Take a hike with ‘The Naturalist’ on Channel 5
- Published: January 29, 2024
Any time we step outside into the natural world, we’re surrounded not only by abundant life, but stories about that life — if we learn where to look and how to listen.
Outfitted with a GoPro camera and decades’ worth of knowledge to share, local resident Don Cipollini brings viewers along on journeys that delve into those stories on “The Naturalist” — the newest original program to be broadcast by Community Access Yellow Springs Channel 5.
Cipollini began filming episodes of “The Naturalist” in late summer of 2023, and since then the program has featured new episodes nearly every week. The episodes air first on Channel 5, and are then uploaded to “The Naturalist” YouTube channel.
Speaking with the News this week, Cipollini said that, as a 25-year professor of biology at Wright State University, creating a show like “The Naturalist” was a logical next step.
“I teach about all this stuff all the time,” he said. “I have this thing in me to want to share what I know with other people.”
The genesis of “The Naturalist” was a series of conversations with Channel 5 Station Manager Ben Guenther last year. When Guenther suggested Cipollini bring his wealth of knowledge and his penchant for exploring nature on camera, Cipollini liked the idea, but put it “on the back burner” initially.
“But as we got closer to the end of the summer, we talked more about exactly how it would be done,” Cipollini said. “So I just did it one day — I just took a walk at Huffman Prairie, kind of guerrilla filmmaking with a GoPro.”
Since then, Cipollini has produced 17 episodes of “The Naturalist.” Many episodes focus on exploring a location — locally, he’s visited the beaver dam in Glen Helen, nearby Clifton Gorge, Pearl’s Fen and Huffman Prairie. Elsewhere in Ohio, he’s been to natural sites in Ross, Pickaway, Hocking and Champaign counties. In a recent episode, he hiked the Conemaugh Gap in his home state of Pennsylvania.
Other episodes of “The Naturalist” focus not on a particular place, but on a topic: permaculture, fall colors, gingko trees, the art of bonsai. In one episode devoted to Ohio’s official state native fruit, he explores a pawpaw grove near Wright State University, and points out that the pawpaw is the only temperate relative in a family of plants that are otherwise tropical.
“[The pawpaw tree] looks like the kind of plant that you’d grow in a greenhouse here in the temperate zone, or in the atrium of a mall or something like that,” Cipollini says in the episode. “When you glance at this tree, it does give you a very tropical feel — you can imagine yourself in the understory of a tropical rainforest under these big, glossy, green leaves.”
Cipollini keeps up a similarly conversational tone throughout “The Naturalist,” whether he’s discussing the millennia-old natural history of an area as he hikes or bending down to examine turkey and bobcat tracks in the snow. The GoPro camera he uses anchors the bulk of each episode in his own visual point-of-view — we’re seeing what he’s seeing as he walks and talks. In that way, “The Naturalist,” though very much educational, feels less like a lecture and more like a conversation along a hiking trail with a buddy.
“It’s completely stream-of-consciousness — it’s very much just me talking about what comes to mind as I’m going along and what I think people might find interesting,” Cipollini said. “I do this stuff anyhow on my own — now I’m just recording what I’m seeing and telling people about it.”
He added that, though the content of “The Naturalist” encompasses many of the topics he teaches at Wright State, he works to keep the episodes from becoming “too technical,” striking a balance between education and entertainment.
“Sometimes it’s good to chill and just take a walk — just being in nature and forest-bathing,” Cipollini said.
But the ultimate aim of “The Naturalist” is to spark not only interest, but deeper awareness of the natural world for viewers. Learning more about what’s going on within the ecosystems that line a familiar hiking trail, for example, can paint the same trail in an entirely different light.
“When you know a little bit more than the average person about nature, every walk you take in the woods becomes a richer experience,” Cipollini said. “So instead of just seeing the green of the beautiful forest, now you can pick out the differences in the green.”
To learn more about nature is to learn more about the ways in which native ecosystems are threatened, Cipollini said, adding that he speaks frequently about non-native and invasive species in “The Naturalist.” Taking note of the often overwhelming presence of, say, European starlings or amur honeysuckle — both introduced to North America by humans — means acknowledging the ways we have affected the natural world, for better or worse.
“You start to realize that a lot of that green stuff you’re looking at really shouldn’t be there,” Cipollini said. “The vast majority of things that we now see as problematic, we did bring them here.”
He added: “And sometimes we forget that there were people on this continent for over 10,000 years before colonists came in the last several hundred years and changed things and really overwhelmed it. … So I’ve tried to point out the [Indigenous] history as much as I can — which comes up in a lot of episodes when you film in Ohio.”
Looking ahead, Cipollini said that he plans to film two episodes on tapping sugar maple trees and the making of maple syrup — a personal hobby. When it’s warmer, he aims to film an episode kayaking down the Little Miami River to a nearby great blue heron rookery. Outside of Ohio, in February, he wants to explore the topic of groundhogs — and one groundhog in particular.
“I thought I’d go and be part of the Groundhog Day escapades in Punxsutawney [Pennsylvania] around Punxsutawney Phil,” Cipollini said.
He added that he’s happy to take requests from viewers on new places to go and new topics to explore in future episodes.
“I would still enjoy [making ‘The Naturalist’] even if no one watched,” he said. “But I’m happy when people view these things and I get feedback.”
New episodes of “The Naturalist” are broadcast on Spectrum Channel 5 and streamed online at yellowsprings.tv Tuesdays at 4 p.m. each week, with rebroadcasts on Fridays and Sundays, also at 4 p.m. Episodes may also be viewed online at youtube.com/@TheNaturalistWithDonCipollini; subscribe to the YouTube channel to be notified when new episodes are uploaded.
Channel 5 update
Community Access Yellow Springs Station Manager Ben Guenther also spoke to the News this week. Guenther said both of the original programs created for Channel 5 — Phillip O’Rourke’s interview show, “The PHILLIP Show,” and now “The Naturalist” — are representative of the kinds of content he hopes more locals will feel emboldened to create.
“I always point to Phillip O’Rourke as being the blueprint for how to do this — he owns his own show and hosts it on YouTube, and Channel 5 is the hub,” Guenther said. “[Cipollini] has completely followed suit on that — the conceit of his production is simple and straightforward, and it just seemed like a natural fit.”
Just as Guenther pitched the idea that became “The Naturalist” to Cipollini, he said he has pitched ideas to other creatives around town.
“And I’ve gotten a lot of interest — but the problem is we don’t really have much in the way of equipment,” he said.
To that end, Guenther has been working to convince the Village to look for external funding in order to upgrade Channel 5’s equipment. Ideally, he said, he’d like enough upgraded film and audio equipment that a creator would have the basic implements necessary to go out and shoot a whole movie, if they so desired.
“That way, if we do have more people who want to contribute things, we have an equipment package, and I’ll gladly show people how to use the gear,” he said. “There are so many creative people in this town — it seems like a waste to not have a bigger footprint.”
Equipment notwithstanding, Guenther said he welcomes any and all in Yellow Springs who have an interest in contributing programming to the Channel 5 lineup, whether they’d like to do so regularly or even just once.
Until then, however, Guenther continues to add programming from creators outside of Yellow Springs to the Channel 5 lineup. At Christmas, he scheduled several holiday broadcasts of “To Die Is Hard,” — a 2010 send-up of the “Die Hard” films — written and directed by and starring Glenn Berggoetz, a Purdue English professor and independent filmmaker. “To Die Is Hard” was cited by Paste magazine as the 16th greatest “B-movie” of all time.
Coming up, Guenther will be adding a new program, “Harper’s Bazzaroworld Presents the Ms. Demure Show,” to the Channel 5 schedule. The program, hosted by Dayton drag queen Ms. Demure, currently also airs on Dayton public access station DATV, and is billed as “the oldest GLBT public access variety talk show in the USA.” New episodes will begin airing soon on Saturdays at 9 p.m., with rebroadcasts on Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m.
For more information on Channel 5, or to find out how to contribute programming, email email@example.com.