Sam Kieschnick has collected cotton rats on the Mississippi River, studied snails in Puerto Rico and collected gophers across North Texas. Now, he’s introducing kids to bugs and plants in Mansfield.“The selling point was the new park,” admitted Kieschnick, referring to the new 80-acre Elmer W. Oliver Nature Park, set to open in January. “It’s very exciting to envision the kids that will fall in love with nature in that new park.”The Weatherford native, 31, bubbles with enthusiasm when he talks about the new park, nature and his new job as the city’s first naturalist, which he started last month. “I’m borderline obnoxious,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s contagious vs. obnoxious. There’s so much to be excited about, especially with kiddos. I get to live vicariously in their size 3 shoes.”The son of a landscaper and a church secretary, Kieschnick fell in love with nature as a child, then got his bachelor of science and then a master’s degree in the genetics of pocket gophers. Stints of teaching science at Weatherford College, working as an interpreter at the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History, teaching summer camp at the Fort Worth Nature Center and collecting samples for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas gave him a wide variety of experiences and sharpened his love for the outdoors. And he wants to share that.“A lot of times kids or adults will be seeing these things for the first time,” he said. “We have that stuff right under our nose, but we just have to learn to see it. You can go to a vacant lot. You don’t have to go to Africa to go on safari. You change your perspective.”That enthusiasm and experience are what led the city to offer Kieschnick the job, said Shelly Lanners, director of community services.“You need someone who has the intelligence to understand plants and wildlife,” she said. “You also have to have someone who relates to 5-year-olds. He has that kind of personality.”He has already begun, giving tours to home-school groups, pointing out different kinds of plants and animals and telling the story behind each. On a recent walk around the pond at Katherine Rose Memorial Park, his group found a soft-shell turtle.“I was going bonkers,” he said. “I rarely see them, usually because they’re in the mud.”While Kieschnick will be working in all of the parks, the new Elmer W. Oliver Nature Park is what drew him to Mansfield. “It’s unmanicured,” he said. “They’re leaving dead trees. More organisms will use a dead tree than a live tree.”The natural park could take some getting used to for some residents, he acknowledged.“The people here love their parks,” Kieschnick said. “This new park is going to be different. You can’t throw a Frisbee or kick a kickball.”The park will have a wildflower meadow, rocky ford overlook over Walnut Creek, treehouse, boardwalk over the prairie and outdoor classrooms. “This park facility is different from any facility we have,” Lanners said. “There are so many educational opportunities, water, land, bugs, birds, wildlife. We wanted someone to educate people about what is out there.”As the city’s first naturalist, Kieschnick will be designing programs for preschoolers, school trips and seniors on birding, geology, astronomy and nature hikes. “Kids will get the same opportunity that I has as a boy, playing outside,” he said.
Amanda Rogers, 817-473-4451 Twitter: @AmandaRogersNM