Magic and Wonder on the Mountain: An Inspiring Conference at Cheaha State Park

An Adventure in Learning and Reflecting

Some 120 environmental educators (annual meeting of the Environmental Educators Association of Alabama — EE AA) met February 28 through March 2nd at Cheaha State Park. The group invited me to present the opening keynote address Thursday evening (2/28). I stayed for the entire conference, enjoying it immensely. I present some of my reactions and reflections in this Great Blue Heron post. In subsequent posts over the next several weeks I’ll pursue other themes:

  1. Seeing and Translating Nature’s Infinite Storm of Beauty: My Keynote Atop the Mountain
  2. Scars Upon the Land: Thoughts Stirred by a View from Cheaha’s Rock Garden Overlook
  3. Non-Flowering Plants Atop the Mountain: Observations While Attending the EE AA Conference

Developing these Great Blue Heron reflections is a labor of love. I get to visit natural attractions across the state (and beyond), from Gulf State Park mid-January (staying ocean-side) to Alabama’s highest point in the southern Appalachians (staying in a rustic Civilian Conservation Corps cabin just a few hundred yards from the summit):

Vegetation and scenery pay dividends whether Gulf coastal forest or mountain top:

And what an absolute privilege to rub shoulders with scores of environmental educators, fellow champions for informed and responsible Earth stewardship. For the first time over the course of my four-and-a-half-decade career, I have just recently drafted my own mission, vision, and motto:

Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.


  • People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
  • They will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and will understand more clearly their Earth home.

Motto: Encourage and seek a better tomorrow through Nature-inspired living.

Imagine my surprise and delight to find the EE AA mission: Enhance the abilities of formal and informal educators to connect people to the natural world in order to foster responsible stewardship.

I knew then that we would connect, and we did! We mission, share passion, purpose, and spirit. Whether college student or septuagenarian, the Earth stewardship thread connected us all.

Rather than provide a detailed description of the conference (for that, please visit the EE AA website), I will offer a few photographs and reflections. I’ll begin with the conference theme: Magic and Wonder Atop the Mountain. Visit my five previous GBH posts (from a two-day Cheaha visit mid-October 2018) to see my own observations on the magic and wonder of Cheaha State Park and the adjoining Talladega National Forest.

Touching Mind, Body, Heart, Soul, and Spirit

I arrived early enough Thursday afternoon (2/28) to check into cabin number five, stash my exhibit gear and books at the Bald Rock Lodge (conference headquarters), and walk the Bald Rock Trail, an ADA accessible boardwalk to the overlook. I suppose that because I grew up an outdoor enthusiast in the central Appalachians, I feel that the road leading up to Cheaha State Park is taking me home. As I walked the boardwalk, my heart pounded, but not from exertion. Instead, I experienced exhilaration with being back atop the mountain. I connected with all five portals: heart, mind, body, soul, and spirit. Each its own receptivity center. Each sending pleasant and lifting signals to my core. Feeling light, I floated along the trail. I admit (without reservation) to never having taken recreational drugs, preferring instead this natural elixir called Nature. Apropos, I’ve titled my third book (I’m selecting a publisher) Natural Elixir: Lifting Your Life through Nature’s Inspiration.

The forests atop Cheaha are not towering cathedral groves. Instead the harsh climate, thin soils, and shallow bedrock support mostly Virginia pine (ravaged 3-4 years ago by a severe ice storm) and chestnut oak, many weather-tortured and contorted (photos from the boardwalk).

Yet I see magic and beauty even in these savaged trees, bearing testament to Nature’s extremes on a peak (2,407′) that mountain snobs would deem a foothill, if not just a molehill! But I urge visitors to look more appreciatively, marvel at the co-stars of this hill-top drama. Life finds purchase and offers adornment on every rock and tree-bark surface. While a rolling stone gathers no moss, a stationary boulder atop Cheaha graciously harbors any and all lichen colonies. That morning’s rain brought deep color intensity and vibrancy to the abundant lichen.














And moss likewise adorns every otherwise vacant surface at ground level, whether at the base of a tree or sharing a rock with its lichen companion. View the lower right photo as an alpine lichen lake surrounded by mountain slopes of moss forest. John Muir once wrote, “The power of the imagination makes us infinite.” I may not have felt infinite atop the mountain, yet I did feel the infinite beauty, magic, wonder, and awe of Nature. I sensed Nature’s infinite storm of beauty, also a term Muir employed 130 years ago.

Heart still pounding with delight, I reached the Bald Rock overlook. The infinite storm of beauty still surged, the Talladega National Forest stretching to the north and northeast, lower left and right, respectively.

The ebbing day saluted us with the last glimpse of blue sky we would see during the conference. A salute fit for kings! The dense-wedged stratus (lower left) reminded me of an Imperial Starship cruising from the south. Perhaps preparing to disembark a few alien environmental educators?

The interstellar educators did not register for the annual meeting, yet I did spot some forest oddities, suggesting that alien lifeforms may have been observing.


The Stage is Set: May the Learning Begin

I presented all of that to set the stage for the conference. Fact is, the conference theme did the same: Magic and Wonder Atop the Mountain. Not a person attending did not share the sentiments I expressed above in the Blog Post introduction. These are special people, blessed (they and I concur that theirs is a calling) and privileged to practice their craft and harness their passion in service to making tomorrow brighter through wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.

Again, rather than revisit the printed program, rehash the array of speakers, or review the topics, here is a collection of photos that reflect the intense emotion, deep passion, and unbridled enthusiasm characterizing conference participants. I like that both Renee Raney, Cheaha State Park Superintendent (lower left in the CCC-built lodge), and Mandy Pearson (lower right at the CCC-constructed reservoir), Cheaha Naturalist and EE AA President, are gesturing toward the heavens! Just part of the wonder and magic. Perhaps Mandy is acknowledging “Power to the Fog”! March 1st and 2nd, continuous fog enveloped the Park.






Ramona, 14-month-old daughter of two attendees, served as unofficial conference mascot. She helped entertain the audience during my Thursday evening address, forcing me to ad lib a time or two as she performed antics near the lectern. Ramona added levity and served as a not-so-subtle reminder that our focus is the future. That we are inspiring and enabling adoption of an Earth ethic to provide for seven generations hence… and beyond.

We found abundant evidence that animal life thrives atop the mountain. Our field trip groups found a salamander and snail, both organisms thrilled with February’s relenting rain and fog.

As the Conference theme expressed explicitly, we found wonder and awe atop the mountain wherever we looked, whether the view from The Rock Garden to Cheaha Lake and the Talladega National Forest beyond, or simply the exquisite moss fish (below right).














I reminded fellow environmental educators time and again that every object, dead or alive, atop the mountain has a story to tell. Our task as educators is to accept such as fact… to believe that a story awaits discovery. I view the lichen-painted boulder below and see an epic tail. The cast includes the rock and a Virginia pine. The rock cared little about, and likely never noticed, the tremendous ice storm that glistened the mountain a few winters back. The Virginia pine strained and groaned with the weight burden until physics prevailed, crossing a threshold that crashed the old soldier to the ground, and brought the twisted and crushed upper canopy to rest upon the rock, which paid little if any heed to the thundering impact. The rock and the mountain may know that the tree is but a fleeting occupant of the rock’s surface. Time and billions of microbes will soon-enough reduce the wood to humus and then soil organic matter, which will in turn furnish nourishment and substrate to yet another tree. The cycle will continue until the rock finds itself sediment deposited in the Mobile River delta, and perhaps some day rising to top another mountain millions of years hence. Time means nothing to an atom, a rock, or a mountain.

I witnessed great joy, inspiration, wonder, and magic atop Cheaha. I applaud the sense of enthusiasm, knowledge, and responsibility among the attendees. I congratulate their recognition and acceptance of the burden they bear for assuring a better tomorrow through wisdom, knowledge, and hard work. I am grateful that planners chose to invite me to give the welcoming keynote. I feel that I am an accepted member of the family. Our causes overlap. Our paths enjoy full harmony. In fact, yesterday I submitted my completed EE AA membership application form.

That’s me standing by my Great Blue Heron banner (left) and EE AA Chair Mandy graced me with a photo hug (right)!

As I wished them upon concluding my remarks: May Nature Inspire your life and vocation!


Thoughts and Reflections

I wrote my books (Nature Based Leadership (2016) and Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017)) and the two scheduled for 2019 (Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature and Natural Elixir: Lifting Your Life through Nature’s Inspiration) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature. Both published books are available on Amazon and other online sources.

Here are four succinct lessons I draw from this Blog Post:

  • In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks (John Muir).
  • Every day can be a journey of discovery and inspiration, a day of sowing seeds for a brighter tomorrow… a tomorrow that is in the hands of generations ahead.
  • Every time I can inject a few lumens of Nature’s beauty, magic, wonder, and awe into a young mind (a young mind of any age!), I have accomplished a victory.
  • Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.

Inhale and absorb Nature’s elixir. May Nature Inspire and Reward you!


Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2019 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

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And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at


Reminder of my Personal and Professional Purpose, Passion, and Cause

If only more of us viewed our precious environment through my own filters. If only my mission and vision could be multiplied untold orders of magnitude:

Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.


  • People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
  • Great Blue Heron clients will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and will understand more clearly their Earth home.

Tagline: Steve (Great Blue Heron) encourages and seeks a better tomorrow through Nature-Inspired Living!




Fairmont State University Commencement

Fairmont State University Commencement Remarks

May 12, 2018; S. Jones

Having served Fairmont State University as Interim President July-December 2017, I felt honored to present the University’s Commencement address May 12, 2018 at both the morning and afternoon ceremonies. That’s the FSU campus below right, an aerial view from my week-before-Christmas-fly-over with one of our flight instructor faculty; nearby Tygart River Falls in July at left. Normally I focus these blog posts on my Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading core message. This one strays topically a bit afield. Yet I include it because so many of the posts I drafted within the Nature-Inspired theme during my interim presidency drew from my six-month total immersion in this Central Appalachian Region, rich in Nature harking back to my youth.


I now offer my Commencement remarks, which I’ve converted to text from the cryptic notes I used at the lectern:

Good morning/afternoon!

I spent six wonderful and memorable months here at Fairmont State university (FSU), my home away from home July-December 2017. I’ve served at nine universities. This one is special, from its spectacular sunrises from the Shaw House deck to the heart of the Falcon spirit that defines us:

  • FSU is notably place-committed: to this community, north-central West Virginia, and the broader region
  • The University is powerfully purpose-driven, dedicated to serving Marion and adjoining counties, our students, and Falcon alumni everywhere
  • No institution is more passion-fueled than this one — FSU faculty and staff bring the unbridled passion of their commitment to you every day, apparent to me from the first time I walked onto campus
  • And every person here in the Feaster Center is results-oriented; today is just one facet of the results they and we seek

My six-month interim presidency changed me forever – I know that your time as a Falcon has done the same for you! Nature is Change, evidenced by the seasonal cycles that define a year, a career, and a lifetime. An FSU education prepared you graduates to recognize and anticipate change, and deal with it across the seasons that lie ahead. As a Nature enthusiast, I see and communicate deep lessons in the simple (yet miraculous) transition from summer to winter, especially in these central Appalachians. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven!



Sharing Three Memorable Speeches

Today is all about you and what you will take from FSU on life’s journey. My task this day is twofold. To give you some words of wisdom and spur you on your way. Rather than reinvent the wheel, allow me to borrow shamelessly from the three most memorable speeches I have heard across my own journey. Each offers immutable lessons for life and career that are as applicable today as when first presented.

Only one of the three is a Commencement address — Dr. Jim Goodnight’s 2003 North Carolina State University remarks. An accomplished business executive and former NC State faculty member, Dr. Goodnight offered three suggestions for the degree-recipients. First, to the extent possible, align your vocation with your avocational interests. That is, focus your career on what you love. Jim’s second suggestion surprised me initially. He said simply, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” Upon reflection, how well-stated and on-target. Persistent, futile digging is epidemic, whether in Washington DC or the local city hall. Too many leaders keep digging! I found Jim’s third suggestion powerful yet exceedingly difficult: seek balance in faith, family, community, work, and other life-elements. I have found that pursuing balance is so easy to say and so elusive to achieve.

Dr. Goodnight’s insight proved apt, extraordinarily brief, and absurdly simple. His is the only commencement address I remember – ever! I may recall gems from others but I cannot recall attribution. Jim’s every remark is indelible! He took no longer to present his address than I consumed in summarizing it for you. Reflecting upon it led me to remember the best speaking advice I’ve ever heard, “If you don’t have much to say… don’t take so long to say it.” And it reminded me of the scariest words any speaker has ever uttered, “I will be brief.” Never believe it — it’s a warning that “I want you to believe I will be brief, but there is no way I will!”

Jim Valvano, 1983 NCAA men’s basketball championship coach at NC State University, presented the second memorable speech among the three. Facing a diagnosis of incurable terminal cancer, Jim took to the motivational and inspirational speaking circuit several years after the championship season. He offered three necessary daily elements for living life to the fullest. First he said, think deeply about something important to someone you care about. Second, find daily a reason to laugh heartily. And third, feel something to the point of tears each and every day. As with Dr. Goodnight’s remarks, coach Valvano’s advice stood as simple, succinct, and powerful, spoken from the heart, soul, and spirit… with passion and purpose. His message stands as relevant some thirty years later for you; for every one; for every day!

I go back more than half-a-century for the third memorable speech, President John F. Kennedy’s January 16, 1961 Inaugural Address. The young President said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” I submit that his powerful call to service stands as a fine point for a commencement address… even now; perhaps especially now. And service is a compelling component of my charge to you. Serve is one of four verbs lying ahead for you: Live; Learn; Lead; and Serve

I said three memorable speeches. I offer a fourth of sorts, unspoken yet a strongly communicated message from my Dad, deceased 23 years. One of my heroes, Dad led me to a life and career dedicated to Nature. A blue collar laborer and WWII combat veteran, Dad loved fishing, hiking, camping, picnicking, and other such pursuits. We often headed outdoors summer weekday evenings and most weekends. However, Sunday afternoons we observed Dad’s spirit dimming perceptibly. Mom explained that Dad began to despair from knowing that Monday morning he returned to a job he loathed — not loved. I vowed then to never take a job I didn’t love.

I’ve managed to live by that vow and code. I urge you to do the same. Align your vocation and your avocation!


Life Events Shape Us

I paused and began again by telling the graduates that life events shape us. Today is a new beginning (Commencement) for you. Six years ago (May 3, 2012), stands as a new beginning for Mrs. Jones and me. While we were enjoying a full-daylight evening stroll, a two-ton SUV plowed into us. During our recovery we realized that life is fleeting and fragile… and that there are no guarantees for tomorrow. The incident stood as a life-event for us. I think of three relevant quotes that help define the lessons and draw deep relevance from the incident.

First, Helen Keller observed, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” Keller did not deem daring as foolhardy but instead as bold, aspirational, and determined. Second, Bernard Malamud, who authored The Natural, expressed through his lead character, “We have two lives to live; the one we learn with, and the life we live after that.” Mrs. Jones and I are living our second Life! And in a third relevant quote, author Author Napoleon Hill said, “Dreams and visions are the children of your soul.”

Each of you has dreams and visions — of career, life, and service. I urge you to take time to devote thought and energy to defining your dreams and visions. Once you can articulate those dreams and visions, embrace them; cherish them; bring life to them! Remember, those dreams and visions are the children of your soul — nourish them!

My own dreams are clearer now, six years into my second life, than ever before. My first component is to leave this world a better place for my having passed through it. I commit to giving full measure to living. I pledge to dedicate the full power and passion of my soul to realizing my vision. I wish the same for you – devote yourself to purpose fueled by passion.


I want to emphasize a strong personal focus for me. Louis Bromfield, a mid-Twentieth Century best selling author with some 30 best-sellers, including a half-dozen adapted to Hollywood movies, purchased what he termed an old, worn-out north-central Ohio farm in the mid-30s. He dedicated his life to rehabilitating Malabar Farm, and chronicled his mission in Pleasant Valley, a non-fiction book account of his efforts: “The adventure at Malabar is by no means finished… The land came to us out of eternity and when the youngest of us associated with it dies, it will still be here. The best we can hope to do is to leave the mark of our fleeting existence upon it, to die knowing that we have changed a small corner of this Earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.” That paragraph synthesizes my own life’s work and vision. May those words likewise, serve as metaphor for your life!


Concluding Reflections

I give you a final quote. Douglas Adams in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul speaks to the journey and outcome that many of us have and will recognize, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” Such is where life has guided and steered me.

May this Commencement begin your journey to where you need to be!

So, wherever life takes you:

  • Be true to your vision and dreams
  • Commit to place, wherever it happens to be
  • Dare to be bold!
  • Live with purpose
  • Let passion fuel all that you do
  • Enjoy life – don’t waste it!

Safe and pleasant travels – may you forever soar like a Falcon!


A Postscript: Although I could not match Jim Goodnight’s five-minute Commencement address, I do feel good to have kept my remarks to a dozen. Will anybody remember my speech in the same way I so vividly recall Jim’s? Likely not… yet I hope I at least stimulated a bit of retrospection among graduates, faculty, and guests. I also hope that the bit of Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading I infused found some traction.

That’s permanent FSU President Dr. Mirta Martin and me below left; Judy and me with Dr. Martin and husband John below right. A bit of Nature providing backdrop! May Nature Inspire all that you do.


Note: I am available for Nature-Themed motivational/inspirational speaking and writing… for NGOs, businesses, landowners, agencies, and Nature-oriented enterprises. Contact me at:

My Premise and Core Belief: Every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature!