Insect Aficionado Brings Urban Nature to Curious Kids
August 10, 2020
PROVIDENCE — April Alix wants to help you find bugs.
“Here, I’ll show you how this doodad works,” she said, pulling out a pair of scissors with a round, clear plastic ball attached at the end. She rummages through a blue science grab bag and finds a small plastic jar with a dead body in it.
A dead stag beetle body, that is.
“So they can grab the bug like this,” she said, putting the beetle on the ground and picking it up with the scissors. “Then pop it into this jar with a magnifying lens to observe.”
In tumbles the dead stag beetle.
Alix is at Sackett Street Park handing out bug kits to kids as part of her work as a conservation program coordinator for the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Conservation Program.
The partnership — which in Rhode Island consists of the city of Providence, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Partnership for Providence Parks — is part of a nationwide initiative to get urban communities more involved in the natural world.
In Rhode Island, this means helping teachers learn to use urban outdoor spaces for experiential education and introducing kids to the wildlife in their urban backyards.
“This partnership stemmed from the fact that they were seeing that nationwide people from the city weren’t necessarily visiting national wildlife refuges and they were trying to figure out why that was,” Alix said.
Through surveys, program organizers found that there were three main reasons people from cities didn’t visit national wildlife refuges: they didn’t feel welcome; they didn’t feel safe; and/or they lacked the means to get there.
“It’s very hands-off at national wildlife refuges,” Alix said. “There’s a sign and maybe a bunch of bird nerds running around, but it’s not necessarily like, ‘Welcome! We’d love to have you!’”
Alix is hoping to help change that, one urban wildlife experience at a time.
“There’s this one quote I always say, it’s from Robert Michael Pyle, and he said, ‘What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never known a wren?’ That resonated with me,” Alix said. “I heard it at a conference, and I was like holy crap! And I think that is what’s at the heart of what we’re doing. If you can’t appreciate or understand what’s around you, how are you ever going to make global connections?”
While the coronavirus pandemic has upended much of this year’s plans, since 2013 Alix has guided local kids and teachers in exploring the environment around them, from bugs to birds and the plants that feed and shelter them.
“My job in the vaguest of senses is to connect people in the city to the natural spaces around them,” she said.
Her job involves things like handing out bug kits on hot summer days, helping teachers plan and execute outdoor education excursions, bringing students on hikes at Neutaconkanut Hill, and lending binoculars and bug-catching gear to teachers who need them.
Teresa Sangermano, a former fourth-grade teacher at Spaziano Elementary School, was in the first teachers group that Alix helped run. The experience was eye-opening, and she started bringing her kids out into the nearby urban wildlife that they may not have known existed.
“There were hikes to Neutaconkanut Hill, there were field trips that took my inner-city kids to places they would never have thought possible,” she said.
Through it all, it was clear to Sangermano that Alix was in her element.
“April loves what she does,” Sangermano said. “When you go hiking with her, there are birds and she knows them, there are bugs and she knows them, there are plants and she knows them. She has a little poem that she says about poison ivy that goes something like ‘leaves of three let it be.’”
But even though helping teachers and students find bugs and identify plants and birds makes Alix smile, this wasn’t originally what she saw herself doing.
“I always pictured myself as the person in waders picking bugs out of the mud, that’s my jam,” she said, laughing. “I had no intention of ever getting into education.”
But post college, after working a variety of odd jobs and internships, she was desperate for a real gig and nature (and teaching about it) called.
She started teaching about the birds and the bees (literally) during a job with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island as part of the AmeriCorps Ocean State Environmental Collaborative.
“We did an after-school program through the Providence After School Alliance, and they put me in a couple of different middle schools throughout Providence,” she recalled. “It was called ‘Urban Naturalist,’ and we would go out and we would look for bugs and we’d find birds and we’d do trail hikes, and it was my first window into environmental education and how important it is for all children to have that exposure, that hands-on exposure to nature. I absolutely fell in love with it.”
Alix discovered that she could still be the person picking up bugs and digging through dirt, but instead of doing it in some remote swamp, her work could be done in an urban park.
“We treat our parks like national wildlife refuges in the sense that this is where we can learn to explore and play and understand,” Alix said. “Got to start them young! I hope that kids recognize that they are welcome in nature, that nature doesn’t discriminate, nature wants everyone to be around to respect it and enjoy it.”
And on a recent hot summer day at Sackett Street Park, Alix acts as a conduit to make that happen.
Kids running around at the playground come over to her in dribs and drabs, first for lunch provided by the Providence PlayCorps, and second, to see what’s in the blue bags that the lady with a butterfly mask and bee earrings is handing out.
“Want one?” she asked the group that had gathered around her. “You can use them to catch bugs, just don’t catch butterflies because their wings will break.”
“Can I catch ants?” a boy named Julio asked.
“Sure can!” Alix responded.
She pulled a paper out of the bag that has photos of some common bugs they might find. Julio spots a slug on the sheet. “My first wish was to have a slug!” he said.
The kids run off and start finding and naming bugs: an ant named Mr. Spider, another one named Jason, and a beetle that Julio bequeaths Fungles the Doodle.
Alix laughed. “Man, I miss working with kids.”