Regional nature show takes the family on visual `field trips'

Rudy Mancke's office is a mini-museum. Animal skulls, feathers, snake skins, shells, seed pods occupy every bookshelves, tables, and most of his desk. Behind that desk sits a slender, boyish-looking man, deep in conversation with a woman who has called to say she's been having trouble with snakes getting into her basement.

``Lots of people been having that problem,'' Mr. Mancke tells her, explaining that it has been particularly prevalent during the blistering weather of the last few months down here. Try plugging holes around pipes with steel wool, he suggests.

Quieting her fears about poisonous serpents, he assures her that what she has described is a common, and harmless, ``rat snake.''

Such calls are a normal part of the day for Mancke, whose seven-year-old TV show, ``Naturescene,'' has rapidly become something of a tradition in these parts.

Its audience surpasses anything else on the schedule of South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV), and that includes such PBS stalwarts as Masterpiece Theater. And it's gaining a viewership in other regions as well, through public television's satellite network.

``We may do ourselves in,'' jokes Mancke, noting that calls are now beginning to come in from ``Naturescene'' fans in Texas, Nebraska, and other states.

But he really doesn't mind. Telling people about the natural world has been his life, from his years as natural history curator for the South Carolina State Museum to his present TV work.

``It's like I'm a member of the family,'' he says of his relationship to viewers. ``I've never felt closer to any group.''

And that close, almost folksy, relationship is a major contributor to the show's popularity, in the estimation of Mancke and his colleagues at SCETV.

``Once people realized they could get their `what is it' questions answered, they began calling in,'' says this somewhat shy ``star,'' who describes himself as ``not a TV person.''

Cameraman Allen Sharpe, one of the crew of four (which includes, in addition to Rudy Mancke, co-host Jim Welsh and a production assistant) who put the show together, comments that what appears on ``Naturescene'' is ``something you can do with your kids -- just slowing down and looking at things. . . . The camera is like another person on this little field trip.''

Mr. Sharpe's description is apt. For 27 minutes, viewers are quite simply taken along on a nature walk -- stopping frequently to examine a leaf, net a butterfly, spot a bird, or pick up a twig neatly chewed through by the ``girdler beetle.''

There's none of the spectacle of, say, a National Geographic special, though occasionally there's the unexpected.

During a recent shoot in the desert near Tucson, Ariz., for example, Mancke came upon a diamond-back rattler, the first one the Southeasterner had ever encountered in the wild. For him, that was a true ``discovery,'' he says, and viewers shared his enthusiasm.

``What we do, simplified, is show and tell,'' says Mancke.

Co-host and SCETV programming director Mr. Welsh speculates that the show may be satisfying some viewers' desires to return to ``a family-oriented kind of feeling.'' He says the show draws a lot of young parents, who faithfully watch with their children.

``If we're geared to any group, it's the family,'' agrees Mancke, who is himself the father of a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old. ``People stop eating Saturday, invite friends over, and watch it.''

Until recently, the programs have originated from South Carolina locations -- mainly state parks and beaches -- and Mancke says that officials have told him that visitors flock to the parks after viewing a ``Naturescene'' segment filmed there.

That warms the naturalist's heart.

``It's one thing to watch it, and another to see it for yourself. We give the date of the shooting and the place. They can go there themselves and see for themselves,'' he says.

An inveterate teacher, Mancke asserts ``I like to see relationships -- to point out how the world is put together in a certain way.'' He does this constantly on the show, explaining the connections between vegetation and sand dune development, between plant life, insect life, and birds.

He senses a ``latent curiosity'' in people to know more about the natural world that's right in their backyard. ``And I'd like to believe that if you can give people an understanding of nature, you can get them involved in conserving it,'' he adds.

What started as a regional show has branched out in the past year, with trips to Arizona, Washington State, and Vermont. Other journeys are planned -- to Texas, for example.

Ultimately, say Welsh and Sharpe, ``Naturescene'' will try to touch each of the 50 states.

Meanwhile, Rudy Mancke will spend non-traveling hours close to his phone, ready to take calls from newly-curious viewers who want to know what manner of creature that big moth, butterfly, or unfamiliar bird actually is.

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