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Back Roads: 20 years of teaching, and learning, about nature

Maren Holst of rural Lake City, credits her mother with instilling a love of nature that eventually led to her starting, and heading, the Lake City Environmental Learning Program.

LAKE CITY — Maren Holst was both teacher and student as she walked through a restored prairie overlooking Lake City last month.

The rural Lake City woman saw a goldfinch and noted that they nest really late so there are enough thistle seeds to feed their young.

"There are milkweed pods," she said, pointing to a tall plant. "You can eat the pods, milkweed pod soup."

But she also saw plants she didn't know, and she wondered how to look them up, to determine what function they served in nature.

"We have a purpose in life," Holst said. "I can see that with the plants … I see a connection between nature and people."


That passion for nature led her to form the Lake City Environmental Learning Program 20 years ago. She was president and program director for years, but will soon retire. She's 65 and "it just seemed to be the right time," she said.

The non-profit program is for students in grades 3-12 and offers about 40 classes annually, mostly during the summer. Classes are limited to eight students, Holst said. The cost is usually $5. In summer, they hire two college students, or teachers, to help lead classes that can range from canoeing and biking to making maple syrup and walking sticks.

She credits her mother, Ethel Struck, with planting the seed of her passion for the outdoors.

Holst grew up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota and had time to romp around outdoors. She remembers "just being out with nature, walking around with the dog and cats, being exposed to the outdoors."

When she married, she continued dairy farming near Lake City. In 1994, at the First Lutheran Church of Lake City, she took part in an exercise in which she was asked to write about a talent she has. She wrote, "knowing about nature."

Then she was challenged to use that talent.

"I decided I would start a class in outdoors education for youth," she said.

From that came the environmental learning program.


"I think education is really important," she said. "Here is this wonderful world. The more people we can tell about it and educate about it, the better off we will be."

Maybe one of the programs will really strike a chord with a student, leading to a lifelong hobby or a career, she said. "The outdoors is our classroom," she said.

One of her programs was about native prairie. Joining Holst were three Lake City youths led by Courtney Collins, a fifth-grade teacher from Wabasha. The three learned about flowers and grasses and why prairie is beneficial to the soil.

Molly Fitterer, 8, was one of the three. She noted that they had walked about five miles an that she had learned a lot about flowers. "I wanted to see what was here," she said.

Holst said that just because she's stepping down from the program doesn't mean it's an end to her learning and teaching. In fact, she said she's looking at new ways to learn more and teach more.

"I want to start some other things," she said. Nothing's firm, but she has that internal push, it's part of her nature.

"I look at things and wonder why it is the way it is," she said.

Prairie provides habitat for pollinators


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Molly Fitterer picks prairie flowers during a Lake City Environmental Learning Program class on native prairie.

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