibits, because the building was closed. They were out on the center’s trails.

Dr. John Falk has a term that describes people who visit museums and similar institutions for the purpose of escaping the stresses of their daily lives. He calls them “Rechargers.” I believe nature centers, mostly because of their trail systems and contemplative vistas, have always seen more than their share of Rechargers—people who visit not to learn new things or introduce their children to the natural world, but to restore their own souls. My own surveys at nature centers (discussed in a previous blog post) suggest that up to 30 percent of visitors to nature centers fell into this category in the pre-coronavirus days. I have no doubt that the figure is much higher now.

And here is something else I believe: Those visitors are your nature center’s best friends. They are connected to your center, sometimes fiercely so, because it is so important to their sanity. For many of them, it is the most significant island of peace in what has become a growing sea of chaos. While I don’t have research to support my hunch, I have seen and heard of many instances where these people, the Rechargers, have fought at Board meetings and City Council hearings and on social media to protect the nature centers they love.

And the irony is, you mostly don’t know who they are. Unless you charge an admission fee or check the membership status of people who visit your center, Rechargers are largely invisible. They don’t ask questions, they don’t come into the building to buy field guides, they don’t wait around for the next snake talk. They march straight from the parking lot to the trailhead and back again at the end of their walk.

As the economy slams into reverse, and tax dollars dry up and summer camp revenues shrink and donations disappear, I’d submit that now is the time to find out who your Rechargers are. Ask them for their names and contact information. Build relationships with them. Because you’re going to need all the friends you can get.