Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Feeding the senses

Several weeks ago I attended the Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference in Columbus. It was a day spent in the company of other nature lovers (who work at it for a living and/or are just home-grown naturalists like myself), learning lots of good information about different species that share their space with us in Ohio.

The theme of this year's conference was "It All Makes Sense!" and each presenter tried to tie their subject to one of the five senses. There were presentations about skunks (representing "smell"), paddlefish and the caviar market (representing "taste"), Northern Saw-whet Owl banding (representing "sight"), wild boar populations (loosely related to "sound"), singing insects (more closely related to "sound") and kids and conservation (loosely related to "touch").  All of the presentations were interesting, but some stuck with me more than others.

Probably the most engaging of the presentations was the one about singing insects, given by Wil Hershberger, co-author (with Lang Elliott) of The Songs of Insects. (I got my own autographed copy during the morning break!)  Wil told us a bit about singing insect physiology, including how they make their songs, how they hear the songs, and how they respond to them.  And of course he played audio recordings of a myriad of singing insects, from crickets to katydids to cicadas.  After his presentation, there was no doubt in my mind that I had to have his fantastic auditory field guide!

The other presentation that really stuck out in my mind was that of Matt Sorrick, who is the Director of The Center for Science Education at Hiram College here in Ohio.  He talked about kids and conservation and how exploring nature in their own back yard could be the magic "touch" to saving the world.  If I were an educator, I probably would have considered his talk to be a bit controversial because he made some points that illustrate how the last 40 years of environmental education may actually be holding our kids back.

For example, he mentioned media outlets like National Geographic and the Discovery Channel which cover great educational topics, but the focus is almost always on exotic places, not our own backyards.  These exotic places, like the Grand Canyon, Mt. Everest or the rain forests of South America or South Africa are far away and will not likely be visited by school-age kids for research and study.  Another example he brought up was programs in parks and preserves.  Once again, these programs are good and mean well, but they also have restrictions (put in place for very good reasons) such as staying on marked trails, not picking plants and not disturbing bugs or wildlife.

His recommendation was to encourage kids to explore "nearby nature."  Nature in their backyards, and in their neighborhoods.  These are places where they can feel free to pick a flower or catch a butterfly or look for toads and salamanders without having to necessarily worry about rules.  This ties into another key concept he brought up, one which is undoubtedly influenced by Rachel Carson (more on her in a minute):  kids need frequent, positive, unstructured experiences in nature, and they need an adult who will encourage them in this free-form nature play.

Rachel Carson understood this concept very well, and we learn how she encouraged it in her grand-nephew in her book The Sense of Wonder (actually an essay first published in 1956 under the title "Help Your Child to Wonder" in Women's Home Companion).  This is truly a marvelous book, and I am very grateful to my friend Karen for bringing it to my attention.  I would like to quote a passage that I found particularly poignant:
>I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.  If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grown.  The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.  Once the emotions have been aroused - a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.  Once found, it has lasting meaning.  It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know that to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.
And so, Mr. Sorrick brought the sixth sense of "wonder" into his talk as well, a sense that I don't think we should take lightly when it comes to thinking about our relationship with nature.  Every naturalist I know, every birder I know, every nature-lover I know exhibits it, and it's probably one of the key things that make us all so comfortable around each other.  Wonder is at the intersection of awe and curiosity.  It's what keeps us from worrying if we get our clothes dirty or wet when crouching down to examine a bug or flower.  It's what holds us spellbound as we watch a heron stalking fish in a lake or when a hawk soars overhead.  Wonder opens us up to the world in special way. And remember: it's never too late to develop and nurture your own sense of wonder.

Where does your sense of wonder take you?


KaHolly said...

Seems to me that it's all happening in Ohio! Sounds like a wonderful experience. I preach the sense of wonder to everyone and appreciate that Mr. Sorrick was able to integrate it into his presentation! Wish I'd been there! ~karen

Tom said...

Heather- Matt's talk was quite an interesting choice for the conference, not the typical speaker at that venue, but I'm glad they chose him. I'm a Hiram grad (that's where the hiramtom.blogspot.com came from), and I am familiar with his work there. I think that he could polish that talk a little bit and hit the circuit- he has plenty of great ideas. I especially liked hearing about the new schools in the Hiram area- the playground are in a circle between the buildings with only a token patch of grass to play in, that eventually became a mud puddle. I rember at my suburban school, built in the 50's there was a little patch of woods that kids always retreated to and enjoyed exploring, but inevitably, the recess aides would kick us back out onto the open grassy field. At least we had a big grassy field.


Monika said...

Thought-provoking stuff Heather. I've been pondering children and nature based on a few recent articles I've read, and plan to blog about it soon too when my thoughts all come together at the right time.

Meg said...

Ooh, so much to respond to here. I totally agree about the unstructured time that kids need in nature. I almost hate to bring it up since it is always quoted, but you've read Last Child in the Woods? by Richard Louv? That book really stoked the fire that Rachel Carson started long ago. Wonder truly is at the root of it. I also highly recommend the book Biophilia by Edward O. Wilson on the topic. Great, great stuff.

Heather said...

Karen - I will have to say that the Ohio Division of Natural Resources does an amazing job of offering educational programs on all levels, like park programs, fishing and hunting programs, and conferences like this one. You really would have enjoyed this experience.

Tom - Ah, good to get some feedback from another attendee of the conference. Yes, that part of his talk about the token patch of grass was heart-breaking. What are school designers thinking about these days?! When I saw that Matt was from Hiram college, which I had previously not heard of, I finally figured out where the "hiram" in your blog address came from!

Monika - I will look forward to reading your posts on the topic once the ideas gel in your mind (I totally understand what you mean about all the thoughts coming together at the right time!).

Meg - Richard Louv's book is one of those on my shelf that I've started but not yet finished. I'll tuck Biophilia into my "books to investigate" list.

Joy K. said...

I teach science to 5th grade students. One of the things I always hope, is that they'll develop a sense of wonder at nature's offerings. Some are already jaded and cynical at age 11, but most are still awestruck when a snail suddenly unfolds its antennae or a hawk screeches as it flies over the playground.

Heather said...

Joy - That's kind of a bummer that some of them are cynical already by the age of 11. I'm just curious, are you teaching in a rural or urban area? The only reason I ask is because I imagine inner-city living could make young kids cynical and out of touch with nature, making your job that much more challenging (and important!).