As a child, Walter McDowney was afraid of snakes. His parents, who were from Poolesville in upper Montgomery County, believed that all snakes were poisonous and that, during certain times of the year, snakes chased people and then bit them.
McDowney was living in an urban environment in Southwest Washington when he heard those stories, and there was no reason to be afraid. But when the family moved into the Kenilworth Courts housing project in Northeast Washington, one of the first creatures he saw while wandering through nearby woods was a snake.
Now, the snake turned out to be more afraid of McDowney than McDowney was of the snake, and when he realized this, he decided to learn more about these critters and their habitat.
Today, the Prince George's County resident is a ranger for the National Park Service. He was recently honored as a best "park interpreter" in the United States, which means that when you tour the parks of the Washington area with him, you're with a man who knows his woods -- and snakes, too.
With the weather being what it has been some recent days -- unseasonably great -- McDowney stands as a reminder that there still is time to enjoy the world of fields and streams, and that the Washington area has much to offer in natural beauty.
You can start out on McDowney's home turf, the Aquatic Gardens at Eastern and Kenilworth avenues. This is one of the best areas in the country for bird watching, with 235 species of birds, including warblers, owls, great blue herons, wading ducks, pheasant, kingfishers and bald eagles.
You like trees? There are five kinds of oak, including the largest willow oak on the East Coast (this is where the owls nest), five kinds of willows, walnut, hickory and bald cypress.
The Aquatic Gardens is the only park in the Washington area that is dedicated to growing and displaying plants such as water lilies and lotus from all over the world. It is a site to behold, but looking is only half the fun. Listening to an expert interpreter makes the woods come alive.
"Some people like to go out and drink or smoke to get high," says McDowney. "But there are a lot of people who can get high by just walking up to a tree and learning about what is going on inside that tree."
He is detailed temporarily to the park service's Rock Creek center, but when he's on duty at the gardens, his guided tours include lessons on how animals prepare for the winter -- or for an extended Indian summer, as the case may be.
McDowney, 37, became a park ranger in 1968. He had been encouraged to become involved with the parks when he was 10 years old by Rhuedine Davis, a resident of the Eastland Gardens neighborhood, which is next to the Aquatic Gardens.
"My brother was a self-taught naturalist, and when I started learning about it I wanted to tell people about it," recalled McDowney, who now lives nearby in the Hillside community. "My parents had trained me to stay off the streets, and since I couldn't dance I decided to go to the parks and read."
Needless to say, he was teased a lot by other youths in the area who were more inclined to go into the Aquatic Gardens and crush the flowers than admire them. But not long after he became a ranger, McDowney adrressed that problem by forming a junior ranger corps that each year selects 15 youths, ages 11 to 16, from Kenilworth Courts, and trains them to be park interpreters.
"Actually, I thought I was going to be an artist, but after I graduated from high school I took the first job I could find, which was with the telephone company," McDowney said. "But I just couldn't stand being cooped up inside all day. The park ranger job didn't pay much, but it offered peace of mind."
So much so that he decided to go out and buy a six-foot-long rat snake -- his pet -- to liven things up.
But for those residents who have yet to experience the more subtle forms of life that exist in the city and suburban parks, McDowney figures that there will be only be a few more days to enjoy the outdoors before the cold really hits -- after which everything except the trees will head indoors for the winter.