The Butler Did It – Everyday Heroism

We recently sat in a theater in Keauhou, Hawaii, watching The Butler. Most folks applauded at the end for a writer, cast and crew that could not hear the praise. We wanted each other to hear it, to share the moment. Most sat still and watched the names of all who made the film roll by on the screen, tears streaming down our faces.

Movies can entertain, annoy, and provoke us. They can interpret our culture in a unique way that only mass media can. The Butler took me back to the sixties and reminded me of how painful, thought provoking and energizing those times were. Cecil’s story is based on a real story of a butler at the White House, powerfully traversing time from 1926 forward to the election of President Obama. His sacrifice and ultimate rise to recognition are poignant and powerful reminders of what may be required of those who must endure to overcome adversity.

Many of us who were college students in the 60s had parents who lived through the depression and very hard times. Cecil Gaines picked cotton and received no formal education. My father had a 7th grade education and went to work on the railroad at age 13 to help support his family. Those kinds of experiences created strong people who valued education and worked very hard to create opportunities for their children. We, their children, had no historical perspective and wondered why they were so hardened and stoic. We could see the injustices around us and screamed about them, while they endured pain quietly. What we didn’t always realize was that we had the freedom to be insulted by what we saw because what they endured gave us that freedom.

In The Butler, a major theme is the classic father-son conflict. Oprah Winfrey plays the long-suffering wife and mother caught in the middle. Lewis, the son of Cecil Gaines, is an activist, a freedom rider, a Black Panther, who accuses his father of complacency. Cecil is a butler to five presidents in the White House, serving faithfully, yet influencing events in his own quiet way. Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker bring such depth to their roles that the viewer shares their frustrations and heartaches. Those of us who lived through those times experienced the news of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the loss of family and friends who served in Vietnam. Those were painful events that we felt deeply and this movie successfully took us right back to that pain.

Great movies, such as Gandhi and Schindler’s List, interpret the past and make us think. They help us process complex events and people. They remind us that not everything is about US. We occupy a larger world where many lack the chance to eat regularly, be educated and experience the most basic freedoms. The Butler made me think once again about our personal responsibility to help others and protect the unprotected.

– Tim Merriman

Try to Remember – Keep a Journal

I am reading Undaunted Courage  by Stephen Ambrose and the wonderful journals of the men on the Voyage of Discovery from Washington, D.C. to Oregon coast with Lewis and Clark left us amazing accounts of their journeys. Where would we be without journals?

It was ornithology class in college that made me start keeping a journal of each outing. That was great training that I used in my early years as a park naturalist. However, at some point I became too lazy to keep up the journal practice. It was all hand writing in those days and my best work was neither fascinating reading or very legible due to lazy penmanship.

The costumes are beautiful  Tibetan formal ware, but the ladies are from some other part of China, enjoing holidays at Jiuzhaigou.

The costumes are beautiful
Tibetan formal ware, but the ladies are from some other part of China, enjoing holidays at Jiuzhaigou.

But international trips revived my interest in recording every detail of a day. I wanted to be able to look back and recall the place, the people and the sense of wonder. It was twenty  years ago that my opportunities to travel internationally increased and a laptop had become my constant companion so legibility was no longer a part of the challenge. I type well at 80 words per minute or better.

In 2005 we were in China training about 30 world heritage site managers while touring on a luxury bus in northern Sichuan Province. We stopped to visit the very famous and highly popular Jiuzhaigou World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. My journal from that first day follows:


The huge plaza at Jiuzhaigou would hold 5,000 people and needs to. That many are standing in line to get in each morning. They let 12,000 per day into the valley and the queue is a Disney model with the zigzag queues with cords between posts. This feeds into a bus boarding lane and 260 large green buses take people up valley. They can get off at any time and get back on at any point by flagging a bus. This is much like Denali and adds to the charm of the place. The valley is forked so midway up you can take one branch or the other. We went up to the right at first and it terminates at a 540 hectare old growth forest with very large trees. It’s temperate rainforest with every surface covered with mosses aned trees growing out of the tops of old stumps or broken snags as in the Olympic National Forest in Washington State.


The waterfalls and pools of this valley are varied and beautiful and the trails take you along or over the water the entire way.

The waterfalls and pools of this valley are varied and beautiful and the trails take you along or over the water the entire way.

We visit the WC (toilet) and walk up through the old growth, enjoying the scenes. At concession platforms near the bus stop you can pay ten yuan and wear a Tibetan outfit to have your picture taken. That’s very popular and takes the first 20 minutes of our visit to the valley. The trip up valley to this point is 40 kilometers between heavily wooded steep canyon walls of two to threee thousand feet. They say the taller jagged peaks of the Min Range of the Tibetan Prefecture are about 10,000 feet elevation. You can see water flowing beside the road the entire drive up. It turns out that Jiuzhaigou is one continuous waterfall from top of the valley to the bottom with intermittent lakes, roughly 40 kilometers. It’s karst topography so the gushing water is eroding the landscape into elaborate combinations of surface sinkholes and shelves with pools. The colors are amazing. The boardwalk trail zigzags the entire length of the river from top of the valley to the bottom and Visitor Center. Walking over karst pools of teal and azure teeming with trout is breathtaking. Nine Tibetan villages thrive in the valley within the park.

And it goes on and on. As a writer of fiction and interpreter of natural and cultural heritage a journal is a wonderful resource. When you want to set a fictional story where you have visited, you have background information and a large collection of digital photos as reminders (55,000 so far). When writing non-fiction such as a blog or book, you have your own observations to compare to what you find by other authors.

Thousands of Chinese visitors enjoy the park each day.

Thousands of Chinese visitors enjoy the park each day.

Journaling is a great habit. I wish I could motivate myself to do it every day everywhere, but finding the time around home is challenging. We are off to speak at a conference in Chandigarh, India, in Punjab State in early October so my large file of trip journals will get larger. One of these days there’s a book that can be fairly easily assembled from these fascinating trips – running in front of the bulls in Pamplona, watching pandas breed in Wolong Valley in Szechuan, taking a pirogue up the Chagres River in Panama, swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, watching black-maned lions up close and personal in the Serengeti and traveling on foot with the Kwitonda Group of mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. But those are other stories for other days.

If you want to remember where you have been, what you have done and people you have met, take twenty minutes or so every day and write (or type) in your journal. Add drawings if you are artistic or photos if your journal is electronic. Your journal will keep your memories alive and easily accessible, for yourself and to share with others. And who knows? Maybe one day your journal will be as famous as those of Lewis and Clark.

-Tim Merriman

Training Guides to Interpret

We were walking down a path through a beautiful botanical garden many years ago and our guide was talking over her shoulder with only a few able to hear. When she stopped she would start talking and not wait for the group to gather. When asked a question she could not answer, she pulled a notebook out that was tucked under arm and looked up “the facts.” She became one of our examples of “poor guiding practices.”


Hope (left) and Julius Cesar (right) proudly wear their CIG pins after completing the course in Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda in 2013.

Everyone in our group was a professional interpreter or environmental educator and we asked about the notebook. She explained that was the training manual for guides, the big book of facts. They had been trained with content, but not process. Content is important and I think it is fine to have content experts visit with guides or interpreters and provide more meaningful understanding of plants, animals, history, universe or other subject matter to be interpreted at a given location. In fact, good guides will continue to be build their knowledge of content throughout their lifetime, but their process can improve with some thoughtful coaching.

The Certified Interpretive Guide course with National Association for Interpretation (NAI) was designed to teach the process of interpretation and encourage trainers to coach their trainees into better practices. Lisa Brochu and I developed the curriculum of the program in 2000 after a thorough review of other training available through agencies, universities and notable trainers. The resulting curriculum includes many of those sources (used with permission) as well as original material that came from our own background in providing training to interpreters at sites we’d worked as staff or consultants.

Dr. Sam Ham points out that your members of your audience might actually retain less specific information (facts) from a program if you are successful in getting them to think more deeply about the theme of the program. When people are truly engaged in an internal conversation because someone piqued their interest and engaged their desire to understand an idea, they may not even hear what else is being said for moments.

Great guide training should also get individuals engaged in more than memorizing facts. Modeling good interpretation with lots of interactive components will keep trainees engaged. They will have a better experience with the training if it is interactive rather than a straight lecture and so will better understand how to apply what they’ve learned in their own guiding.

Any tour company, park, zoo, museum, aquarium, nature center, historic site or community that employs guides or docents (volunteer guides) has an opportunity to advance their cause by improving guide training. You could send a staff member to NAI’s training to become a Certified Interpretive Trainer or hire those of us who have the credential and can teach the CIG course. We taught the trainer’s course for 12 years but now train Certified Interpretive Guides and Hosts for organizations and communities. Let us know if we can be of help.

-Tim Merriman

Five Ideas to Engage Your Audience

When I have the opportunity to speak to a group, my challenge is to find the most bored and tuned out person sitting in the audience and get him or her more fully engaged with whatever subject matter I’m presenting. Given that I’m usually trying to influence audience members to move toward greater stewardship of natural and cultural resources or understand science

Scott Mair of Victoria, Canada, is the master of audience engagement. This program in Korea combined the arts with weather interpretation.

Scott Mair of Victoria, Canada, is the master of audience engagement. This program in Korea combined the arts with weather interpretation and involved the audience in singing about clouds.

and research and value a thoughtful approach to decision making in the world, I believe it’s important that they pay attention and leave thinking about what they’ve heard.

Research tells us that getting people to think is the key to influencing their behavior in positive ways. If you want them to think, you have to get their attention, hold it and start a conversation. Here are five ways to do that:


  1. Get Organized – If you cannot hold their attention, it will not matter that you have a powerful message. Advance organizers, like a title with a hook, get people to show up with a good attitude and the expectation that they will hear something of interest. Introducing the theme of your talk in the introduction, developing it in the body and restating it in the conclusion is a powerful approach to getting and holding attention if your theme is strong.
  2. Relate to Audience Interests – You must relate to each person in your audience in a way that matters to them. Weaving both the tangible elements of your talk (things that can be seen, touched, smelled, heard or experienced with the senses) with the intangibles (concepts, ideas) will ground people with things familiar to them and lead them to the less familiar ideas you wish to introduce. Universal intangibles such as family, life, death, love and fear are more powerful in engaging people than jargon that will be understood only by a few in the audience. For example I could say, “Every cell in my body has the exact blueprints for another ‘me’ stored and everyone in my family has a similar set of blueprints
    Maria Elena Muriel had her non-English speaking audience totally enthralled as she invited the audience to build the warp of a loom from ropes to weave a giant fabric.

    Maria Elena Muriel of Mexico had her non-English speaking audience in Korea totally enthralled as she invited the audience to build the warp of a loom from ropes to weave a giant fabric.

    to mine resulting in our family resemblances, like big ears.” Or I could say, “The 46 chromosomes in the nucleus of each cell in my body contains a pattern of nucleotides that permit the exact replication of my physical/physiological structure and each member of my family have a similar chromosomal pattern to mine with minor variations related to their specific genotype and phenotype.” Unless I’m talking with other scientists, the first version is more likely to be something the audience will be interested in and understand.

  3. Be interesting – People are more likely to stay engaged if they are having an emotional reaction as well as intellectual stimulation. It doesn’t mean the subject and theme must be light and comedic. “How can each of us help prevent our children from being bullied?” That sounds like a heavy subject and hook, but any parent might have an emotional reaction to that discussion because it will answer some concerns they have about their children in school. Museums of Social Conscience like The Holocaust Museum take on challenging subjects and engage their audience, knowing that many people will come to a greater understanding of human tragedies and challenges through the emotional experience. Being entertainingworks with some audiences, but being interesting by stimulating both emotional and intellectual connections will keep your audience engaged.
  4. Ask Questions – When you ask your audience a question and allow them to answer, you start a conversation that is more personal than simply delivering information. By starting with an open question, you assure the listeners that you want to hear them and no answer is wrong. When you follow with a focusing question, you point them toward your message and invite them to think about your idea. Then you might ask an interpretive or processing question, which invites them to use their knowledge to come to some new conclusion. Last is the application or capstone question that leaves them with something to think about. “How might our climate be different, if we began using solar energy instead of fossil fuels to power the planet?” Socrates taught his students through questioning two millennia ago and it still works in getting audience engagement. Asking questions is one of the best ways to get people to think and pay attention.
  5. Encourage Participation – It can be as simple as asking an audience questions and having them give feedback by holding up hands or standing up. “How many of you can find Orion in the night sky easily?” That works even with a very large audience. Or you might try an activity with smaller groups to get everyone on their feet doing something. Bringing just a few audience members on stage to demonstrate something adds interest as their friends and colleagues will enjoy seeing them take part.

These are just a few ideas for engaging an audience to get them to think more deeply about your subject matter and message. You might enjoy hearing yourself talk, but your audience will stay with you longer if you keep their interests in the forefront. And I may not engage that fella on the back row who fell asleep, but I’ll keep trying.

-Tim Merriman