There was barely a spot left to stand in the classroom at the Brown County State Park Nature Center, as children, parents and grandparents watched Interpretive Naturalist Patrick Haulter prepare to feed a rat to a timber rattlesnake.
He showed a snake’s molted skin, a rattle and other artifacts, each with a conservation lesson attached.
When he talks about nature, Haulter’s enthusiasm is like a fan talking about a favorite team.
Timber rattlesnakes are a state endangered species in Indiana, and no one has been bitten by one in the state park in about 30 years, Haulter said. Even when they bite, the adults rarely release venom into a human.
We’re too big for snakes to eat, so the venom would be wasted, Haulter told a young boy who indicated he felt otherwise.
Rattlesnakes are not a threat if they are simply left alone, he said, warning against the desire to “chop off” a rattlesnake’s head.
Another boy’s hand shot up, “That’s what my grandma would probably do!” The woman sitting next to him blushed, as the room — Haulter included — erupted with laughter.
As the snake started in on its meal, Haulter explained how it will always consume prey head-first. He cracked a joke about how the tail looks like spaghetti hanging from the snake’s mouth. Some adults cringed; the children stood on tiptoe for a better look.
When it was over and the rat was transformed into a bump in the snake’s body, the room slowly emptied.
One family, visiting from Kentucky, came in as everyone else was leaving. Haulter showed them the snake artifacts, telling his stories and answering questions for a single family just as he had for an entire room.
Haulter does not think the park’s Nature Center has changed much since he took over for Jim Eagleman, the 40-year naturalist who retired at the end of 2015.
“It’s kind of just been people doing what they’ve always done, but it’s just awesome to be involved in that,” he said.
It’s a busy job, even more than Haulter had anticipated. But he has enjoyed all the interaction and support from out-of-state visitors and locals.
Haulter started a regular pancake breakfast — Pancakes with Patrick — at the Abe Martin Lodge. He talks about the worldwide history of pancakes and the names they have in other cultures, tying it all back to Brown County with maple syrup.
He tapped his first maple tree this year and was immediately hooked.
“I was so excited,” he said. “I drilled into the tree and the sap started dripping out, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, this is amazing!’”
Haulter makes a habit of drilling past the “what” and tapping into the “why” of the world around him.
Whether it’s American history and Thomas Jefferson calling for maple sugar production to end dependence on slavery-driven sugar, or the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, he gathers the history around him. Then he sprinkles it over everyday objects and events to give his audience a new way of perceiving their world.
When he hosts a monthly tea, it is a mix of history, culture, naturalism and craft, Haulter said.
He gathers plants such as dandelion — originally brought to the Americas as a cultivated crop by Europeans — and dries them. The children choose the plant they want to try, then make their own tea bag.
“It’s kind of a relaxed environment,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like I’m lecturing because there’s so much going on.”
Tea — whether the caffeinated or the herbal variety — is an international phenomenon, from British Earl Grey to southern sweet tea, Haulter said.
“Every culture kind of has its need for tea and its special way of using it, so it’s just something that, it really kind of ties the world together,” he said.
Haulter recalls weekend mornings when his grandfather would visit and have tea with the family. Often, his grandfather would barely drink his tea. The point wasn’t in the tea, but in the ceremony, and what it represented.
“It was kind of just a time for us to hang out, and that’s kind of what I talk about,” Haulter said. “It’s just an excuse — tea is just the excuse to hang out.”
Haulter is loving every day of his job, he said.It’s the kind of life he has wanted since the vacation when he was 8 years old and his family toured several of the country’s western parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.
“For my whole life after that point, all I could think about was going to parks and being in that environment again,” he said.
It’s something he has a passion to share with others, especially people who are disconnected from their natural world.
“You grow up in a city, and it’s hard to step back,” he said.
Being the interpretive naturalist at Brown County State Park is like getting paid to be on permanent vacation.
“I drive in every day, and pinch myself as I drive past Hesitation Point, like, is this really what happened?” he said.
Check out the programs scheduled at the Brown County State Park Nature Center this week. See the Something To Do calendar on page B3 or bcdemocrat.com/events.