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Nature nurtures _ for now _ at Chinsegut

It took me about 40 minutes on a steamy Tuesday morning last week to find the Chinsegut Nature Center, which I had somehow overlooked in nearly a quarter of a century of roaming the back roads of the North Suncoast.

The center, a longtime contributor to the educational process that is key in protecting endangered and threatened species, has now made the endangered list itself. It could be closed by July if the Florida Legislature doesn't come up with adequate funding, and the center's busy calendar of lectures, walks and workshops ends, ominously, on June 10.

It turned out to be worth the search. A few minutes after I arrived, about 45 other visitors and I were divided into three groups that set out with three guides.

One mosquito-slapping, brow-wiping hour later, I knew more about Florida's native and not-so-native flora than I had managed to pick up in 53 years.

Botany has never been my strong suit. I can, usually, tell a tree from a shrub or a bush. I know a pine tree from an oak tree and learned years ago, in an incident I am trying hard to forget, how to recognize poison ivy.

Shirley Petty, 74, a self-taught botanist from Pennsylvania who came here in 1951 and began her long journey into knowledge about Florida's plant life, used a staff to compensate for a slight limp resulting from recent knee replacement surgery as she led us through a small piece of the 408-acre center, which is managed by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Five seconds into the walk she had identified a colorful coral bean plant, exploded the myth that people can eat anything animals can, found deer moss and explained that it is actually a lichen, and said that Spanish moss is not a moss but actually a member of the pineapple family. She chuckled gently at people who think it is killing their trees (it isn't) and pay to have it removed.

She showed us an unhappy magnolia tree stretching itself thin and vertical in an attempt to break through the mostly oak canopy overhead. I learned how to tell male from female pine cones. Okay, I learned that there ARE male and female pine cones and then I learned how to tell them apart. She taught me that camphor trees aren't native, that dying trees can provide valuable animal habitats and that you can't make candles out of the wax myrtle that grows in Florida.

Our group, ranging from the age of 10 or so to the 70s and beyond, had novices like me and some bird and nature experts willing to share their knowledge.

I had Jory Patterson, 11, pegged for a truant who got lost in the woods on his way to the mall, until I learned that he is a home-school student who is also working on a merit badge and was accompanied by his mother, Carmen Fries. I also learned that I could spell some of the bigger botanical words if I peeked over his shoulder at his neat notes.

One group was led by park ranger Sid Taylor, the third by Kristin Wood, a Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission biologist _ meaning each of the three groups got a slightly different view of the habitats we passed through and that you could make the same trip three times without getting bored.

The walks are mostly on a trail and include only a slight incline, so most of us can make them, although keeping up with Shirley Petty is tough.

There was no charge for the walk, and it was propaganda-free. The center will provide you with the address and phone number of your legislator if you ask, but nobody got lobbied, and information about the closing was dispensed only in response to questions.

You can reach the center by calling (352) 754-6722. It is just west of U.S. 41 on State Road 476 a few miles north of Brooksville.

My guess is that you will go back more than once _ if you can.

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