Joey Manson, director of the Seward Park Audubon Center, is probably not the guy you’d expect to be introducing the public to nature.
Joey Manson has come to roost among the birds of Seattle’s Seward Park after starting out in the other Washington, where he would never have had an occasion to catch bird poop in his outstretched hand.
Last month, Manson became director of the Seward Park Audubon Center. “I don’t think catching poop is at all a requirement for the job,” he told me.
But anything can happen when you get comfortable with nature. We talked last week about his job and how he got from East Coast city guy to West Coast nature man.
I met him in March at a book discussion led by Knute Berger as part of the Nature Book Club that Manson is trying to revive by inviting locals, like Berger, to discuss nature-related books they like. Manson said his background was in the art-glass business, so I was curious how he came to run the center.
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He began as operations manager at the center about six years ago and has been in Seattle for 20, but it’s an unlikely place and job for him. As happens with many people, life led him in unexpected directions.
He grew up in the D.C. suburbs. His father was a postal worker and his mother a teacher who became a chaplain in the D.C. jail.
In high school, Manson said, he thought he’d become an accountant. He was a business student at the University of Maryland, but switched to applied design because he liked working with his hands. It was the 1980s before computer programs did away with glue and scissors and left hands with only a mouse to play with.
He also discovered glass work, which satisfied his tactile urges, and after college put what he’d learned about business and design together and got a job selling stained-glass supplies, working his way up to manager before his paychecks started to bounce. He decided to move on.
A job opening in Seattle caught his eye because the supplies he bought for the business often came from the Pacific Northwest, where art glass is a big deal, and he’d heard the economy was good.
He took the job as retail manager at a stained-glass business in Wallingford and later helped a friend start a company. The recession hurt business, and that’s when Manson applied for the Audubon job, though he’d never been in the park before, despite having lived in Madrona, Leschi and the Central Area and ridden his motorcycle past the park many times.
The interview went well. “I told them upfront that I’m not a birder,” he said. The Audubon folks said fine — the other people on staff knew the nature stuff. They needed someone to run the place (develop programs, raise money, supervise staff).
Manson thinks maybe they liked his outsider’s suggestions for the center, such as play background music in the nature shop and sell some nature art, not just field guides and binoculars.
He’s learned a lot about birds since then, and other animals, too. He’s spent a lot of time getting to know rivers and forests and mountains.
I asked about the differences between living in Seattle and in D.C. Manson said that in D.C., he had only a couple friends who weren’t black, but here it’s nearly the opposite.
There he’d visit museums and monuments, here he camps and hikes. He took a visiting friend from D.C. camping on Mount Baker, which sparked a rumor back there that he’d become a mountain man. He hasn’t.
But he’s always aware of nature now, and constantly looking up to spot birds, which is how he noticed a robin about to make a deposit on a friend he was hiking with and thrust his hand over her head. Sometimes having your eyes on the heavens, or at least the trees, pays off.
“I love nature,” he said, “but equally I love sharing nature.” That’s a big part of what the center does, with summer camps, wildlife classes, family programs and nature walks.
Our conversation was full of nature facts. Did you know the pileated woodpecker makes homes for 80 other creatures, and that the holes it carves are rectangular?
Every bird tells a story, Manson said, and some of those stories can educate people about issues, such as climate change that affect humans. And, he said, birds are a good entry point to learning about nature, because they are the one kind of wildlife that people see all the time, even in cities.
“I’m a very quiet person,” he told me, but at the center he opens up and enjoys meeting and talking with people. The center is separate from the city parks department, but for visitors to the park, he said, it’s sometimes a rest stop, information center, a place where there’s someone to make them feel at home.
It’s also a place where Manson, after his long journey, feels at home.