Savoring What We Cannot Know

Bumblebee

Bees are in the news a lot lately. Most of the reports have focused on honey bees. Startling declines in honey bee populations have been recorded in recent years. Scientists are searching for the causes of the decline.

I like honey. Honey bees are certainly an interesting social insect. I can’t say the alarms about honey bees have moved me emotionally, however.

In mid-June, there were reports that 50,000 bumble bees had died, poisoned by a pesticide in Oregon. The very idea wrenched my gut! Bumble bees! I love them!

Now why bumble bees?, I wondered. I looked around the internet to see what others might have to say about bumble bees. At the University of Minnesota Extension page I came across a listing for a publication called “Befriending Bumble Bees.” This web site explained, “Bumblebees are among the most charismatic of insects. Their robust frame and fuzziness combined with their charming habit of buzzing dutifully from flower to flower have brought joy to many of their onlookers.”

I can’t say I had ever thought of insects as being charismatic. But with bumble bees it seems to be true. Honey bees are rather drab and uninteresting in comparison. But bumble bees are large, colorful, and, well, fuzzy!

And they “dutifully” fly from flower to flower. Dutifully? Perhaps, busily? Or maybe, happily? Even, lazily?

What are they actually doing? Are they going about their business or are they enjoying their day? A bee’s jaunty flight from blossom to blossom may fire one’s imagination. And then the human mind fills in the blanks of what it is like to be a bee.

We really don’t know what, from the bee’s perspective, is going on while the bee is pollinating flowers and collecting nectar. This very not-knowing is part of what is so engaging about watching a bee. Or a butterfly. Or a bird. The very separateness of other living organisms is intriguing. That they are not determined by human design or desire breathes a freshness into our world.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous paper entitled, “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel’s purpose was to explore questions about reductionism and physicalism but his basic assertion, that we cannot know what it is like to be a bat, is interesting in and of itself.

Science may bristle at the very thought that we cannot know. In fact, ornithologist Tim Birkhead, in defiance of Nagel, subtitled his book Bird Sense “What it’s like to be a bird.” Bird Sense details an immense amount of fascinating research into bird’s ability to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel.

Scientists have been able to determine much about how birds use their senses to navigate the world, to find food, avoid predators, mate and raise young. Yet with all this information we do not know what it is like to be a bird. As Nagel puts it, “the fact that an organism has consciousness at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism….something it is like for the organism.” We can never know first-hand the experience of a bat, the feeling of moving through the world by sonar. We can imagine it, but Nagel says, imagining “tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.” When I imagine myself as a bat or a bird, I still do it from a human perspective.

This is, as Nagel names it, “the subjective character of experience.” Birkhead is forced to acknowledge that this is true even as he rushes off to explain all the science that tells us so much, objectively, about birds’ senses. But he simply dismisses Nagel’s claim as unimportant, calling it “subtle and pedantic.”

But, really, is it? Or is the very fact that other organisms have their own subjective natures something that immensely enriches our experience of the world? We can watch a bee and imagine what it is like buzzing about a field of flowers yet we know that it is something private to the bees. It is something beyond us, separate, apart. The world is alive with bee-ness! It seems to me that this unknown is something for us to savor. The world is one where there is bee-ness, bird-ness, fish-ness, and so on. In our humanness, we can appreciate observing but not knowing.

As for the bumble bees, I don’t suppose they are more engaging in this way than honey bees. But when we don’t know something, our human imagination goes to work. So the fuzzy bumble bees become charismatic in our eyes and we imagine the meanings of their comings and goings in whatever way we fancy. And that is another of the joys of nature watching!

I’m reminded of Wordsworth:

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trail’d its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopp’d and play’d,
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made
It seem’d a thrill of pleasure.

–Vicki Linton

Photo by Vicki Linton

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We Are Nature

Mid Ocean ridge

The mid-ocean ridges are where new crust is added to the earth… The extrusion of submarine basalt flows supplied by feeder dykes at mid-ocean ridges may be less spectacular than the foaming lava fountains of Hawai’i, but it is more important to the world. This is how the ocean floor grows. It grows by stealth in the dark. …World seismic maps show a thin line of weak earthquakes closely following the ridges. The ridge as a whole is buoyed up by the heat that comes from below. The rift at its apex is the seam at the suture of creation. This is where plates are born and where they part company forever… In the simplest system to read, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the new crust is destined to move in the direction of either the Americas or of Europe and Africa….

Water from the sea can seep into the spreading system. In some of the more active spreading ridges it becomes superheated and charged with minerals in solution. This water then discharges through hydrothermal vents… at depth iron sulphide—or pyrites—builds fantastical chimneys. They are encrusted dark towers, and crazily teetering tubes. … The chimneys can reach sixty metres in height. Fluted and branched, they look like the façade of Gaudi’s famous cathedral, La Sagrada Familia….Will the sea floor ever become the ultimate tourist destination? …For myself, I would prefer this last, inaccessible, wild place to remain in its dark security. The human touch has been so devastating elsewhere. This may be one place where we should satisfy our curiosity and then move on.”

Reading this passage from Richard Fortey’s book The Earth: An Intimate History made me wonder where humans fit in. The earth is ever-changing. Under the ocean, new crust is created while old crust is destroyed. In this process of change, fantastic creations appear. But when change on earth is the result of human action, it is, Fortey says, “devastating.” Fortey later in his book likens humans to ticks, calling us short-term parasites on the earth.

Michael Lind of the Breakthrough Institute calls this the “desecration paradigm.” He writes, “The desecration paradigm treats human appropriation or alteration of biomass, minerals or landscapes as an immoral profanation of something sacred…. The desecration paradigm makes no appeal to legitimate human interests. Rather the human race itself is seen as an evil force, alien to ‘nature’ which is identified with the entire universe other than human beings.”

Lind disdains this view that accords “nature” an intrinsic value unrelated to its value to us. The value in nature is exactly its use to humans, as Lind sees it. He approvingly quotes Lyndon Johnson’s Inaugural Address, “For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say ‘Farewell.’ Is a new world coming? We welcome it – and we will bend it to the hopes of man.”

Lind adds, “His vision of nature is of a nature waiting to be transformed for human uses by technology. Adherents of the desecration paradigm would prefer that ‘the uncrossed desert’ remain uncontaminated by human footprints or wheel-tracks, that ‘the unclimbed ridge’ is off-limits to tourists in a ‘road less wilderness,’ and that ‘the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground’ remains merely potential and the ground unplowed.”

In their views, Fortey and Lind have in common a dichotomy: Humans on one side, nature on the other.

Wait, if humans aren’t natural what are we?

Of course, a traditional answer is that we were created separately by God, and nature was put here also by God for our use. It does not appear that either Lind or Fortey are relying on this religious conception for their world views. Ultimately, they must both acknowledge: We are of this earth as much as any other life form. We are nature.

It is the dichotomy of humanity and nature as two separate spheres that is artificial. We cannot live without changing nature any more than the earth itself can cease to destroy and create itself. Our dilemma is not whether we preserve nature or use it. It is how we can best live as one part of the natural world. If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. Lind acknowledges the need for environmental protection. When he quotes Lyndon Johnson he writes, “Johnson helped to usher in the modern era of environmental awareness and protection.”

Johnson looked on the environment as something to be “transformed for human uses by technology.” Fortey on the other hand, falls in with those who would, as Lind says, “prefer that ‘the uncrossed desert’ remain uncontaminated by human footprints or wheel-tracks.”

Are these the only choices? Must we either use the earth as raw material as if we were not of it, or leave as much of it as possible alone for the same reason?

But we are nature; we cannot subtract ourselves from it and stand aside. Another point of view I came across is that of the earth as our home (the original meaning of the now ubiquitous prefix “eco”). This perspective is put forward as the Humanist view in an article by William R. Patterson in the journal Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism.

Patterson sets out the humanist view of ethics. “Humanists believe that ethical values are created by human beings and that those values should be based upon the consequences that they have in the lives of human beings, whether they generate greater happiness, health and overall welfare for individual humans and for humanity as a whole. …The recognition that human beings are the sole source of moral decision-making leads to the acknowledgement that we should develop a profound sense of empathy and altruism for others, based upon our common humanity.”

Thus, Patterson writes, “Humanists are equally able to distance themselves from religious positions that place humanity at the apex of life by divine fiat and those on the opposite extreme which place a sacred value on the earth that militate against any use of the environment by human beings.”

Humanists see the measure of value as human beings. However, Patterson says that recognizing the interdependence of life that is revealed by science can “lead a humanist to embrace a moderately biocentric approach to nature. At the very least, a strict form of anthropocentrism must be rejected. Humanist David Schafer offers a useful middle ground with what he calls inclusive anthropocentrism.”

Patterson suggests that as Humanists we see the earth as our home. While our first concern is for ourselves, that is humanity, we know this earth with all its life forms is our home and we must keep it healthy in order for us to thrive. He says, “The world is, as Carl Sagan would say, our ‘pale blue dot.’ The earth is humanity’s only home and one we must cherish despite its flaws and blemishes.”

Perhaps this way of seeing ourselves within nature can allow us to thrive as humans on this earth while maintaining our home for not only ourselves but the other living beings with which we share the earth. The earth is ever-changing and so are we. We cannot help but change the earth ourselves, yet our interdependence with all life on earth means we cannot despoil this home of ours. We must take good care of it, for we are nature and we cannot separate ourselves from earth and life.

postscript: I do want to note that the pessimistic view of humanity that Richard Fortey expresses in a few places is by no means a theme of his book. Rather the book celebrates the earth and the scientists who have learned about it. It is well worth reading.

–Vicki Linton

photo from NOAA Photo Library on Flickr; Clam shell bed around a thermal mound in 2800 meters. Pacific Ocean, mid-ocean ridge.
Photographer: A. Malahoff. Credit: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); Univ. of Hawaii.

Confronting Nature-Deficit Disorder

[Panorama] A Day at the Park

Admittedly, the term nature-deficit disorder sounds contrived. But there is evidence that the concept points to real problems—problems that arise when people lack a connection to the natural world.

The term was coined by Richard Louv who was recently interviewed by National Geographic (Connecting With Nature Boosts Creativity and Health). Louv has advocated providing experiences with nature to children (he founded the Children and Nature Network) but he says that adults suffer from a disconnection with nature too. Nature-deficit disorder, Louv says, affects people’s “ability to feel ultimately alive.”

He cites research that shows that time outdoors can help people struggling with ADD. The New York Times recently published an article on research showing how walking in a park can improve one’s brain functioning. (Easing Brain Fatigue With a Walk in the Park).

Of course you can’t immerse yourself in nature if it’s not there. Louv notes that the majority of people now live in cities. If we take nature-deficit disorder seriously, we will need to redesign cities to put us in closer touch with nature in our daily lives.

This doesn’t just mean walling off nature in a few extra parks. It requires “biophilic design” that will end the separation of humans from the rest of nature, even in cities. One can envision green corridors running through our downtowns, gardens filled with native plants surrounding our workplaces, the replacement of lawns with miniature woodlands, and assemblages of plants that provide habitat to birds and insects. Louv calls this vision “a nature-rich society.”

Imagine much less concrete and asphalt and much more green. More bird song. Air filled with the scents of growing things. Butterflies bobbing among flowering plants. Small ponds where perhaps frogs may live.

While wholesale change from our cities of today would be radical, we already see examples in our cities now of nature surviving and even thriving. Residents of dense urban neighborhoods plant flowers in every square inch of land. Community gardens take up whole city blocks. Homeowners place bird houses and bat houses in their small yards. Office buildings are surrounded by aquatic habitat in which water lilies grow. Green roofs provide habitat for insects. There is much to build on.

Louv says “most Americans carry images of the far future that looks a lot like Blade Runner and Mad Max.” Our vision of the future is often one that is depressing and sad. He wants us to replace images of a dystopian future with positive ones of a nature-rich society. How much healthier emotionally would we be if we saw a revival of our connection with nature as our inevitable future!

–Vicki Linton

photo credit: Parque do Ibirapuera – Sao Paulo, Brazil by Diego3336 at Flickr

Book Review: The Forest Unseen

Sand Mandala September 2012

By Vicki Linton

If you head into the woods hoping to see animals, holding pictures of bears and wolves or other large mammals in your head, you are likely to be disappointed. Except for perhaps some white tailed deer, you are likely as not to see “nothing.” Most mammals are nocturnal and very good at making themselves scarce.

Yet right under your feet are thousands of life forms, from mosses and fungi to invertebrates of all sorts. Two things may be necessary to see some of these smaller beings: a patient way of looking and an expert guide.

The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell provides both.

Haskell sets out to tell the reader about what he observes for one year on a small plot of land in the Tennessee mountains. He calls this small plot a “mandala” and introduces his way of looking by describing Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala. The monks use brass funnels of sand to slowly create a lotus flower design.

Haskell writes, “The mandala has significance at many levels: the concentration required for its creation, the balance between complexity and coherence, the symbols embedded in its design, and its impermanence…. The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand.”

He sets out to see the forest “through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water.” His mountain mandala is no more than a meter across. His book takes us through the months in this mountain space, describing what is seen through patient observing and quiet contemplation.

I cannot say that I have applied such an intentional practice to observing in the mountains. But I do know that simply being aware of your surroundings as you sit or slowly walk through the woods will lead to observation of nature’s otherwise hidden facets.

It is always a thrill to see a large mammal such as a black bear or to see a Pileated Woodpecker flying through the trees. But these are occasional gifts the mountains give, at a smaller scale of insects and plants there is a constant flow of life to experience.

Haskell describes the life of a woodland amphibian:

“Like mosses, salamanders thrive on moisture, but salamanders cannot use the mosses’ strategy of drying up and waiting out the days between rains. Instead, they follow cool, humid air like nomads, moving in and out of the soil as the humidity changes. In winter they creep down between rocks and boulders, escaping the freeze and living as troglodytes in the subterranean darkness, up to seven meters belowground. In the spring and autumn they climb back up and ply the leaf litter, pursuing ants, termites, and small flies.”

A key to seeing, I have found, is not to look but to be aware. Noting movement in your peripheral vision can often lead to observations you might have missed. One fall day, I was doing nothing much just outside my mountain house when I noticed movement. When I turned toward what I sensed and looked carefully, I saw a red salamander by the wood pile. The next time I met up with one was quite different: I encountered one inside my house!

Come July, Haskell’s gaze concentrates on fungi:

“Specks of orange, red, and yellow, the sexual buds of fungi, glow from the sodden forest floor. The heat and rain have emboldened the belowground parts of fungi, causing them to sprout their fruiting bodies. The prettiest of this morning’s colorful fungi is a cup fungus perched on a decaying twig. Tangerine orange, shaped like a goblet, and fringed with silver hairs, it is called a shaggy scarlet cup. Although it measures less than an inch across, its color catches my attention, drawing me onto my knees to examine it more closely. Once my eyes are closer to the ground, I see tiny fruiting bodies everywhere, a colorful regatta on a sea of decaying leaves and twigs.”

Some fungi such as shelf fungi can be seen from a distance through the woods; others are tiny and found only by close examination. There are many ways to see fungi. I remember years ago walking in the woods with my cousin and her very young son. She showed him a puffball, gently touching it with her foot to release the puff of spores. He was delighted and proceeded to find fungi all along our walk and then happily stomp on them. We all saw many more fungi than we would have otherwise that day!

jennymushroomphoto

The forest is a mosaic of leaves everywhere and if you look closely insects are everywhere among these leaves. Often you will see not the insects themselves but the signs of them on plants. Holes chewed through the leaf surface; galls growing from branches as if they were a part of the plant; leaves folded carefully by insect larvae slumbering inside. Haskell’s mandala displays these signs amidst its profusion of green:

“The mandala contains insects designed to steal every part of a plant. Flowers, pollen, leaves, roots, sap are all preyed upon by a diverse toolbox of insect mouthparts. Yet the mandala is green. Leaves are a little tattered, but they still dominate the forest. Above, leaves are stacked in layers, blocking my view of the sky; around me shrubs stretch out across the hillside, again hemming in my sight; below, my feet rest in a carpet of saplings and forest herbs. The forest seems to be an herbivore’s heavenly banquet. Why is the mandala not stripped bare? This is a simple question, but is much fought over, and it stirs up controversy among ecologists for good reason. The relationship between herbivores and plants sets the stage for the rest of the forest ecosystem.”

Haskell brings his scientific knowledge to bear on the observations he makes in the forest. He provides many interesting tales of how life forms interact in the mandala. He tells of the role of ants in dispersing the seeds of spring wildflowers. He explains how ferns disperse their own seeds with “botanical catapults” that magnified look like snakes. With a hand lens and one’s nose to the forest floor, such events can be seen unfolding in ways one otherwise would not imagine.

Haskell is a biologist and his is one way of seeing a forest. There are, of course, other ways of seeing. An artist, a poet, a philosopher might see very different things there. Certainly, the Buddhist monks, adept at the concentration needed to create the sand mandala, would view it differently again. Taking a cue from both Haskell and the Buddhist monks, any one of us can glimpse a bit of each of these visions, just by being quietly in the forest.

Haskell notes these differences while making suggestions about how to experience the forest. He suggests borrowing “from the practice of meditation and to repeatedly turn the mind’s attention to the present moment.” And he explains:

“The interior quality of our minds is itself a great teacher of natural history. It is here that we learn that “nature” is not a separate place. We too are animals, primates with a rich ecological and evolutionary context. By our paying attention, this inner animal can be watched at any time…Each of us inhabits a storied mandala with as much complexity as an old-growth forest. Even better, watching ourselves and watching the world are not in opposition; by observing the forest, I have come to see myself more clearly.”

The Forest Unseen is a lovely way to learn of Haskell’s insights and the ways of the forest.

Photo credit: Sand Mandala September 2012 by Pacific Asia Museum on Flickr
Photo credit: Tiny mushrooms by Jenny Powers

Book Review: Darwin’s Other Theory

Cocos Keeling Islands Photo by paulskip on flickr

Cocos Keeling Islands
Photo by paulskip on flickr

By Vicki Linton

Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral by David Dobbs has an unlikely subject for a book marketed to a general audience. More than anything it is about Alexander Agassiz. It caught my attention for that reason, as there are no modern biographies of the son of Louis Agassiz. But if it might be wondered who would care about Louis Agassiz, it’s vastly more doubtful that anyone other than an academic specialist would be interested in Alexander Agassiz. (Why I am interested is another post!)

The book bases its claim for a larger audience on the inclusion of Charles Darwin in its title. And for reasons I will get to, Darwin’s is the most interesting story in the book.

Dobbs explores the conflict between Darwin and Agassiz by following much of the life of Alexander. The conflict was one of ideas; the topic at issue was how coral reefs are formed. Beneath the subject of coral reefs, Dobbs sees a contrast in scientific method between Darwin and the younger Agassiz.

Dobbs’ hypothesis is that Alexander was motivated to find fault with Darwin’s coral reef theory because it was Darwin’s theory of evolution which buried his father Louis’s theories of creationism, leaving the older Agassiz behind as science progressed in the 19th Century.

Most of Alexander Agassiz’s quest to overturn Darwin’s theory of coral reefs occurred after Darwin had died. Agassiz did accept Darwinism and it is not clear from Dobbs’ telling that Alexander’s motivation was to avenge his father.

Dobbs presents the conflict between Darwin and Agassiz as fundamentally about how to do science. In pursuing science, Darwin thought large, using imagination to create an explanation and then searching the evidence to see if the hypothesis would fit the facts.

Against his bold approach, Agassiz was a cautious collector of facts, loathe to build encompassing theories until he had seen for himself enough evidence that he felt he could move toward a comprehensive explanation.

Alexander Agassiz lived out this approach as he tackled the question of how coral reefs formed. He sailed to nearly all the South Pacific islands rimmed by coral reefs and spent days measuring atolls and their surrounding waters, visiting many more islands than Darwin ever did. Darwin, Dobbs says, did most of his thinking about coral reefs in his Down House study, pouring over charts drawn by others.

In fact, as Darwin biographer Janet Browne tells it, Darwin conjured up his theory of coral reef formation six months before he ever saw a coral reef. The theory did not come without observation, however. Darwin was observing and studying geological processes along the South American coast when, during an excursion high into the Andes, he hit upon an explanation for coral reef formation.

Months later Darwin had a brief glimpse of coral reefs in Tahiti. His only close observation came when the Beagle stopped at the Keeling Island atoll while crossing the Indian Ocean on the way home to England. He never saw another reef after that.

Agassiz did not believe a short visit and book study were enough to understand coral reefs. He chartered ships for several months-long trips to the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean to gather the evidence he felt was needed.

Yet all his voyaging and careful observation led to failure. Ultimately science showed that Charles Darwin’s coral reef theory was correct.

And that is the most interesting story of Reef Madness. Darwin briefly visited a few reefs on his Beagle voyage. After he returned home he pondered what he saw and the theory that had come to him in the Andes. Years before he published his theory of evolution, he published this explanation of coral reefs.

Long into the 20th century, the scientific arguments about coral reefs continued. Darwin’s theory maintained adherents but many scientists proposed other ideas. The technology to definitively determine what the correct answer was did not exist.

Until the 1950s. Then scientists were able to drill deep enough into coral reefs to determine that long before, in an era without advanced technology, Darwin had thought up the correct explanation.

Alexander Agassiz was a good and careful scientist. His published work included a massive study classifying the world’s echinoderms (e.g. starfish) that still has value today. But his was not a mind of daring and creative imagination and he was not able to contribute to science at the level of Charles Darwin. And so, like his father Louis, he too has been left behind by science.

Ironically, Louis Agassiz was a big thinker. He intended his creationist ideas to explain all of life. He imagined the evidence fit his views, but it did not. Alexander Agassiz’s caution may have derived from watching Louis’s boldness crumble to nothing. But then when Alexander pursued his careful science, his ideas too were defeated by a big thinker—the same Charles Darwin whose theory had invalidated his father’s.

Oh and if you want to know how coral reefs are formed? You’ll have to read the book.

Lady Bird Johnson’s Love of Wildflowers

lady bird stamps

I received an envelope in the mail from my Cousin. Among its contents was a set of the Lady Bird Johnson stamps created by the Postal Service to commemorate Lady Bird’s Centennial. The stamps memorialize Lady Bird’s beautification programs.

When she was First Lady, Lady Bird was best known for her advocacy for highway beautification. But what I remember is my mother telling me about Lady Bird’s interest in wildflowers. Of course the two things went together as Lady Bird advocated for planting wildflowers and other native plants along our highways.

I found some quotes online that give a sense of how much Lady Bird’s concept of beautification actually encompassed:

“Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas. To me … beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”

She was advocating for the environment in those early days of the environmental movement. And she saw the human spirit entwined with the beauty of the natural environment:

“Every living person and thing responds to beauty. We all thirst for it. We receive strength and renewal by seeing stirring and satisfying sites.”

Wildflowers were one of Lady Bird’s particular passions. My mother talked about that because wildflowers were one of my mother’s passions too. My mother left behind her beautiful paintings of flowers, wild and domestic. Lady Bird left behind the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center whose mission “is to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.”

Years after the Wildflower Center was founded Lady Bird said:

“My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth. I wanted future generations to be able to savor what I had all my life.”

The website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has many resources and pictures. You can access it at http://www.wildflower.org/

Here is one more thought from Lady Bird:

“The environment is where we all meet; where all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”

–Vicki Linton

Nature Study as the Antidote to Ecophobia

Salamander by vastateparksstaff
Salamander, a photo by vastateparksstaff on Flickr.

I’m pondering the term “ecophobia” which I just stumbled across. Ecophobia may be a response to being overloaded with messages about environmental crises.

The ice sheets are melting. The rhinoceros is disappearing. Global warming is becoming unstoppable. We would need two and a half earths if everyone consumed as much as we do in the U.S.A. The rainforests are being cleared. The seas are rising. Act now, act today; tomorrow will be too late.

Enough of this and one may just feel that nature is something scary. And something one does not even want to think about. Children may experience this even more than adults.

According to a paper in the Journal of Natural History Education and Experience, environmental educator David Sobel, who coined the term ecophobia, “suggests that if ecology or environmental education is about students’ responsibilities to prevent impending doom, we may be provoking a form of dissociation. He worries that if children lack positive experiences with nature, they may begin to associate nature with fear.”

The paper, “What Early 20th Century Nature Study Can Teach Us,” provides a brief history of the Nature Study movement that began in the late 19th Century and suggests that it provides a model for learning about nature that can bring young people (of all ages, I would say!) closer to the natural world around them. The lesson of the Nature Study movement is that experiences with local natural history create positive attitudes toward nature rather than leaving individuals feeling hopeless as the endless stream of information on environmental crises may. And hope is necessary for action.

The paper caught my attention since I just wrote about Louis Agassiz’s role in popularizing natural history. The authors, Anthony Lorsbach and Jerry Jinks, note that the book The Nature Study Movement by K.C. Armitage, “argues that nature study actually began in the 1870’s when noted Harvard University zoologist Louis Agassiz created the Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island, Massachusetts. While it is often credited with being the precursor to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and other laboratory field stations, Anderson was actually a field school for teachers—an indicator of Agassiz’s commitment to teachers.”

Like Agassiz, the Nature Study movement advocated hands-on experiences with nature, rather than book study. Brought up-to-date that means favoring tromping out into the woods and turning over logs to find salamanders, rather than turning on the T.V. to watch films about far away places.

There is much more about the Nature Study Movement in the paper which you can find at the following link.

–Vicki Linton