Discovery Center welcomes new director

With a busy spring schedule ahead and a new director leading the charge, the Discovery Center is ready to seize the seasonal change and deliver some outdoor fun for both its members and residents who are passionate about learning more about Mother Nature.

“We’re a nature center without walls — always have been,” said longtime board member Craig Borders, who joined in 1987 when the nonprofit was in its infancy.

“There was Dan and Louise McKeon, Lillian Willis, Jill Kelley — that was the core group,” recalled former president Steve Bachler. “There was Edith Meffley, who was a conservationist, and Sheryll Taylor, who was our naturalist and first director.

“Everyone just appreciated nature and wanted to be in it,” he added. “There was no need for a building. If we needed one, we’d borrow one in the winter.”

Bachler moved to town in 1985, the first year of the Discovery Center’s existence.

In the 30-plus years, the mission hasn’t changed all that much: Serve the Ridgefield community with a wide breadth of programs, ranging from nature to art to history, and motivate its residents to explore the town’s open spaces.

“The message, even from the early days, was simple: think what about you enjoyed as a kid, and deliver that to others,” Bachler said. “I recall biking and hiking with my dad on Saturday mornings growing up, and I set out to recreate that memory for others.”

That kernel spawned the center’s Discovery Dads programs, in which Ridgefield fathers took their sons and daughters out into the woods for a Saturday morning breakfast.

“Astronomy was our passion as kids growing up,” said Borders, who formed the center’s space exploration program with current board member Cliff Wattley two decades ago. “That was something pulled out of my past. …

“And I’m more into it now than when I was a kid.”

New face

It’s always fun to commemorate the past, but the Nature Center is very much rooted in the present.

Earlier this year, it introduced Claire Tensa as its new director.

A graduate of Eastern Connecticut State University, Tensa started her career last summer as an AmeriCorps intern at Weir Farm.

The Danbury native and longtime Girl Scout would like to eventually become a national park ranger.

“We’d like to keep her for a little while before she spreads her wings and flies away,” said George Hancock, the center’s president pro tempore.

Tensa told The Press she has already created outdoor programs geared to both Girl Scout and Boys Scout badge requirements.

“In March, we had our outdoors skills program where the Scouts learned how to build a fire and design their own hiking stick with tape and beads and different accessories.”

One of her missions is community outreach, attending local Scout meetings and hearing directly from the source.

“I want to talk to them and see what their interests are and go from there,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to build a program without input from the people who are going to be participating in it.”

War, what is it good for?

Scout programs aren’t the only thing on the Discovery Center docket this spring.

The center will co-sponsor an invasive plant removal day with the Ridgefield Conservation Commission Saturday, May 12, from 9 to noon at the Ridgefield Recreation Center.

“The rec center is a building everyone uses, so it makes sense to do some public service work over there and give back to our town,” Hancock said.

The event is being billed as a little bit more than a casual day of pulling out phragmites, barberry, and bittersweet.

“Alien species will be eradicated,” a flyer reads. “War is declared!”

The rain date is the same time a week later — Saturday, May 19.

Calendars, trees

Before war is launched on the invasives, the Discovery Center will host Fordham University professor Hans Minnich for a talk on different calendar systems.

“Lunar, Jewish, solar, Muslim — he’s going to help us understand why today is today,” Borders said.  

That program will be held at New Pond Farm in West Redding Wednesday, May 9.

Minnich is hardly the only expert speaker on the Discovery Center’s calendar this spring.

Tree Warden John Pinchbeck will lead a tour of Ballard Park and its many notable trees Saturday, May 19, from 1 to 2. Those who want to attend should meet by the cupola in Ballard Park and wear walking shoes. Rain date is May 26.

The following day, the center will host a two-mile hike at the Scott Nature Preserve in Redding, where participants will search for the elusive pink lady’s slipper and other spring wildflowers.

Reservations for all programs may be made at

Membership information may be found at

The center is also always looking for new volunteers and new board members.

“We have 10 people on our board now, but we’re trying to get to 14,” Hancock said. "We’re looking for people with hobbies they want to share with the public.

“I’m a big history guy myself — you’ve probably seen me dress up in costume as Timothy Keeler at the Battle of Ridgefield re-enactments,” he added. “It’s fun, because as board members and volunteers, you get to create programs around your passions.”

And that’s what Tensa enjoys most about her new job.

“I want to make sure people get outside and learn something new from someone else,” she said. “It could be history-related, it could be birding or something to do with butterflies; it can even be about astronomy. It’s worth it as long as they’re outside having fun and learning a lot.”

“And they can make friends doing it, too,” Borders added. “That’s something we all enjoy.”