“Florida called me back,” AyoLane Halusky says of his return South more than a decade ago. “For most of my life, I’ve been called where I go,” he says before adding, “My interest has always been working with people and the natural world.” And as the St. Johns County Naturalist for the past seven years, Halusky has been continually engaged with those two threads, articulating a set of questions that nourishes a closer relationship between people and nature.
Pushing West in his car from Anastasia Island over the Matanzas River, Halusky ran through his own understanding of how people used the word “stewardship” so frequently and flippantly that it ultimately became a buzz word for people’s arrogant belief that they could manage, let alone understand, that natural world. He remembered vividly a moment in school when considering the relationship of “man versus nature.” A sort of shock ran through him when he started to consider whether the bridge of “versus” between the two could be replaced by “with.” Rather, he started to consider what it meant to be with something and how that could in turn prove more meaningful. He asked: “How could you be in kinship with nature?”
“That’s more exciting to me,” Halusky says. And, it was that early line of questioning that led him deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the natural world; but it was that same serpentine path that would serve as a means to look more closely at himself.
“I was basically born on a boat and underwater,” Halusky explains of his childhood when his father worked as a marine biologist for the State University’s agricultural extension IFAS, and his mom worked as a 4-H agent in Duval County. He was born a first-generation Floridian, immersed in the very thing that undergirded every acre of this State–water–and by some osmotic process, education, community, and their intersection with the natural world became waypoints on the arc of his life from its outset.
In college, he ambled his way up I-95 before hooking east on US 17 to Savannah College of Art and Design. But despite earning a bachelor of fine art, he set to working with adjudicated youth after school, leading wilderness programs from New York to Florida and as far west as Colorado. For those seven years, nature served as a foil to developing a sense of leadership and independence for the kids in the program, and for Halusky, it seemed that nature served as a foil for the soul.
He moved on to a wilderness school in upstate New York for a brief stint, but then came the call. It came in the form of an opportunity to work with the University of North Florida on their wildlife sanctuary and eco-adventure program. Yet another call would lead him south over the County line when his mentor, Beverly Fleming, retired as St. Johns County’s naturalist and asked Halusky to apply. Of course, he did, and since 2012, he slowly assembled a curriculum of programs that address that very set of questions he asked himself decades prior.
A guiding waypoint in Halusky’s work has long been how to help people anchor their hearts in the wilderness. For him, he hoped a part of them would remain out in some remote bend of the river, some quiet stand of trees, or spread out across a prairie; because that was something he felt acutely himself.
Halusky always believed he was born a spiritual person, but despite the deep well of churches he’d visited while growing up, he never felt like he found anything as heart-awakening in those four walls. It was out in the woods that he found himself encircled by pews of palmetto, columns of live oak, and in something between a canopy and a cathedral. There was something like kinship there.
“Why did native cultures understand this without having to go to school?” he asks. Who or rather what were they talking to, listening to? “If you go out into nature,” he continued, “You’ll find yourself looking back. The deeper you look, the more of yourself you’ll find.”
One of Halusky’s goals on guided tours such as kayak trips is to carve out more time for people to simply sit in nature, to be quiet, and ultimately just to look around and observe. During his 2.5 hour long kayak trips, he sets aside 15 minutes for the group to break apart, find a hidden cove along the ribbon of water where they can’t see or hear anyone else.
“We’re being quiet,” he says, “stuck in the grass, watching nature.” And often in those 15 minutes, visitors feel it reveals to them more about this State and the natural world than their entire trip does. As Halusky told me, “You start to see things.” Mysteries remain mysteries. Answers lead to more thoughtful questions. Something takes root in each person.
Halusky compared entering the natural world to that of entering a relationship. It was something like falling in love—something like developing a friendship, quietly, faithfully. “You learn to trust,” he says. “Nature is no different than meeting a human being.”
When I asked him if he felt that guiding principle had spilled into his own life, he asked, “How could it not?”
This Bound By Water column originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Void Magazine (vol. 10, Iss. 7) “Do Good” under the headline “The Naturalist.”