Memories and Musings

Memories and Musings – On Kids and Nature

“Wildlife of the Dora Kelley Nature Park,” painting by Mary Anne Warner.

Alexandria, VA – I visited the Buddie Ford Nature Center on Sanger Avenue recently. I went to ask if I might read a story in October that I wrote for my kids when they were young called Little Pine’s Halloween. And I can. It’s on the Buddie Ford calendar for Wednesday, October 25, 11 a.m.

I was revisiting a place I used to know quite well. It’s where I learned to photograph children. I learned to wait until they forgot I was there so that I could photograph them unposed, immersed in what they were experiencing.

Here’s a bit of the backstory. Some of you may remember that very early in my photography career, hoping for work experience, I brought my portraits of plants at the U.S. Botanical Garden to Jim Coldsmith, then editor of the Port Packet. He asked if I could photograph anything that moved more quickly than a plant growing. It was a serious question. Equally seriously, I said, “I think so.”

I’m not sure how I wound up at the Ramsay Nature Center, as it was then named. Perhaps I was enticed by a press release about the scheduled unveiling of Alexandria artist Mary Anne Warner’s four-panel mural, “Wildlife of the Dora Kelley Nature Park” (

Sleuthing my records1, I found that I photographed that unveiling in 1980. A plaque outside the nature center revealed that it was built in 1979. It was renamed in 1997 to honor Jerome “Buddie” Ford, who had worked for the City of Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities for 47 years. The renovation/expansion was completed in 2005.

Buddie Ford hired Gale Kogel (now Kobray), an energetic young woman, as the Center’s first director. Under Kogel’s creative stewardship, the nature center took shape and won the support of many local residents. Kogel designed the exhibits and, early on, recruited Alexandria artist Mary Anne Warner to create the mural. The accompanying text was the thesis for Warner’s Master of Fine Arts degree from George Washington University. The entire mural was 7’ by 16’, oil on canvas, depicting flora and fauna in the park in all four seasons. It is still as impressive and beautiful as I remembered.

As the director, Kogel was dedicated to offering experiences both varied and interesting. I remember a bus trip to Calvert Cliffs State Park in Maryland to hunt for shark teeth, walks in nearby Dora Kelley Nature Park, once to catch (and release) minnows in the pond, and another time to examine mushrooms.

Ellie uses a pipette to suction oil from water.
Sloane and Louisa use spoons to separate the oil and water.
Peter uses a sponge in the experiment. Hazel (left) and Sloane are in the background.

I remember the kids carving Halloween pumpkins, building birdhouses, and making ice cream. I went back week after week, and almost every week, a photo from the nature center was published in the Packet. It turned out that Coldsmith had a warm spot in his heart for kids and nature. As I recall, he trained a raptor on his own as a young Boy Scout.

The nature center looked different to me, but after 40-plus years, I am different too. I used to lie on my belly to record the kids transfixed by turtles, snakes, raptors – whatever the program that day was. The day I was there recently, the program was about pollution and how hard it is to clean up. I got down on one knee so I could shoot at kids’-eye level, and was not at all sure I could get up without help. You may smile at picturing this. I am again serious.

The Buddie Ford Nature Center ( offers year-round programs and interactive exhibits for children and adults. Their website invites you to visit “to explore and enjoy Alexandria’s wild side with us!”

I hope you will check it out. And I hope to see you and your youngsters on Wednesday, October 25, at 11 a.m. to hear Little Pine’s Halloween. Maybe the kids can come dressed as trees!

1This compulsive archivist still has the hand-written 3×5 index cards I used to record almost everything I photographed with the date and the number of the negative file.

Mosaic Artist/Photographer Nina Tisara founded Living Legends of Alexandria.

ICYMI: Beyer Subaru in Alexandria Donates $7,500 to Hybla Valley Elementary for School Supplies

Related Articles

Back to top button