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The Intellectual Outdoorsman

Andrew Mckenna-FosterThe air is balmy and the sun smiles as I find the discrete nook of Nantucket town that is the Vestal Street headquarters of the Maria Mitchell Association. I meander about the premises for a little, drinking in the dreamlike greenness of it all and feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland. A tiny pond nearby bursts with life, and I am hailed by a youthful-looking fellow carrying a bulky glass tank that will presumably soon become home to some reptilian creature within the Natural Science Museum next door. At 30, Andrew Mckenna-Foster seems too young to hold such a significant position as MMA’s Director of Natural Sciences, but it only takes a few minutes to realize why he belongs here.

Mckenna-Foster’s bright blue eyes have the eagerness of a beagle puppy, out on the trail for the very first time. And one would have to possess at least the energy and determination of a hound to accomplish what Mckenna- Foster does on a daily basis. He attended Colby College, a highly selective liberal arts school in Maine, where he double majored in physics and biology with a minor in environmental science. After graduating in 2004, he spent his first summer on Nantucket as an intern at the Maria Mitchell Association. “I’m originally from Colorado, and I had never been to Nantucket before. Actually, my girlfriend at the time was the one who found the internship program online,” says Mckenna-Foster. “We both applied, but then only I got it,” he admits, turning both palms upwards. After proving himself as an intern, by 2007 Mckenna-Foster had been promoted to Museum Director. Following that summer position came a few years at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay for a Master’s degree in Environmental Science & Policy. By 2010, he was finally at home on Nantucket all year long as Director of Natural Sciences.

Mckenna-Foster allows that he had never considered the museum field before landing at MMA. “I always thought I’d end up doing something in forestry or biology or some other science.” Offering his characteristic enthusiasm, he exclaims, “When I was a kid, I loved taking apart mechanical things. I was probably in third grade the time that I blew out the electricity in my whole house. Got in a lot of trouble for that,” he confesses, jokingly hanging his head at the memory. “I spent a lot of time with my brother, who’s three years younger than me, just making things. For example, I was really interested in cordage. In Colorado, you have the yucca plant for that.” And like any pair of little boys, he says the brothers enjoyed building models, adding, “Especially ones that flew.” There was also lots of hole digging, the results of which he says served as his classroom for learning the common insects. With a great wave of excitement, Mckenna-Foster divulges the boys’ childhood interest in some other behaviors that may have resulted in chastisement. “In the winters in Colorado, we would, like, cryogenically freeze insects and bring them back to life!” But when he informs me that his mom was a molecular biologist when he was growing up, I see that Mom likely understood her sons’ curiosities. “Now she’s an audiologist, and I got my scientific side from her. My dad is a lawyer and he’s a real people person. So I feel like they each gave me a skill set.” Evidently the younger Mckenna-Foster brother landed on the other end of the family continuum, and is currently using his interests in language and politics in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile, the elder Mckenna-Foster brother is quite contented to be a Nantucket washashore. “Nantucket, with its open spaces and low vegetation, is like an east coast Colorado to me.” And as shamelessly as a morning glory at sunrise, he says, “I prefer it to the mainland,” letting that statement sink in for a moment before continuing.    “As an outsider, it has always impressed me how removed Nantucket is. You feel like you’re in a much different country. I like the seasonality, especially the winter. People here are very connected and aware of the landscape around them. There are lots of opportunities for that. People either have connections to fishermen, or their neighbor is a landscaper, and I think it makes everybody more human.”

What about the non-human element of the island? Mckenna-Foster answers, “Nantucket is really good at working with people. Humans have always modified nature. But it’s really neat that Nantucket has kept its biodiversity, and that’s one of the examples of how Nantucket is good at working with humans. The flora and fauna here are actually a lot like Nantucketers: they’re friendly, adaptable, and get along well with each other.” He grins, seeming pleased with this metaphor. “We have groups of species here that wouldn’t normally mix.” Mckenna- Foster explains that Nantucket marks a habitation boundary for many species. “Take the barn owl; it’s at the northern end of its range here on Nantucket. Any harsher of a climate could kill it. Nantucket has a surprising number of animals for such a small area. It’s the perfect teaching lab for biology and ecology. And it’s so relevant to all of us. We’re all sharing this space.”

Many of the animals that Mckenna-Foster interacts with are wild, but the MMA keeps some in humane captivity. “Having animals at the museum, I do a lot of thinking about how we play God with them. You know, we kill a fish to feed a snake.” Mckenna-Foster becomes wistful for a moment as he divulges, shaking his head: “When we’re just giving the snake some frozen mouse that’s already dead, I feel like he must be missing out on some aspect of snake-hood.” At this, I throw my head back and laugh, but I quickly realize that this kind of thought process is exactly what makes Mckenna-Foster so adept at his job.

And he loves his work as much as it loves him. “What keeps me here is that my job is great. I never expected that this would be my favorite thing about my work, but I really love interacting with the public in the science sphere. I like teaching in general; you know, figuring out, ‘How do you rope this person in?’ and ‘What grabs their interest?'” With the healthy flow of participants at MMA, such a devoted outlook is necessary. “Our programming at Maria Mitchell is really focused on families. My favorite program is probably the Family Insect Expedition. The kids are really good at it; and the parents don’t know more than their kids, so everybody’s learning on the same level. No one gets left out; it gives everyone a chance to participate and catch something to put in the insect box.” Mckenna-Foster’s zeal for working with kids has been noticed as he recently received the Nantucket Advocates for Children Award. This annual honor is given to Nantucket residents who have made a positive impact in the lives of island kids, and he certainly fits the bill.

But what about childfree adults who want to get closer to nature? After giving credit to the number of opportunities across the island’s organizational board, Mckenna-Foster recommends the MMA’s Lecture & Field Trip Series, which is new this year. Also, he says adults will enjoy the Wildflower Walks coming up in July. “Even if you’re only visiting for a week, you’ll at least be able to hit one of these programs.” And this recommendation comes not only from someone invested in MMA but also a man who understands the differences between being a raw recruit and being an adult on the island. “I appreciate living here. It’s a great place to come into your own. I’m not the same person today that I was when I first came as an intern. And here I am 10 years down the line. Nantucket is the place where I became who I am. Everyone I interact with teaches me something.”

I ask Mckenna-Foster where he pictures himself in 30 years. His eyebrows shoot up and he replies with one word: “Wow.” He thinks for a moment, noting that he will be twice his current age. “Well, I would like to have found a fairly permanent place to live,” he estimates. “Somewhere with a good source of fresh water.” He gazes out into the sun-drenched verdure before us. “I would like to be able to have lived a great adventure. Still, sixty is no longer an old age in our world,” he notes then admits, “Well, I am kind of a worrier. Hopefully I’ll be better about that by the time I’m 60. I’d just like to be comfortable with myself and with the world around me.” He shrugs as he adds,    “And part of that is continued learning. These days, technology moves so fast, you can’t even predict where you’ll be in 10 years! But everything else in nature moves at its regular pace.”

Mckenna-Foster gingerly plucks a bug from his shirt, then glances back up at me and smiles. “I’m a pretty optimistic person. I think humanity will take things to the edge, and then save itself.” He again stares out towards the spread of greenery, wrinkling his nose and tossing a stray twig in a distant but imprecise direction. “Maybe in 30 years, we’ll have figured things out. It’s the classic tortoise-hare race.” Mckenna-Foster drifts into his own thoughts for a minute, and then affirms with a nod, “Nature will always win in the end.”    Mckenna-Foster is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant minds on Nantucket today. Like the red-eared slider turtle that lives in the museum, Mckenna-Foster may not be from Nantucket, but he has certainly found room to thrive on this island.