In one corner of the shop, a college student in environmental studies does story-telling, teaching young kids how to plant seeds. In another corner, Chris Uhtoff demonstrates a flashlight that has to be charged with human muscle power. On the front porch, Maria Uhtoff shows how to maintain birdhouses, which are built in the Rogue Valley.
It's a store, the Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland, and you can get almost anything you want that's connected with nature (and that doesn't operate on batteries). But its main mission for 24 years has been as a community resource and gathering spot for anything that will get kids away from their electronic screens — and also educate and entertain adults.
The Nature Shop sells a range of educational and decorative toys, field guides, natural history books, maps, bird feeders, puzzles, greeting cards, mechanical clocks, minerals, paper lanterns, globes, weather stations, house numbers — all with nature themes or with the educational challenge of learning how to assemble and operate them.
The toys are irresistible to kids — it's a favorite place for birthday or holiday shopping with children. But the many outings organized by the store are unforgettable. If familiarity with nature is ingrained young enough, says cofounder Kathy Uhtoff, "studies show the lifelong connection with nature creates people who are better able to think and will preserve nature more."
The shop organizes outdoor adventure tours and classes in the region year-round, including a spring and fall mushroom show, butterfly walk, spring wildflower walk on Table Rock, summer treks to Pilot Rock and Mt. Ashland, fall bird-seed sale, a rabbit petting class at Easter (so kids won't be tempted to buy bunnies they won't take care of), a first Saturday bird walk with the Klamath Bird Observatory and story-time every Friday morning at 10:30 (A schedule of events and online shop is at www.northwestnatureshop.com.).
The shop was founded in 1984 by Kathy and Mike Uhtoff in an old Craftsman house they bought with a small inheritance from an aunt who made the money buying penny stocks in Idaho mines, according to a Daily Tidings story written upon the store's opening.
Mike died in March, after a five-year struggle with Alzheimer's. The couple's three children, Chris, Patrick and Marie, grew up helping in the store. Chris and Marie are still actively involved and continue their father's philosophy.
"My dad always believed we had to be a community resource, not just sell a lot of things. We've built on that over the years. Our customers are the same ones we had 20 years ago," says Marie. "Our dogs are here. It's relaxed. We work as a family."
The family moved from Portland, where Mike had been an outdoor educator for Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Portland Zoo, and president of the Portland Audubon Society.
Mike selected Ashland because it's a region rich in natural features, says Kathy. He wanted to start a science camp but went with the store, using it as a launch base for outdoor activities.
Knowledgeable, relaxed and friendly to all, Mike cheerfully spearheaded efforts to conserve the 271-acre Siskiyou Mountain Park (crossed by White Rabbit Trail), Oredson-Todd Woods and North Mountain Park — and served as president of Southern Oregon Land Conservancy.
The store, at 154 Oak St., just 100 feet off Lithia Way, "is a wonderful contribution to the community," said Barbara Droscher, grandmother to some kids attending storytelling. "It informs us about birdwalks, stars, geology and has so many educational toys. It's wonderful to have for children and families, and we hope our children will continue coming here so they're not indoors all the time."
Referring to a copy of Richard Luov's book, "Last Child in the Woods," Chris says the family will continue Mike's labors in preventing Nature Deficit Disorder, a complex of dysfunctions that strike kids who don't get enough "forest time" before age 12.
One of the simplest ways, says Chris, is to get a $7.95 bird feeder. The cedar boxes make great homes for bluebirds and anything smaller — and they're made in Grants Pass, with profits going to the Siskiyou Audubon Society there.
Along with the bird houses, it's a good idea to get a squirrel-proof bird feeder and a bird bath and, of course, a supply of the best bird seed, also available in the store. And while you're at it, maybe a field guide to identify all the birds that will start coming to your yard.
And that's the way it starts at the Northwest Nature Shop — it's all connected. You begin wanting to learn about bluebirds, but soon you're learning about the mites that infest their nests if you don't change the nesting every spring, then about how to foil the raccoons that want to get at the fledglings.
Before you know it, you're a "birder," then you want to learn about how to find edible or medicinal mushrooms in the woods and you join a trek, then come the wildflower walks, the butterfly walks — and a whole world of nature begins opening to you, which, long ago, when the family arrived here, was Mike's vision.