Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Interview with Caw Caw Interpretive Center Manager, Mr. Thomas Thornton

Click here for the first post on the Caw Caw Interpretive Center

While looking through the Caw Caw Interpretive Center’s Exhibit Hall, I had the good fortune to meet Center Manager, Mr. Thomas Thornton. We chatted a moment, and I asked if he would be willing to sit for a five-minute CarolinaConsidered audio interview. In a moment of weakness, Mr. Thornton agreed, and we were able to chat on tape.

(Just click the triangular “play” buttons in these embedded sound files to hear the interview.)

Mr. Thornton was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, where he took a BA in history at the University of South Carolina. After moving to Charleston and teaching high school for a few years he came to Caw Caw with the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. He’s been here now for about eight years.

I’ve yet to meet a Park or Center manager able to describe their facility in just a few words. But Mr. Thornton came about the closest with his explanation of the origins of the Caw Caw Center. About one square mile of Colonial era rice plantations. Six hundred-some acres that includes nearly every natural environment of South Carolina’s coastal plain.

Rice, according to Mr. Thornton’s explanation, was grown successfully here from 1703 to the 1870s. Existing tupelo swamps had to be cleared for this, of course. How difficult that must have been, especially using only late 18th and early 19th century technology. But it was done, and the efforts of those early planters made possible today’s even more diverse ecosystem at Caw Caw.

Imagine: 256 species of birds and over 400 species of plants within walking distance! This is an incredible place. And I thought I could see it all in two hours! Oh my.

But the Caw Caw Interpretive Center is far more than an interesting natural environment awaiting curious visitors. Emphasis here is on interpretation, as its name suggests.

The Center runs programs open to public participation too numerous to list here. Everything from bi-weekly bird walks to their popular “Heritage to Habitat” and “Sunset to Moonrise” tours. I think the latter is even a canoe/kayak tour. Each tour includes participation of naturalists and historians who “interpret” the area to the tour participants.

They also offer programs for more specialized groups that Center staff customize to the needs and interests of those visitors. Schools throughout the State have discovered Caw Caw. It’s a popular destination for their field trips. Oh, and don’t forget the Master Naturalist and Junior Master Naturalist programs hosted here. I can’t imagine how they handle their busy schedule of programming with such limited staff! Click here for a list of the Center’s programs.

I then asked Mr. Thornton to describe his Center’s overall mission. He referenced the “Heritage to Habitat” signs outside, and said that “Heritage to Habitat” is integrated into every Center program. Emphasis is on a multidisciplinary approach to interpretation that provides depth and context. Mr. Thornton used the Exhibit Hall as an example. Natural history is on one side; cultural history is on the other; and exhibits along the dividing wall integrate the two. Sounds complicated. But it works.

By now we had gone far beyond the proposed five minutes for this interview, and I began to feel guilty for taking so much of Mr. Thornton’s working day. But I just had to ask about the tea plants that proliferate through the Caw Caw preserve. He said they remain from the efforts of the American Tea Growing Company to cultivate tea here between 1901 and 1907. The plants have flourished in the wild here, and make up much of the vegetation we see around the base of the trees.

In fact, ever-resourceful, the Caw Caw Center now hosts their own tea parties during the growing season. Complete with instruction on harvesting and preparing the leaves, with cookies and sandwiches provided on party tables out in the forest. Imagine that! An unrepentant tea drinker, I’ve got to come for that.

Thanks again to Caw Caw Interpretive Center Manager, Mr. Thomas Thornton, for his contribution of time and expertise to the CarolinaConsidered Project. I hope to visit this interesting part of South Carolina again in the very near future.


Direct Links to Audio Files, in case your browser has difficulty with the embedded links above.

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