Friday, September 26, 2008

Virginia Naturally

I gave a keynote talk recently at the Virginia Environmental Education Conference. I talked some about the book, what led to writing it, and Carson's sense of wonder: what I take it to mean for environmental education. Carson said it was "as important to know as to feel," and I explained how what I wanted to do was not so much to engage in a sociological explanation, but to transport readers to a specific time and place, an experience, through narrative, so they might be inspired to seek their own journeys, to get their own feet wet, in a sense (I read from "Creek Walking.") Rather than screed, I wanted to give readers story.

After reading from "Field Guides," and Sam's comment, "I want to get a map of this place," I had this to say:
The sense of wonder is the starting place for that map. Carson would encourage us to play in order to develop the emotional foundation, the health and creative energy, that further learning must build on, and that she thought was necessary for later vitality and joy. Most of us had an experience like this, and that’s why we got into the field we did. I meant for my own book to be as much a prompt to adults about incorporating a sense of wonder and playfulness in their own lives as a guide about taking children outdoors.

The other day, while hiking with a friend in the Grayson Highlands, we started discussing “Yahoo” moments (before we had computer browsers), those exclamations of pure joy and what our word was: was it Yeehaa? Yahoo? Whoopee? Do they use the same words in China? And when do these moments happen—when was the last time one happened to us? We concluded that, for us at least, they often happen on mountains, especially running or skiing down one. I describe one moment like this in the essay, “Seven Days,” about hiking to and around Mount Rogers.

One of the things that environmental educators know is that these moments are also often unexpected, spontaneous, they are uncharted and off the map, or the lesson plan. There may be no standardized outcome, as when I took my son’s second grade class out for a walk along the creek and reached down below a platform to grab the containers of salamanders and crayfish I caught that morning and behold, a black rat snake. Everyone remained calm—they thought that was part of the display. “Oh look, he brought a snake.” In an ideal learning environment, the best lessons, there are many points of arrival, in some cases taking the form of a snake, but also many points of departure.

The lesson changed somewhat that day to learning about snakes, and our response. What a sense of wonder most certainly is not is a fear, because fear might have caused someone to go after the snake with shoe or shovel, as they do where I live. I often see fear associated with the New River, where kids have asked if there are water moccasins or crabs or toe-eating bass. Fear turns us away, and is something we have to work to overcome: through education but also what we model: our own enthusiasm and sense of wonder.

The phrase I’ve been thinking a lot about recently in the Carson quote I first read is “sterile preoccupations”—things we get absorbed in without life, things leading to self-importance, or self-absorption. The sense of wonder is an antidote to the view that nature exists only for human means. The ultimate goal of it is that it might impel us to act respectfully toward the world, to give us the understanding that there is worth in these creatures or land or trees or bodies of water beyond human purposes. At the same time, it continually recharges us—it reboots our fire. It gives us the pliancy and vibrancy to fight battles, or sit through long meetings. In Carson’s career, it was the essay she wrote, the crucial bridge, from the scientific observations she made the sea books, to the call to action of Silent Spring.
The phrase it "reboots our fire" came from the story I began with: had the kids out to camp one night before school, and as the fire was dying, the embers fading, she said we needed to "reboot the fire." That same night, one of the campers asked if he could go back to the house to relieve himself. I suggested he go around the corner, and he looked at me like such a thing just isn't done. So I thought of a title for a book: Last Child to Pee in the Woods.

They laughed. Met many fine people there, like Director Ann Regn, doing "EE" for a long time, passionate and committed, and glad to see their issue getting such national attention. Maybe some of them will comment here.

More on one of the folks I met in the next post.

1 comment:

Toni said...

I brought you and your book up in a conversation at a coffee shop about a week ago. Someone brought up Carson and, of course, I had to talk about you and your book.