story and photos by Tricia Dewey
Where in the world is Lichterman Nature Center, otherwise known as the hidden gem of Memphis nature areas? Actually, it’s smack in the middle of the Memphis metro area. Comprising 65 acres of native wildflowers, meadow, forest, lake with scenic views, and indoor learning spaces, Lichterman Nature Center is an oasis for eyes, ears, mind, and body. It is the outdoorsy part of the Pink Palace Family of Museums and learning about the natural environment of this special piece of Memphis is incorporated into its mission: to “inspire discovery through collecting, preserving, and interpreting the cultural histories and natural sciences that shape our region.” It’s easy to be inspired on the Nature Center’s campus.
The visitor center with its iconic stuffed animal exhibit illustrates how this landscape evolved with the development of Memphis. Bison, bobcats, and wild turkeys in East Memphis? The interpretive signage explains how and why land use in and around the Nature Center has changed drastically. The lobby of the visitor center was humming with energy one morning in early June. Campers ages 6-12 were headed out to arachnid stations and meadow netting, mother geese patrolled the ground with their goslings in tow, and other visitors strolled the Water Science Trail. These activities are all part of the rhythm for an early summer day at this 36-year-old nature center. Dr. Dawn Manning, the chief teacher, naturalist, and education director since 2015, says the summer campers get more in-depth work and an adjustable curriculum that she can curate to the needs of each group, some of whom return every year. More than 30,000 Memphis-area school kids visit the Nature Center during the year to take part in field trips and instruction on topics ranging from plant ecology to water quality and animal adaptations. Configuration of the Nature Center with its indoor classrooms complemented by the outdoor campus that begins just outside the classroom with a view of the lake and the Buckman Water Science boardwalk is perfectly suited for outdoor exploration and observation that ties directly to lab and technical applications.
Walking the Water Science boardwalk trail, with its beautiful vistas, offers an overview of general water systems that leads to specific information about, for example, the formation of the Mississippi Embayment beneath Memphis that provides clean drinking water in the Midsouth. The forest and meadow loops provide more interpretive signage along the way to describe life cycles, seasonal changes, and the plants and animals living in these areas. The Backyard Wildlife Center contains live (snakes!) and preserved specimens (snakes!) a backyard garden, forest boardwalk with a view into the forest canopy, and an underwater lake view.
Lichterman’s lovely spaces are conducive to many uses including weddings (recently a Lord of the Rings- themed nuptial), parties, and other fun events, and events held by the Nature Center including plant sales and Memphis bicentennial events. But a logical extension of the educational work at Lichterman might eventually include a nature- based preschool and a new playscape dedicated to kids’ imaginations and connecting between nature and their worlds. “We’re trying to ignite kids’ interest in the natural world in a positive way and in particular those aspects of the world that are unique to Memphis,” according to Andy Williams, Lichterman director since 2000. The Center has been growing and refining its summer camp program in the last few years and a marketing survey indicated that Memphians are looking for additional natural play areas. But Williams says these plans are in the early stages.
For now, the Lichterman natural environment, nestled into an urban setting, has been providing for those enjoying it since it was home to the Chickasaw Nation. Later, it was a plantation, private estate, and working farm until parts of it were donated in the 1960s and ‘70s and Memphians worked to make it into the Nature Center it is today, providing a serene and inviting setting for kids and adults to get outside of their urban habitat and lose themselves in natural Memphis.
Lichterman Nature Center
5992 Quince Road, Memphis, TN 38119
T-TH 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
F-SAT 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Members – Free
Children 2 and under – FREE
Admission to Lichterman Nature Center is free to the public Tuesdays from 1:00 until closing.