All the Wonder We Cannot See
Ron Peterson stands with his tour group.
Expertly guiding participants along trails through California’s Tijuana River Reserve, Ron Peterson, a docent who is blind, showcases the wonders that can’t be seen. With his distinct perspective to guide them, others learn how engaging senses other than sight can deepen our connection with nature.
Formerly a devoted stewardship volunteer at the Reserve, Peterson’s journey through blindness began four years ago. The change opened up a new approach to experiencing the natural world for him, and it led to the creation of a one-of-a-kind nature walk that brings participants closer to the environment through touch, smell, and hearing.
Drawing on his extensive knowledge of more than 30 plant species, and guided by his dog Gidget, Peterson crafted an immersive walk that allows participants to connect deeply with the environment in ways they might not have imagined. Since June, he’s led exclusive tours for organizations like the San Diego Alzheimer’s Association, Chapter One, the Braille Institute, and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve docents. Peterson also hosts a monthly nature walk the first Saturday of every month.
“For those with sight, the walk is a rare opportunity to experience these native plants with all five senses, not just one. I ask them to close their eyes at certain moments during our walk to enhance their non-visual sensory experience” says Peterson. “And for those without sight, the walk may be the first chance of their life to enjoy and learn about our native plants.”
Peterson and his guide dog. Gidget, at the Reserve.
Working alongside Robin Echols-Booth, the Reserve’s volunteer coordinator, Peterson shaped the idea through practice walks.
Using the California State Parks Aiming for Excellence tour evaluation tool, Anne Marie Tipton, the Reserve’s education coordinator, provided valuable coaching throughout the process. This journey was no easy task, as Peterson delved into unfamiliar territory—conducting interpretive walks without sight, all while being evaluated. Along the way, he trained Gidget to navigate the designated route.
“I encourage visitors to hear the honey bees buzzing around the pink flowers of the California buckwheat, to listen to the whisper of the breeze flowing through the Fremont cottonwood trees, and to hear the rattle of the dried bladderpod seed pods,” says Peterson. “I describe the tangy citrus flavor of the slippery berries of the lemonade berry, traditionally used by the Kumeyaay native Americans to create a refreshing drink. I encourage visitors to distinguish between the enchanting smells of the black sage and white sage, and to enjoy one of southern California’s quintessential fragrances: the California sagebrush. I ask the visitors to feel the unique size, shape, structure, and texture of the leaves of our native plants, such as the soft flowing branches of the narrow-leaf willow.”
“Ron has lots of experience with giving professional trainings and lectures during his career as an engineer, but he had never done thematic interpretation before,” says Tipton. “I’m impressed by Ron’s dedication to developing the best nature walk possible, he is always practicing and refining his walk and changing the plants he features by the season. I’m glad we can share his point-of-view with the general public and be accessible to people with visual impairments.”
To experience Peterson’s exceptional approach to nature yourself, visit trnerr.org/visit/public-programs.