Dave Bendlin teaches children, adults about nature

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Monday, March 26, 2012
— Anyone who has taken a nature walk at night with Dave Bendlin knows he can talk like an owl. When he belts out loud rhythmic hoots, barred owls are known to answer.

Bendlin feels at home in the woods, on the prairie or next to a stream. No matter how many times he hears an owl, finds a rare plant or catches a leopard frog, he responds like the first time.

"He gets so excited about it," said Penny Shackelford of Fair Meadows, a 380-acre site managed for wildlife and native plants.

Bendlin guides nature field trips at the Milton Township property.

"I have never seen such a teacher," Shackelford said. "He lets people experience the outdoors. He leads them to questions and lets them think about them. He is so knowledgeable, but he doesn't force it on you."

Bendlin is a former Milton High School biology and environmental studies instructor who has spent a lifetime teaching people about the environment. He retired in spring 2011, but he continues to be concerned about young people who suffer from a lack of exposure to nature.

"Have you heard of this book?" he said, holding up a copy of Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods."

Bendlin understood the book's premise—that children don't spend enough time outdoors—long before the book came out in 2005.

"I find more and more kids who have no contact with nature," he said. "I know kids who are afraid of nature. Ask them to hold a bug in their hands, and they won't do it. You would expect that in an urban environment. But some of them are from farm families."

Instead of lamenting, Bendlin did something.

In fall 2003, he began teaching sophomore biology students how to be nature guides. The guides then helped him take fifth-grade classes on field trips to Otter Creek in Milton Township. The children caught crayfish and other critters with nets and learned about them.

"Over the years, the field trip has become more popular," Bendlin said. "Some of the parents who come along say it is the best field trip because they learn so much."

Even though Bendlin is retired, he continues to lead the excursions into nature and hopes they will ignite curiosity about the outdoors in young people. In addition, he teaches field biology for fifth- and sixth-graders in the summer.

Bendlin also helps adults learn about the environment.

In 1990, he joined the Rock County Conservationists, who encourage protection and stewardship of the environment. Today, he is one of the longest-serving members and is also program coordinator. The group offers a monthly program, with topics ranging from sustainable farming to natural landscaping. Often, Bendlin leads outdoor nature hikes to see spring wildflowers, to paddle down the Yahara River or to discover amphibians and reptiles.

"We want people to learn about the environment," 57-year-old Bendlin said. "The first step is education and awareness."

Dick Newsome of the Rock County Conservationists calls Bendlin a true environmentalist.

"People know bits and pieces but not enough to pull it all together themselves," Newsome said. "Dave likes to extend their understanding of the environment. He wants people to understand the beauty of it, and he lives a lifestyle reflective of it."

Bendlin and his wife, Barbara, live in a Milton home with a number of energy-saving features, including solar panels for the hot water heater.

Last fall, Bendlin expanded his environmental teaching and became a volunteer naturalist at the Welty Environmental Center.

"I worry that we will get to the point where people won't think that nature and the out-of-doors is important," Bendlin said. "Anything we can do to get people involved is important."

Last updated: 7:52 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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