By Anna DeWine-Bolton
XENIA — Upon retirement 16 years ago, one local couple decided they wanted to take their time and energy to the outdoors.
So the husband and wife from Beavercreek, Ken and Diane Bish, began volunteering for Greene County Parks & Trails (GCP&T), doing various work for the parks and helping at special events. They quickly made their name on the team that provides safe and fun environments for Greene County families.
The Bishes began their work by volunteering for naturalist programs at the Narrows Reserve Nature Center. Soon they started serving as Ranger Division Trail Sentinels, acting as ambassadors on the bike trails, giving assistance, first aide and information to bikers and walkers they met along the paths. The two volunteered for GCP&T as events emerged, including Sugar Maple Camp, Santa’s Holiday in the Park, Doggie Dash & Splash, Settlers Celebration, and the Greene Trails Cycling Classic.
But this wasn’t enough for the high-energy couple, and four years ago they shifted their focus to one specific project.
This project is not one small project, though, it’s an entire nature reserve that branches off into hundreds of little projects and requires a whole lot of love and attention.
In 2012 the Bishes “adopted” Russ Nature Reserve, a 90-acre property of prairie and woodlands, and haven’t turned back.
Between the two of them, the couple has spent 4,400 hours volunteering at the nature reserve.
“This has not been an obsession … but it’s close,” Ken Bish said as his wife Diane laughed beside him.
Ken Bish worked as a contractor for 25 years for Fritz and Dolores Russ, who upon their death gifted the property, including their family home, to GCP&T.
The Bishes approached the park board in 2012 in an effort to not only preserve the nature reserve, but also to save the house.
“This is kind of why we adopted it,” Ken Bish said. “We didn’t want to see the place get run down to the point where you’d have to bulldoze it. We got the architect to start trying to save it — and he fell in love with the place.”
Plans are well underway for the Russ home, a 1962 ranch-style 4,000-square-foot house. The home is to be converted into a Nature Education Center, its ten rooms re-purposed as classrooms and program areas. One characterization of the house is its Mockernut Hickory tree growing through the center of it. This will become a “critter room” with snakes and frogs and salamanders. Another room full of windows will transform into a bird-watching sanctuary.
The proposed education center would be open to the public, serving families, homeschoolers, school groups, scouts, 4-H clubs, senior groups, and all residents throughout the area.
But beyond the education-center-to-be are woods, and gardens, and trails, and wildlife havens.
The Bishes, along with the help of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, local organizations and individual volunteers, have transformed the acres of property into an oasis for nature lovers, children, and wildlife.
A pond sits at the foot of the house. Past the pond are gardens — a high-fence garden with raised garden beds and pollination areas and designated monarch way-stations. An expansive tree nursery surrounds the area, where 300 hardwoods grow. In the distance is a bee apiary, where Greene County Beekeeper Bill Starrett hosts educational programs. Throughout the prairie, bluebird boxes and bat boxes invite endangered bird populations and bats.
“There’s a lot to do and learn with every project we take on,” Diane Bish said, citing that each new project requires extensive research and a new wildlife expert.
Led by the Bishes, volunteers have gardened, landscaped, transplanted trees, cleared honeysuckle, set up birdhouses, installed benches, built bridges and helped create the adored PlayScapes, all in an effort to preserve the property left by the Russes.
One of the biggest attractions, PlayScapes 1 and 2, invite children to use the woods as their playground.
Unstructured free play allows children to use their imaginations and make the woods their own — to climb trees, build forts, gather rocks, pile fallen leaves, and more.
But the Bishes perhaps show as much excitement about the PlayScapes as their young visitors do, having re-purposed everything in the area, creating the entire playground out of natural material, with room for more ideas.
“There’s something for everybody,” Ken Bish said.
Among the couple’s creations include balancing logs, tree stump chairs and rockers, climbing areas, an open tee-pee, digging spots, a tree-ring display, wooden musical instruments, and even a checker table, the board made of a tree stump and its pieces made of wood chips.
“It’s cool for a college student or a young kid to think they can just come out and play checkers in the woods.”
Six trails totaling nearly four miles surround the PlayScapes, completing the reserve as a destination for hikers, runners, dog-walkers and field-trippers.
“Everything we do we have fun,” the couple explained together.
“This has been the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on in my life,” Ken Bish said. “No matter how tired you are when you’ve worked all day, you come out and you see the parents, you see the grandparents, and you see the kids and they’re just having a terrific time, that’s the reward. Then you’re no longer tired.”