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Naturalist Brittney Tiller turned her passions into a career

Jefferson County Conservation naturalist Brittney Tiller gives a lesson on migrating monarch butterflies to a young visitor. (Jefferson County Conservation)

Jefferson County Conservation naturalist Brittney Tiller started on the path to her current position at an early age.

Tiller said she was inspired to go into the field by longtime Jefferson County naturalist Therese Cummisky, known to many as “Toad.”

“I remember being on different field trips that she was leading,” Tiller said. “When I was in high school, she invited me to do a school-to-work program here at the park so I could job shadow her a little bit.

“That was an affirmation that this was the field I wanted to be in.”

After high school, Tiller moved on to the University of Northern Iowa, where she earned her degree in earth sciences.

During her college years, she interned in Jefferson, Black Hawk, Buchanan and Louisa counties.

“I spent a lot of time working with other naturalists,” she said. “It was nice to work in other counties, because each naturalist has things they’re really great at.

“Being able to learn from them was probably the most beneficial part of my education.”

Tiller’s internship in Louisa County turned into a full-time job, which she held for five years.

A little over two years ago when Cummisky decided to retire after 30 years, Tiller came to Jefferson County as her replacement.

“Because the two of us have spent so much time together and have grown to be friends, when she retired after her 30 years, we were able to work together at different points,” Tiller said. “It really felt like a fairly smooth transition. She had trained me really well.”

Cummisky’s emphasis was always to make sure that kids were getting outside, a philosophy that Tiller has continued to carry.

“With environmental education, sometimes it’s easier to go into the classroom and teach the kids in a controlled setting, but nothing beats the experience of getting kids outside,” Tiller said. “I feel like they are much more prone to love and protect something if they have positive experiences, especially if they are starting when they’re really young.

“Our goal is to get kids outside experiencing nature rather than just learning about it. Hopefully, there’s a deeper connection.”

Tiller knew she had big shoes to fill.

“One of the things when I first took the reins, I had to remind myself that people really loved Toad because she was passionate about the things she was passionate about,” Tiller said. “I had to not try to be her or mimic her.

“There have been different programs that a lot of people enjoyed but just were not my forte. I’ve been able to bring in new things that weren’t here in the past. It’s also been kind of a season of letting things go as well.”

A self-professed “fossils and geology nut,” Tiller started programs focused on those subjects.

“I also enjoy astronomy,” she said. “We have a telescope. Those are some popular programs.

“We do night sky programs where people can come out and see the moon or Jupiter or Saturn or something cool through the telescope.”

Other programs include studying migrating monarch butterflies in late summer and maple syrup production in late winter to summer camps and school field trips.

Tiller said that all of them have one focus in mind.

“My title is naturalist, but really my job is to get people outside with a pretty large focus on getting kids outside,” she said. “A really big part of what we do is field trips. We see preschool through eighth grade at least once a year, and several of those grades we see two or three times a year.”

For Tiller, working as a naturalist means she gets to do the things she enjoys most.

“I love the outdoors and spending time in nature. I also enjoy working with people, especially children.

“It seemed like a perfect career for the combination of the two things I really enjoy.”

Comments: james.jennings@southeastiowaunion.com

Jefferson County Conservation naturalist Brittney Tiller gives a nature lesson to some young students on a field trip. (Jefferson County Conservation)