AyoLane Halusky has come face-to-face with a pit viper on more than one occasion—close enough to observe the details of its tongue as it tasted the air, evaluating him with its dark-banded eyes. He’s encountered more alligators than he cares to count. His neck was once nearly broken by a startled manatee. Yet there are few places he would rather be than in the great outdoors.
It’s a glorious day in late May, 85 degrees and sunny, at the 94-acre Saturiwa Conservation Area. Sunhat-clad hikers gather around Halusky, whose official title is St. Johns County Parks & Recreation Naturalist, in the shade of local biologist Mike Adam’s expansive Elkton estate. Halusky is preparing them for a field expedition to highlight classroom lessons learned in his 904 Naturalist program, “Exploring the Life of Plants & Trees.” Standing six-feet, one-inch tall, the program’s developer and instructor is ready for any challenge wild Florida may throw his way. His knowledge of local flora and fauna is encyclopedic, and his teaching style—a delicate balance of creativity and science—makes you want to stop and listen. This isn’t some dry lecture; this guy’s the real deal, and he’s happy to share why he wholeheartedly believes a dose of nature will transform your life.
The son of a marine biologist and a long-time Duval County 4-H Agent, Halusky is a Florida boy with deep roots in Fruit Cove (“back when it was woods”). “[My parents] were both very much into being outside and in the woods,” he recalls. “We did two weeks on the Suwanee for 4-H. We did marine scuba-type camps, where we would learn how to map out reefs and things like that in the Keys. I spent my youth on boats and underwater, scuba-diving as [my dad’s] dive partner whenever I could. We were always outside doing something when I was growing up.”
A childhood spent outdoors developed into a career as a professional outdoorsman. After college, Halusky spent years helping troubled youth in Outward Bound. He completed the University of Florida’s Master Naturalist Program, helped grow UNF’s EcoAdventures, and later became a naturalist for St. Johns County. Today, he manages multiple parks and educational programs. From edible plant walks to kayak adventures, nature walk-and-talks to the 904 Naturalist Series, Halusky is always adding new ways to connect residents to the natural world.
“If we have a heartstring into the natural environment, if we have a positive experience in the natural world, there’s a reason that somebody would want to come save it and stand up for it when decisions are there to be made,” he explains.
Halusky kneels next to a patch of carnivorous pitcher plants and explains their unique function in the ecosystem. Surprisingly, nobody in the class pulls out a phone to snap a photo. They’re engaged in the moment. It’s all part of the left/right brain balance that Halusky strikes in his 904 Naturalist Series. With a bachelor of fine arts degree from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), he carefully weaves the scientific with the creative. He points out a 1940s dictionary entry defining the term “naturalist” as one who studies both natural history and the fine arts. The 904 Naturalist Series reflects this philosophy and spans a wide array of topics: Exploring the Life of Mammals, Circles of Place, Exploring the Life of Birds and Exploring the Life of Plants & Trees. Each component consists of three consecutive weeks of classroom sessions at the St. Augustine Main Library and field trips to local nature areas for hands-on integration. Participants are challenged to look at the world differently, utilizing a variety of artistic skills, observation, research tools and patience to forge a deeper connection with the natural world. The program’s first iteration was a success. Halusky looks forward to teaching the series again in the near future.
Participants limit their technological reliance, rediscover their senses and connect with the environment on a nearly spiritual level. “We go out and we experiment with ancient and modern technologies. They do homework—I don’t let anybody type anything. They have to write everything [by hand]. They’re not allowed to take pictures—they have to draw them,” Halusky says. “People will say, ‘Oh, man, I’m not a good drawer.’ Everybody says that, but every drawing I’ve ever seen, I can identify. That’s good enough.”
He stresses the importance of creativity, and how putting physical pen to physical paper helps bolster creative energy and memory: “When you have to draw it, you really have to get into the details of things. You notice that not all cardinals are exactly the same, when before all you saw was a red bird with a black face and an orange beak. You notice that the plants are different from each other, even when they look almost identical to another plant.”
Halusky’s personal philosophy is an interweaving of Native American ritual, influential mentors and nature’s lessons. His name, AyoLane, is a constant reminder of Native American tradition. Halusky believes that humans are a part of the natural world, not above or below it, and that we must be willing to adopt a childlike interest and thankful mindset. By quieting our minds and following our senses and intuition, there’s a world of wisdom waiting to be uncovered. If we listen, nature will teach us all we need to know. He believes connecting with nature can literally change your life.
“Be willing to just go sit and be in nature,” he counsels. “Put your damn phone down and go outside. Go ground yourself. It sounds crazy, but you know what? Science is starting to say everything the indigenous cultures used to say. Go for a walk. Hiking changes your brain. It makes you less stressed and less worried about your life. There are countries that are now prescribing wilderness walks—it’s called Forest Bathing. It’s literally changing our health. And if leaders can know and experience this, then they know what to do for the future.”
Walking the trails with the 904 Naturalist might be just what the doctor ordered. Whether he’s digging surprising edibles from out of the ground or sharing thought-provoking quips (“How do you evaluate the value of nature?” or “A weed is just a misunderstood plant”), you won’t leave unchanged. There’s a reason his tours fill up fast. His easy smile and chill demeanor put even the most uncomfortable-with-nature at ease. Visit sjcfl.us/CountyNaturalist for events, announcements and details.