NOTW: Mark Valen, a man of many naturalist hats
This NaturalIst of the Week has been written by guest blogger: Katie Wedemeyer
Sometimes when you meet some people for the first time, you can tell right away that they’re special. Mark is one of those people.
Mark and I got hired around the same time at the Living Coast Discovery Center (formerly the Chula Vista Nature Center) at San Diego Bay in Chula Vista, California. I was hired for education and Mark as the lead horticulturist (“hortus” = garden; “cultúra” = cultivation). I knew right away Mark had a lot to teach me, as a colleague and a human being in general.
Mark is the epitome of a naturalist:
Every aspect of his life shows appreciation and awe at the natural world - and a profound respect for it that is contagious. His enthusiasm spreads to those who are lucky enough to learn from him, young or old.
His list of naturalist-related accomplishments is impressive, and steadily growing. He currently is in a Masters of Liberal Arts in Sustainability and Environmental Management through Harvard, while also working as the Horticulturist and Facilities Lead at the Living Coast Discovery Center. Did I mention he also is adjunct faculty in the San Diego Community College District and the Southwestern Community College Districts, teaching about sustainable landscaping and urban agriculture?
Through his work at the Discovery Center, which reaches many underprivileged schools, and through working at the Community Colleges, Mark is directly impacting and inspiring students who may not have the same “top tier” opportunities as those from more “privileged” (i.e. funded) neighborhoods.
In his free time he serves as commissioner on the City of Chula Vista's Resource Conservation Commission that advises the City Council on environmental decisions. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz he not only helped develop his own sustainability major he also created and taught classes for it. There’s a reason he is the NOTW of many hats!
Despite so many accomplishments, Mark is the most Down to Earth (pun-intended), sincere nature lover out there. Each time we interacted at work I was always paying close attention, excited to learn something new, to gain a new appreciation for plants.
As a scientist, I always appreciated plants for giving me oxygen but lost interest after that – until Mark presented them as fascinating organisms with incredible adaptations.
His lessons may have been geared towards the 7 year olds attending summer camp but I was hooked!
Did you know that pickleweed (Salcornia virginica) lives near the brackish (salt + fresh water mixed) water of the salt marsh It lives so close to the water’s edge that it can actually “drink” salt water! What? How cool is that! Have you ever accidently ingested salt water? Did it quench your thirst or make you thirstier? It makes me thirstier! Several marine animals (like sea turtles, sea birds, and marine fish) have adaptations for drinking salt water, but it turns out that plants do too! Pickleweed, which gets its name from its pickle-like shape and salty taste, is generally green in appearance except for its red tips where it concentrates the salt it has sucked up and when the tip becomes saturated with salt, it turns red and falls off. By getting rid of the excess salt it can hold onto sufficient freshwater to help it grow and survive! What a cool adaptation!
Mark was a key component of many of the education programs I created at the Living Coast Discovery Center, always eager to contribute to educating the youth and getting them out to play in the dirt.
We had several campers compost and the looks of amazement on the kids’ faces were priceless as they held worms for the first time, their eyes fascinated, moving quickly along with the squiggly movements of these often underappreciated creatures.
For the first time they realized that worms have an important job: mixing different layers of the compost and aerating it simply by burrowing through it. They couldn’t wait to dive in to the compost pile to find more!
He has, without a doubt inspired thousands of individuals, from children through senior citizens, to get out in nature and not be afraid to dig in the dirt and to appreciate all of nature’s contributions to the beauty and function of our everyday lives.