Awakening A Love of Nature

Take a Walk on the Wild SideOpening This Fall, the E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center Offers All-Inclusive Harmony With Nature 

By Wendy O. Dixon

It’s the first hot day in spring. A small crowd gathers along the hiking trail on Nokuse (pronounced “nō-gō-see”) Plantation to see Orlando the gopher tortoise. Orlando ignores the humans around him as he scampers with his shovel-like fins in search of a burrow. He’s been brought out from his home to get his 15 minutes of fame as the photographer takes a few dozen shots of him. Whoever says tortoises are slow hasn’t met Orlando. This little fellow, while pushing nearly 50 years old, scurries out of camera range and into the woods.

Nature Lover Biologist Bob Walker is passionate about the animals at Nokuse Plantation, including Orlando, a gopher tortoise that lives in a burrow on the grounds. Photo by Scott Holstein

Orlando is one of the lucky tortoises that lives on Nokuse Plantation in Freeport. Biologist Bob Walker takes care to ensure Orlando doesn’t get stressed about being temporarily away from his burrow. While Walker holds Orlando to his chest so we can see his concave plastron (or belly) and leathery fins, Orlando relieves himself on his shirt. Even so, Walker laughs just as a mother would at her infant. 

Gopher tortoises, the only species of tortoise found east of the Mississippi River, make their homes in burrows that also provide homes for hundreds of other animals. The indigo snake, the Florida mouse, the gopher frog and the burrowing owl are among those who live peacefully with them. The gopher tortoise species was almost lost as roads were paved or buildings were erected over their burrows, leaving the tortoises and the other animals who live with them to be entombed and left to die an agonizing death that could take weeks or months.

“Human activities have made the gopher tortoise’s historic range unlivable,” according to the Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that championed the Endangered Species Act and committed to saving threatened wildlife. The gopher tortoise, recently listed as a species of special concern in Florida, now is listed as threatened.

M.C. Davis, owner and founder of the Nokuse Plantation has made it his mission to rescue the gopher tortoise. He and his team of biologists transferred around 2,000 gopher tortoises from all over Florida to the plantation in 2007 and 2008. Davis also worked with the Ashton Biodiversity Research and Preservation Institute to create the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Initiative in 2005. It is now illegal to pave over their burrows.

Most recently, the self-proclaimed zealot for the environment created the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, an educational center named after the world-renowned scientist and former Harvard professor, which focuses on wildlife conservation. The center, built on the 48,000-acre private refuge, opens in the fall.

Conservation and Education
Biophilia means “the innate love of nature.” Davis built the facility, the only one of its kind nationwide, to pass that love of nature to today’s children and generations to come.

At the center, students will get the experience of being close to nature, which Davis hopes will ignite the awakening of their own biophilia.

ENGROSsED IN NATURE Oversized ant, frog and indigo bunting sculptures will greet visitors as they enter  the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center.ENGROSsED IN NATURE Oversized ant, frog and indigo bunting sculptures will greet visitors as they enter  the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center.ENGROSSED IN NATURE Oversized ant, frog and indigo bunting sculptures will greet visitors as they enter the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center. Photos Courtesy the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center

“We are going to encourage and insist that everybody get out and walk it, wade it, swim it and crawl through it,” Davis says. “If you’re going to change behavior, the only way you’re going to do that is through education.”

The center houses laboratories with microscopes for kids to get an up-close view of their world and live plants and animals they can touch. Davis also works with area school districts to provide week-long educational programs for elementary and secondary students. In addition, the center partners with colleges and universities to provide research opportunities and field classes for education in land management and ecological sampling.

Interactive displays help kids feel like they are one with nature. They can see a model of the food web, which demonstrates how, when one producer is removed, the entire web will collapse. Live bees buzz around in live pollinators while a video shows the “waggle dance” that illustrates how bees communicate.

Kids can enjoy crawling through a gopher tortoise burrow, which shows the Longleaf Pine ecosystem, complete with a model new-growth forest, a prescribed burn area and an old-growth area.

“Gopher tortoise are a keystone species, which means that if we lose them it will have a significant impact on the 350 other species of animals and insects that live in their burrows,” says Christy Scally, director for the center.

Area school districts are pleased with the addition of the center, and see the partnership as one that can enhance kids’ love of nature while learning about the region in which they live.

“I think that the people who make things work in our world today are people who love nature and who love the environment,” says Patrick McDaniel, executive director for the Panhandle Area Education Consortium.
Belva Free, director of FloridaLearns Academy, agrees, adding that the impact of the learning center can have a universal appeal.

“The Biophilia Center offers a wide open resource for us in terms of classroom experiences, either virtually or personally, for students and for teachers,” she says.

One example of a hands-on lesson for the students is the study of photosynthesis.

“Most people don’t have a working understanding of it,” Davis says. “The students are given a piece of asparagus, which they measure for its caloric value on Monday, then again Wednesday and Friday. Students are responsible for their own piece of the vegetable, and when they measure the results, they can determine how much caloric value the asparagus has gained in the days since they began the project.”

Davis says this kind of classroom experience will enhance learning in ways a book cannot.

“They’ll never forget what photosynthesis is,” Davis says. “These are the kinds of lessons our curriculum team is creating and they’re practical and community oriented.”

COLLECTIVE LOVE OF CONSERVATION Dr. Edward O. Wilson with E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center Director Christy Scally and Nokuse Plantation founder M.C. Davis. Photos Courtesy the E.O. Wilson Biophilia CenterCOLLECTIVE LOVE OF CONSERVATION Dr. Edward O. Wilson with E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center Director Christy Scally and Nokuse Plantation founder M.C. Davis. Photos Courtesy the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center

The curriculum is designed for students in fourth, seventh and 11th grades, and meets Florida’s Sunshine State Standards. The goal is for students in those grades to improve science scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). An important component of the program is aimed at educating teachers on practical, hands-on techniques for teaching science. The center is available for students in Okaloosa, Walton and Bay counties.

The classrooms contain the latest technology.

“We hope to be able to share our information with students all across the world,” says Davis. “And that we will be a catalyst for others to do the same.”

Scally says it is not the center’s goal to transform all students into scientists, but rather to guide children to an awakening through which a love of life is born.

“With live animal exhibits and interactive displays, programs and outdoor classrooms, and nature trails, children leave the center feeling at least a little like naturalists,” she says. “This facility will reach well beyond its walls with cyber-programs, links for students to communicate with scientists, teacher training programs and worldwide access to learn about biodiversity.”  

A Walk Through the Woods
Along the boardwalk, visitors can hear the buzzing of carpenter bees searching for mates or dragonflies hoping to find a mosquito for breakfast. The delightful smell of wild jasmine blows throughout the forest. As they walk along the trail, visitors can look on the bark of logs for evidence of turkey tail fungi, which blooms stunning colors of orange, red and brown that resemble a turkey’s feathers. Flame azaleas are ablaze in a wash of orange, contrasting beautifully against a backdrop of pine trees. Evidence of a beaver recently sharpening its teeth on a cedar tree can be seen by the shredded mulch on the ground. The smell still wafts through the forest.

“The flame azaleas grow wild here, and are nothing like the horticultural pink azaleas,” says Nokuse biologist Bob Walker.

Walker and field supervisor Frank Cuchens are overjoyed to find two harvester ant colonies, one of which had been trampled by a tractor or truck and was being rebuilt by the ants.

SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY Flame azaleas, carpenter bees and eastern bur-reed are just a few of the treats awaiting visitors as they stroll along the boardwalk. Photos by Scott Holstein

“These native ants are important for the longleaf pine community,” Walker says. “Their colony is easily identifiable by the charcoal they bring to the mound. Everything out here is important.”

E.O. Wilson, aka Dr. Ant
Edward Osborne Wilson, Pulitzer Prize-winning nature writer and internationally acclaimed scientist, is one of the few professors who has made education for the public his life’s work. He’s authored more than 25 books on biodiversity and man’s role in conservation, including “The Future of Life,” “The Creation: A Meeting of Science and Religion” and “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.” He is and has been an advisor for U.S. presidents, German chancellors and the queen of England, among others.

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Ala. He fell in love with nature at an early age and was determined to become an entomologist when he was 11 years old. At age 13, he discovered the non-native fire ant and alerted the authorities of his finding, predicting that because the species has no known predators, it would spread rapidly. Several years later, the unrestrained fire ant had become an epidemic and a potential threat to agriculture. The State of Alabama requested Wilson do a survey of the progression the ants had made. His report, published in 1949, was his first scientific publication.

“E.O. Wilson is to conservation what Tiger Woods is to golf,” Davis says.

Wilson, who was appreciative that the center was named after him while he was still alive, is supportive of the center.

“We’re piecing together large parts of land that are going to be invaluable for the future for conservation, for science, for education,” Wilson says. “It’s a tremendous asset for a region like Northwest Florida to have this added to the resources.”

M.C. Davis: A Steward of the Earth
The mastermind behind the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, Davis, believes that “for nature to have a reasonable chance of continuing to function as the source of all wealth and life for man and all other species, then our conservation planning and execution, when possible, must be on the landscape and ecosystem level. I believe this can be accomplished by drawing upon the skills of the entrepreneur, the power of the government and the passion of the individual all directed by the knowledge of science.”

Raised in Santa Rosa County, Davis grew up poor — “on the wrong side of the tracks,” he says. He earned his law degree from Samford University in Birmingham. His first interest after graduation was making money. With luck and hard work, as he puts it, Davis was able to accumulate land.

“You’re focused on trying to make money. I finally made some money and it wasn’t what it was advertised to be.”

The conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife intrigued him, and after spending $65 million, Davis purchased the 48,000 acres that is now Nokuse Plantation, a significant parcel that connects more than 1 million acres of preservation land.

Center director Scally says describing a person such as Davis is like describing the food web — complex and straightforward at the same time.

“M.C. Davis is a self-made man,” she says. “He did not have a privileged youth, rather he experienced various trials early on. I think of M.C. as a diamond in the rough — the product that emerges from the pressures of life and the school of hard knocks.”

Scally considers Davis a paternal figure in her life and says her boss is a great instructor, leader and protector.

“After putting himself through college, becoming an avid reader, raising a house full of girls, and combining the survival skills of his youth, which I suppose comes handy when you are surrounded by women, M.C. has become a forward thinking, motivational, cut-to-the-chase gift for this generation and generations to come,” Scally says. “I do not know a harder working, sharper thinking, more candid or generous individual. He is a man of his word who loves his family, golf, this land and his dog. If you take one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration and cube the formula, make it three dimensional, you get M.C. Davis.”
Scally jokingly discloses that when Davis is having a good day at golf, the world is at peace, if only for a moment.

“On the other hand, if there is any environmental injustice that he can prevent or rectify, he will not rest until he has tried everything within his power to protect this land,” she adds. “I suppose in saying this, I could describe M.C. as not only another father to me, but a father to the land.”

The ultimate mission of the plantation, which includes the E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center, is to promote sustainable balanced ecosystems through interpretive exhibits, ecological research and symposia.

“This is a daunting task,” Davis says. “It takes teachers, parents, scientists and the government, so altogether we can collaborate and make such a team and this can happen — and it will happen.”

Davis hopes that when students and scientists leave the center, they will feel like naturalists.

“I hope they take a little bit of what they learn here and implement it to whatever career they choose,” Davis says.

Nokuse Plantation

Nokuse is the Creek Indian word for “black bear.” When M.C. Davis and Sam Shine established Nokuse Plantation, they wanted to teach people about the area’s historic biodiversity and the important role it plays in sustainability. Their mission for the plantation is to restore and preserve viable ecosystems that support native plants and animals.

The Florida Black Bear is an “umbrella species,” which means its habitat supports other plants and animals. The goal of Nokuse Plantation is to restore and preserve the native ecosystems so that they support black bears and the plants and animals with which they live.


Environmentally Friendly Facility

At the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, the buildings that make up the 33,500-square-foot private conservation facility are designed to minimize their impact on the environment with eco-friendly design features. The orientation of the buildings reduces the solar angle and heat gain, large windows embrace the natural light and make it possible to reduce electricity usage, and sensors automatically shut off lights in rooms not in use.

Outside, much of the natural landscape was kept intact. Native plants were added to attract wildlife. A bioretention pond serves as a habitat for indigenous plants and animals.

Inside, models of a super-sized harvester ant, frog and indigo bunting let kids feel engrossed in nature, rather than dominating it.

The facility is also home to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Rehabilitation Building, which includes a drop-off area for injured wildlife and on-site rehabilitation, large and small animal intensive care units, quarantine rooms, a treatment room, X-ray room and a necropsy lab.

Along the nearly one-mile hiking trail lies Miller Barn, which is the first off-grid system powered completely by solar energy.

Solar Panel Facts
» 2.16 kilowatts
» 12 modules/panels from Schuco (180 watts each)
» Energy generated:
        per month: 233 kilowatt hours (kWh)
        per year: 2,790 kWh
        over 30 years: 76,586 kWh
» Over 30 years:
        • 335 trees will be saved
        • 159,867 pounds of CO2 will be eliminated
        • 142,290 gallons of water will be saved from pollution


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