Michael Hoke’s Vigorous Love Teaching Nature

michael 763118Michael W. Hoke makes nature, plants and his incredible garden come alive. He speaks with vigor and boundless enthusiasm for teaching children about nature and about the gifts that the Shangri La Botanical Gardens provide the entire Southeast Texas region.

In a pounding rain interspersed with thunder and lightning, we toured the 200-acre nature preserve and gardens with Michael showing us its many wondrous details. “See that bench over there?” he said, pointing across a pond. “I’d love to set up a program to let kids who’ve never fished do that right there!” Water was channeled into special pools filled with lillies and other plants to cleanse it before returning it to the bayou.

He showed us the front of the gardens, where 55 huge live oaks were felled during one of the hurricanes which have wreaked havoc on the park in the past few years. Now a gas station shows its ugliness where once there was once a verdant barricade. Michael was a science teacher for many years, and got into this job about seven years ago, after befriending the widow of the man who bequeathed it all to the foundation, Nelda C. Stark, the last wife of Lutcher Stark. Stark was a devoted environmentalist way before it became fashionable, and he had the millions to make it all a reality. He was passionate about not using pesticides and loved nature and this beautiful piece of the world, which he was determined to keep as natural as when it was made.

This park has river boats that bring visitors up the Adams bayou, blinds to view thousands of nesting egrets, and outdoor pavilions in the woods and is a restored culmination of Stark’s vision. Recently they were given the highest honor of green-ness…a US Green Building Council rating putting it among the most earth-friendly buildings in the world, which means they really walk the walk when it comes to total reuse of resources, building with recycled materials and promoting a seriously small environmental impact.

While the grounds with their lovely plantings and the paths through the woods did impress, it was Michael who we remembered for his passion about his job and this place. He’s endured three big hurricanes and still beams with enthusiasm for the programs they put on, like the star party where 390 people came to view the night sky on 17 telescopes, or the butterflies they release into a house in the woods filled with plants. “I want kids to get dirty, to get out there in nature and touch it all,” he said.

We watched a short film describing Stark’s vision and how this Shangri La came into being, taking its name from the famous novel and movie of a place that everyone wanted to come back to. At the film’s end, a curtain rises and in place of the screen, we see the beautiful green woods that make up the park. It was Michael’s idea…and sums up how well he understands how to reach out and grab people to feeling and experiencing nature’s power.