It’s an amazing experience when you ask similar questions of four people and you get four nearly identical sets of answers.  If these people knew the questions in advance, or if they were together in the same room, you might expect a similar response.  But when they have no idea what the questions are going to be and they’re asked in a telephone call, unified responses are unexpected.

That’s what happened when Beth Fast, Jim Flandreau, Paul Pitts and Heather Saunders (I list them alphabetically because it’s nearly impossible to sort them out based on their ideas, feelings or roles) were asked to talk about the Natural Areas of Tyler Arboretum.  This was supposed to be an easy piece to write, but how do you write about four interviews when every one of the interviewees insists that you talk to the other three interviewees?  You write with a spinning head — that’s how you write.

The Natural Areas of Tyler are the 550 acres that surround the 100 acres of the Arboretum that exist within the deer fencing.  In the Natural Areas you’ll find 7 hiking trails that give you options of hiking between 9/10 of a mile and 8.5 miles in distance, and 25 minutes to 4 hours in duration.  You’ll find Tyler’s two waterways, Dismal Run and Rocky Run. The Natural Areas are what attracted Beth, Jim, Paul, and Heather to Tyler.

Beth is a walker and cross-country skier.  After her first visit to the Arboretum, Beth became so tied to Tyler that she began leading groups starting with wildflower walks, volunteering at annual events, and then moving on to the birdseed and plant sales.  Today, Beth sits on a committee she co-founded called the Natural Areas Committee, a group of eight dedicated volunteers who coordinate the jobs of trail marking and maintenance.  “Visitors may not notice what we do, but they appreciate it,” Beth says in her typically self-effacing way.  The keepers of the Natural Areas don’t seek or expect praise or rewards; they just want everyone to love and enjoy the Arboretum as much as they do.

The Natural Areas particularly merit the love of all visitors.  Filled with opportunities to view native plants and flowers, the hike over terrain varies from gently meandering trails to stimulating climbs. The Natural Areas provide opportunities for anyone who wants to be immersed in the wonderful Pennsylvania countryside.

Chairing the Natural Areas Committee since 2000, Jim Flandreau shares strong emotional ties, as do the other people I interviewed for this piece.  A retired lawyer and one-time English teacher, Jim views the Arboretum as a metaphysical experience.  He describes it as “a sanctuary; a sacred place that offers solitude away from the din.”  Jim notes that, “With the State Park buffering the Arboretum, when you walk through Tyler’s gates, you enter another place.”  “It is,” he says, “a place that offers an opportunity to refresh your spirit, to take on a rugged workout, or to just meditate.”

Paul Pitts takes a more pragmatic view of the Natural Area.  An avid hiker with a background in construction and engineering (not an engineer but in a key role as a facilitator and logistician), his contribution — what he enjoys doing — is in the hands-on maintenance tasks.  Resolving problems, such as stormwater-soaked trails or spots on the trails that call for filling or surface repair, Paul relishes an opportunity to jump in with a pickax or whatever tool is needed to resolve potential problems.  A volunteer for over 20 years, Paul’s bond with the Arboretum runs deep and makes him a regular part of Tyler’s workforce.

An ongoing struggle at Tyler, as it is in every garden and arboretum, is the problem of invasive species.  Invasive species are plants — both large and small — that are not native to this region or country and are waging a battle with native plants.  Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) are examples of invasive plants that are putting pressure on local landscapes.   If you run into Heather Saunders, she may be out in the Natural Areas waging a war with multiflora rose or yanking on some vines that are intruding into the local ecosystem.  You might also encounter Heather if you decide to attend a meeting of the Arboretum’s Board of Trustees.

Besides being a regular anti-invasive warrior, Heather is the Chairman of the Arboretum’s Board of Trustees.  If you ask her why she works on the trails and serves as Chairman of the Board, her answer is straightforward and logical:  “If I’m going to do my job on the Board, it’s important that I keep my finger on the pulse.”  First introduced to Tyler as a runner who was participating in a 10K run in the Natural Areas, Heather immediately fell in love with the Arboretum and determined to make it an important part of her life.

Like so many outstanding people who give hundreds of hours of their time to Tyler Arboretum, Heather, Paul, Jim and Beth have committed to giving time and energy to preserve and enhance a place that is an important part of their lives.  If you asked them, I’m sure they’d demur from any claims of specialness.  They see themselves and their peers as people who came upon a wonderfully special place and decided to help it maintain a high standard of service to its members. Their leadership and passion for this land will help carry Tyler’s mission to preserve and protect these beautiful spaces into 2021. If you’re looking for a way to explore the Tyler Trails and see them through the eyes of one of these four people who love them so much, join Heather Saunders for Tyler’s Weekend Warm Up Hikes on Friday mornings from 8:15 – 9:15 am. Start your weekend by recharging in nature, and hear all about Tyler – direct from Heather herself.