Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
His students called him “Ranger Dave,” and the license plates on his car confirmed his appreciation for the moniker.
Dave Bendlin, a former biology and environmental studies teacher at Milton High School, has long been known as one of the area’s preeminent nature lovers. Though he retired from MHS back in 2011, Bendlin’s appreciation for and advocacy of all things outdoors doesn’t appear to have waned in the least.
These days, Bendlin continues his tireless work as a member of the Rock County Conservationists, a group committed to protecting the county’s natural features and resources. On top of leading almost all of RCC’s free public nature hikes and other outdoor programs, Bendlin also volunteers at Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville, at the Welty Environmental Center in Beloit and works as a freelance naturalist for area school, church and scouting groups.
As a teacher, Bendlin was recognized with honors such as the Environmental Educator Award from the Green-Rock Audubon Society and a Herb Kohl Fellowship for excellence in teaching.
A Brookfield native, Bendlin now views Milton his hometown. He and his wife, Barbara, have been married 40 years, and the couple have two adult daughters, Andrea and Leah, along with a cat named Naia and a dog named Freddy.
For a firsthand look at Bendlin’s extensive environmental knowledge, check out information for one of his nature hikes or outdoor programs at the Stateline Area Conservation Coalition page on Facebook, or websites for Rotary Botanical Gardens or Welty Environmental Center.
1. What initially sparked your interest in nature, and how old were you at the time? My initial interest was fostered by my parents from about age 5 on. Our family went camping a lot, and we also visited lots of other nature-focused sites such as zoos, aquariums, museums, etc. They also encouraged my interests by providing me with lots of nature guidebooks for children.
2. Talk about your childhood. Was conservation just something that came “natural” to you? I grew up during the 1960s in Brookfield in a rural area that was transforming into a suburb of Milwaukee. Like many parents then, mine allowed me free roam as long as I made it back in time for dinner. My free time was spent playing with friends in a small woods behind our home and exploring nearby vacant lots, fields and ponds. Sadly, almost all of those areas have now been developed into subdivisions of houses or commercial developments.
3. You’re obviously well-versed in all aspects of the environment, but is there a favorite topic you specifically enjoy talking about? My favorite nature topics are those associated with aquatic life. Sharing experiences such as snorkeling in a lake or ocean, exploring a tide pool and teaching children about pond critters rank highest on my list.
4. Despite your deep knowledge of the subject, is there any topic about nature about which you wish you knew more? I wish I knew more about astronomy. Sometimes people ask questions about planets or constellations on night hikes and I can’t answer most of their questions.
5. You spent 33 years as a biology and environmental sciences teacher at Milton High School. What were the most/least satisfying aspects of teaching future generations about the environment? The field trips and other outdoor activities. The least satisfying was teaching biology students about molecular biology.
6. Kids seem to be spending fewer hours outside these days. What are they missing by not interacting with nature, and why is that a problem? Today’s students are spending far fewer hours outside. Some are annoyed or even afraid of being outdoors. I’m worried students like this won’t see any need to protect the quality of their environment because they won’t see any reason to do this.
7. I’ve seen TV shows that feature people with advanced survival skills and a seemingly strong understanding of the environment. With your background, would you have ever considered appearing on one of those shows? No. I’d rather spend my time trying to get children outdoors learning about nature. Appearing on an educational nature show that could reach lots of children would be appealing, but I wouldn’t be interested in appearing on anything like “Man vs. Wild” or “Naked and Afraid.“
8. If you could have any feature from any animal, what would it be? It would be tough to choose. The ability to breathe underwater like a fish or be able to fly like a hummingbird would be my top choices.
9. Do you have a green thumb? Both my wife and I have the greenest of thumbs! We have large and varied gardens in our yard and lots of houseplants, as well. We are constantly trying out new plants in our gardens and start lots of plants from seed in a temporary greenhouse we put up each spring.
10. What are some things about the environment that it surprises you most people don’t know? I’m surprised most people have little knowledge about how and where their food comes from and even less knowledge about how to grow their own food.
11. Aside from nature, what other interests do you have? My interest in nature is all-consuming and maybe even borders on obsessive. Even my other interests (hiking, biking, snorkeling, kayaking) are still very focused on being outdoors whenever I can.
12. Who is your favorite Muppet? My favorite Muppet is Mr. Snuffleupagus from “Sesame Street” because the puppeteer who does the voice and controls the front end of the costume (Martin P. Robinson) is an old, dear friend I grew up with.
13. Are the other members of your family as interested in nature as you are, or do they roll their eyes when you start talking about deforestation or the declining honeybee population? All members of my family are nature enthusiasts. Barbara, my wife, is a local gardening expert. My oldest daughter, Andrea, is a marine mammal biologist assisting with research on whales and dolphins in Hawaii and the Pacific islands. My youngest daughter, Leah, lives in Oregon and is a self-taught expert in the study of fungi. She leads educational hikes and programs about mushrooms throughout the U.S.
14. Where are some of your favorite places to experience nature in Rock County? Some of my favorites in Rock County Big Hill Park in Beloit, Riverside Park and the Cooke Arboretum in Janesville, Storrs Lake and Lima Marsh Wildlife Areas and Otter Creek near Milton, and Badfish Creek near Cooksville. All of these areas offer the chance to “escape into the wild” without having to travel a long distance.
15. Have you done much traveling to learn about environments in other parts of the world? I have been fortunate to visit several areas to experience nature in many different environments: tropical rainforests in Belize and Costa Rica, coral reefs in Florida, Hawaii, Fiji and Australia, redwood forests and mountains in the northwest U.S., and deserts in the Southwest U.S. A bucket list trip would be the coral reefs of Indonesia, but I’m not sure that’s ever going to come true. Most of our trips these days are road trips to national parks. There is so much to see right here in our own country.
16. In nature, memorable moments are never planned. Can you share any particularly interesting experiences you’ve had while out hiking? Some of my most memorable nature experiences have occurred right here in Rock county. I’ve seen a bald eagle take a northern pike out of Storrs Lake and once almost stepped on a hidden newborn fawn while hiking in a nature area north of Milton. But probably the topper would be night scuba diving with my daughter in Hawaii to see manta rays.
17. What is the best way to introduce young children to the wonders of nature? The best way is by getting them outdoors. Hiking and camping would top my list of the best ways to do this. You don’t need to know the names of all the plants and animals in order to teach children to enjoy nature. Getting them outside in a variety of environments is a lot more important.
18. People would be surprised to know that I: Have a fear of heights. I’m not afraid of snakes, spiders, leeches, ticks or any of that stuff, but the idea of skydiving terrifies me. I’ll never do it.
19. I know several adults who are afraid to trek out into nature because they focus on snakes, poison ivy and other potential dangers. Is there anything out there that also gives you pause? I’ve never had any experiences outdoors that I considered dangerous. With proper precautions and paying attention to what’s going on around you, there is little or no danger in being outdoors. The threats posed by ticks, insects, snakes and poisonous plants are greatly exaggerated. Wisconsin is one of the safest states for people to experience nature and the outdoors.
20. As a naturalist, I would be very happy if people would just: Understand that climate change is real, and the science proving it is undisputed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, if you care at all about the world we’re leaving behind to our children and grandchildren and other future generations, you need to acknowledge it and start taking steps to make things better. In the meantime, we should all just spend more time outdoors exploring and observing nature. Get out there. What are you waiting for?