Monday, December 31, 2012

Learning Bird Language

Arriving at our backyard “sit spot,” Jade and I didn’t have to wait long before the familiar chickadee duo appeared in a nearby thicket and began chirping happily. A male robin patrolling his territory wasn’t far behind, his pulsing crimson breast pumping out a gorgeous melody. Next to emerge, seemingly out of thin air, was a pair of song sparrows, who began a staccato of “seep-seep” calls. “I’m here.” “Yes, I’m here too.”

Suddenly, like a lighting strike, the calm morning was upended. The chickadees flew to a higher branch. All the birds switched to high-pitched alarm calls, echoed by other birds previously unseen. A host of avian eyes peered downward, searching. Somewhere in the underbrush, a predator had arrived . . .

Three years ago, I began work on a book about connecting people with nature. I must confess that, at the beginning, I felt a certain sense of self-satisfaction, convinced that a lifetime of outdoor play, hiking, and camping—including, cumulatively, years spent living in tents in remote places while digging dinosaur fossils—had forged within me a deep bond with nature. But researching this book destroyed that perception. Instead, I found that, like most of us, I was quite oblivious to the natural goings-on around me. Indeed I often impacted these events in negative ways.

My insights came in part from reading about “bird language,” the acquired skill of understanding the meaning of local animals’ calls and movements. Championed by expert naturalist, tracker, and mentor Jon Young, bird language offers a powerful tool to heighten our awareness of, and connection with, nature [1-3]. Throughout almost all of human history, people were fluent in the local dialect of bird language because it was a matter of life and death. A bird’s call might lead you to your next meal, or prevent you from becoming some other animal’s meal. 

Earlier this year, I decided it was time for me to learn bird language, and my ten year-old daughter Jade decided to join in on the fun. Our guide for the journey was Jon Young’s excellent 2012 book, What the Robin Knows [1]. By the end of the first month of regular visits to our backyard sit-spot, Jade and I were beginning to see the neighborhood differently. For one thing, those nameless little feathered creatures chirping in the trees were transforming into distinct species, each with a unique voice and character. Our journals soon included such entries as, “Pair of chickadees singing in thicket to west,” and “Four European starlings sitting in Monterey Pine to the south.” Through diligent awareness (aided by a pair of binoculars and a birding app on my iPhone), we were beginning to see and hear more.

Although birds are nearly ubiquitous outdoors, rarely do we stop and consider what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it in that spot and not another. Because we’ve forgotten what it’s like to hunt or be hunted, our implicit assumption is that birds are a lot like us, moving about almost randomly. But for most animals, predator and prey, random behavior offers a fast track to premature death. If you’re a North American songbird, predators come in various shapes and sizes, and threaten from multiple directions. Foxes and cats prowl the ground. Raccoons and ravens raid nests in trees. Hawks and owls attack from the air. Most feared of all, it seems, are accipters like the Cooper’s hawk, a common but rarely seen assassin befitting the title, “Death from Above.” Cooper’s hawks are experts at killing birds on the wing, diving fearlessly into trees and thickets.

No surprise then that most birds have small territories that they know intimately, and tend to follow the same paths through these spaces. Along with understanding local geography, those robins, wrens, and ravens are fluent in bird language. Always vigilant, they listen continually for alarm calls, and not just from their own kind. A robin will react to the alarm of a song sparrow and vice versa. For the same reason, squirrels and rabbits know bird language too. The end result is a vast web of awareness that generates a local, ever-shifting “mood.” If the mood is relaxed, “baseline” behaviors such as feeding and song dominate. If things turn tense, alarms will sound, silence may ensue, and animals often flee. Although we tend to ignore our neighborhood avians, it turns out that the birds know us, and our pets. Why? Because it’s a matter of life and death. Local birds even react in predictable ways to our behaviors. We simply fail to notice.

But Jade and I are starting to take note. We’ve learned that the way we walk to our sit spot—slow and relaxed instead of hurried—can greatly reduce the time it takes for the birds to resume their baseline behavior. The biggest challenge in becoming adept at bird language, we found, is getting to know this baseline for a variety of local birds. Each species uses several different vocalizations, from melodious songs and subtle companion calls to boisterous territorial squawking and, in the case of hungry babies, impatient screams. Only by gaining firsthand understanding of this background behavior can one begin to detect disturbances that might indicate a predator’s presence.

Yet, even with just a few weeks practice under our belts, Jade and I found our awareness expanding, and with it our sense of appreciation and even empathy. When familiar birds are absent during our sit-spot sessions, we wonder what they’re up to. And we find ourselves slowing down more often as we enter and exited the house, listening for signs of the neighborhood “mood.” Wildness just outside the front door is helping us deepen our bond with nature. These interactions, I have come to realize, are essential to nature connection. If we are going to foster in our children (and ourselves) that all-important sense of internal wildness, we must first have abundant experience of external wildness.

Jade and I are looking forward to becoming more fluent in bird language in the coming year, and using these new skills to identify and actually catch sight of local predators.

What will you do in 2013 to connect yourself and others with nature?

Notes and References
1. Young, Jon. 2012. What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
2. Young, J., E. Haas, and E. McGown. Coyote’s Guide To Connecting With Nature, Second Edition.   OWLink Media, Shelton, WA.

Image Credits (top to bottom)
1) Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve
2) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Falling in Love With Nature

Yesterday, I discovered a remarkable TED talk by David Roberts. Roberts is a blogger who writes about energy and politics for Grist. His aim in this 15-minute presentation, remixed with music and extra imagery, is to summarize and simplify the science of climate change. Just the facts ma’am. Now, I study fossils, not climate, so I’m not on a first-name basis with all the relevant data. Yet, given my understanding of current climatological consensus, Roberts has his facts straight.

His core message is, to put it bluntly, terrifying. On our present trajectory (“business as usual”), the forecast for the end of this century is at least a 4-degree Celsius increase in global temperature, generating rampant coastal flooding, inland desertification, and human suffering on a vast, unfathomable scale. A couple of centuries after that, we may be facing a scorched Earth, unlivable for humans in many regions.

For me, the exactness of such projected increases in global temperatures, habitat loss, and species extinctions is not the issue. If you accept the scientific method as valid, and respect the strong consensus of the world’s top scientists, we’re on the fast-track to Hades, with less than a generation to make a major course correction.

This, of course, is not exactly breaking news. For the past few decades, scientists and environmentalists have been telling whoever would listen that we must change our ways and strike a balance with nature, or face catastrophic consequences. I myself have often participated in this echo chamber, doling out dire statistics in hopes of engaging people in action. The unspoken assumption has been that cold, hard facts, the kind the Roberts offers us, are all that’s needed for people to “get it” and alter their unsustainable ways.

The problem is, humans aren’t rational creatures. At least, not when it comes to shifting their behavior. If you doubt this claim, look at the tactics used by the true experts in behavior modification.

Marketing executives have long understood that humans respond to emotional messages, especially through imagery. Want to persuade a lot of people to buy a new car? Beautiful, scantily clad bodies in pristine natural settings are far more powerful motivators than horsepower or fuel efficiency statistics. So what’s the emotion we need to foster if we’re to shift human behaviors in the direction of sustainability? In a word, love.

As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould once claimed [1], “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” The good news is that, thanks to a lengthy evolutionary tenure living in intimate contact with the nonhuman world, the capacity to fall in love with nature lays dormant within all of us, waiting to be reawakened [2]. Embracing this emotional need, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently launched a “Love, Not Loss” campaign [3], arguing that we must replace the standard doom-and-gloom message with one of love. (Check out their powerful video here.) Our goal, they say, must be to help humanity to once again fall in love with nature. I could not agree more.

And the best time to initiate this love affair? Childhood.

Today, few kids escape the frightening barrage of bad eco-news, frequently learning about our rampant environmental destruction early in elementary school. And the stunning images they see—polar bears standing on shrinking chunks of ice; Amazon rainforest leveled under a mechanized onslaught—too often generate fear rather than love, numbness rather than action. Here I concur with David Sobel [4], who argues that, when it comes to education, there should be no disasters before fourth grade.

So how do we turn things around and help people fall in love with nature? Well, a growing mountain of evidence suggests that the best place to start is wherever you happen to be—that is, your local place. Plenty of firsthand, multisensory experience, together with a healthy dose of wonder, are essential ingredients, especially for children. Learning about the history and workings of your local environs are also critical.

In contrast with traditional approaches, place-based learning is all about hands-on, inquiry-driven, often outdoor activities [4, 5]. Going beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries like math and social studies, emphasis is placed on integrative projects that transform communities into classrooms.

Far from being parochial, learning in place simply begins in local landscapes and migrates outward. Better to understand that nearby oak or fir forest before trying to comprehend (let alone care about) the Amazon rainforest. Many are surprised to learn that a place-based approach to learning fosters not only a stronger connection with local nature, but heightened academic performance across the board. And it isn’t just for schoolteachers. To fully take root, parents, caregivers, and informal educators must embrace this revolutionary approach.

In short, falling in love with nature begins at home, preferably as children, in our local communities, inspired by wonder. A strong sense of place rooted in emotional connection reveals the beauty of the natural world, the truth of our embeddedness within nature, and the goodness inherent in caring for one’s home ground. It provides the foundation for Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Don’t misunderstand me. If we are to navigate a sustainable path out of our current predicament, we have to be honest with ourselves and learn the facts, difficult though they may be. And we are going to need all the technological help we can get along the way. Yet knowledge and technology without emotional connection are simply not going to be enough. That’s why helping children fall in love with nature deserves to be an urgent international priority, on par with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving species and wild places.

1.    Gould, S. J. 1993. Unenchanted evening. Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History. Norton, New York. Quotation from p. 40.
2.   Sampson, S. D. 2012. The topophilia hypothesis: Ecopsychology meets evolutionary psychology. Pp. 23-53 in P. H. Kahn and P. H. Hasbach (eds.), Ecopsychology: Science Totems, and the Technological Species. MIT Press, Boston.
4.   Sobel, D. 2004. Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities. Orion Society, Barrington, MA.
5.    Sobel, D. 2008. Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. Stenhouse, Portland, Maine.

Image Sources (from top to bottom)

Monday, October 29, 2012

More Monumental Discoveries

Three collaborative field teams—all part of the Kaiparowits Basin Project—have just wrapped up their 2012 explorations in the wilds of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), southern Utah. The trio of paleontology crews, all working in rocks of Upper Cretaceous age, came from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU), and from the Monument itself. The results? More dinosaurs. More crocs. More plants. And plenty of other amazing Late Cretaceous fossils to add to the ancient treasures unearthed over the past dozen years [1].

The GSENM crew, led by Monument Paleontologist Alan Titus, had another spectacular year of discoveries, including an ankylosaur skull with partial skeleton from the Wahweap Formation, and a variety Kaiparowits Formation finds, including multiple duck-billed dinosaurs (aka hadrosaurs). The NHMU crew, under Mike Getty's guidance, spent most of the fall working on a pair of Alan’s hadrosaur discoveries. One of these has abundant skin impressions that seem to differ from anything we’ve seen thus far. The other includes a well preserved skull.

The Kaiparowits badlands of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Alan and his crew also excavated yet another skull and partial skeleton of Parasaurolophus in 2012. We now have on the order of six Parasaurolophus skulls from the Monument, by far the largest collection of this tube-crested duckbill known anywhere. At the end of the season, the Utah crew tried to get into a more remote site to work on an exceptionally preserved lambeosaur skeleton (perhaps another Parasaurolophus), but torrential rains forced the crew to abandon the field area. Nevertheless, collaborator and head hadrosaur researcher David Evans (whom I visited at the Royal Ontario Museum just last week) is very excited by the sheer bounty of great fossils emerging from GSENM.     

After giving a talk at the Escalante Arts Festival on September 28th (and seeing Alan Titus’ sensational cover band “Mesozoic” rock the house the following day), I spent some time working with the Denver field crew. The DMNS camp included interns, museum staff, and plenty of enthusiastic volunteers, all capably led by paleobotanist Ian Miller and vertebrate paleontologist Joe Sertich. They too had more fossils than they could handle.

At one extensive leaf locality, Ian directed a large-scale census, documenting over 1000 specimens. Meanwhile, Gussie, one of the DMNS interns, checked every leaf for insect damage, collecting dozens of examples for subsequent research. Although no body fossils of insects have been discovered in the Kaiparowits Formation, Gussie’s study of the different damage types on leaves should give us some sense of the insect diversity that lived alongside these Cretaceous dinosaurs. As a devoted “dinosaur guy,” I learned a lot splitting rocks in a leaf quarry. And I had to admit, with the rapid pace of fossil discovery (one every few minutes or so), paleobotany quarrying can be addictive!

 A Fossil Leaf Quarry

While half the crew dug leaves, the other half dug bones. Two hadrosaur quarries about 50 feet apart took the bulk of the effort. Like many of our best specimens, one of these is preserved in concrete-like sandstone, requiring abundant use of a rock saw just to get down to the bone layer. Some of the fossils will require a helicopter airlift, but for this fall we were able to haul out a number of specimens in backpacks and on a stretcher. (Yes, it's seems a little odd to "rescue" a long extinct dinosaur—piece by piece—from the badlands using a stretcher, but it works.) Together with my long time friend Dale Penner, I also checked out a promising new crocodile site. We excavated just enough to demonstrate that this locality (found by Joe) has great potential.

Ian (background) and Gussie (foreground) looking for insect damage 

After I departed, Ian and crew returned to a leaf site in a southern pocket of the Kaiparowits that we’ve dubbed “the Lost Valley.” The name derives from the remoteness of this place as well as the fact that it is “guarded” by sheer cliff walls on all sides. At this Lost Valley quarry, the DMNS crew uncovered many beautiful fossilized leaves, cones, and flowers, including plenty of previously unseen varieties. Thanks to the abundance and preservation of these plant parts, as well as the way the shale fractures into large chunks (preserving whole leaves), Ian is convinced that this is one of the best Mesozoic plant sites he’s ever seen!

Joe Sertich doing a little rocksawing

Not far away, Joe Sertich and crew worked on a newly discovered site with ceratopsian skull, vertebrae, and limb bones that may belong to the 15 horned wonder known as Kosmoceratops. While working the quarry, one of the volunteers, actor-photographer-weatherman-and-all-round-good-guy Billy Doran walked to the other side of the same hill and found more ceratopsian bones, including skull parts from a much bigger animal eroding out of the hill at what appears to be the same layer. If so, this site may just represent one of the first horned dinosaur “bonebeds” that we’ve found in GSENM. These sites, some of which contain dozens of individuals in formations up north in Alberta and Montana, have thus far been rare to nonexistent in Grand Staircase, so we will be excited to dig in again next spring!

Carrying dinosaur bones from the badlands on a stretcher

Finally, although we have found plenty of dinosaur eggshell fragments, and even the occasional large piece of fossilized egg, so far the dinosaur nests have eluded us in GSENM. Till now anyway. Joe just informed me today that his group came across a possible nesting horizon, with many big chunks of shell along with tiny bones and teeth that could well be embryonic. However, like the Utah crew, the Denver team was forced to escape before the big rains hit (or, more accurately, while they were hitting), so this is another site that we will have to wait until next year. So stay tuned for more updates!

1. Sampson, S. D. 2012. Dinosaurs of the Lost Continent. Scientific American, March, 2012: 40-47.

All photos taken by the author while in the field, September and October, 2012.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dear Rachel

September 27, 2012

Dear Rachel,

Fifty years ago to this very day—September 27, 1962—your world-changing book Silent Spring was first published. Though you did not live to see the full revolution that ensued, rest assured that the book’s impact has been immense: the environmental movement, Environmental Protection Agency, banning of various pesticides, Earth Day,  . . . on and on.

It’s not surprising, then, that for most people, the name Rachel Carson still brings to mind an ardent activist bravely confronting chemical companies in defense of human and environmental health.

Yet others, including me, think of you differently: poet, beach walker, scientist, lover of nature (sea creatures in particular), and someone with a deep passion for connecting children with the natural world. Oh how I wish you had been given the time to write your “wonder book,” as you affectionately called it. Instead, I must delve time and again into your essay, “Help Your Child to Wonder,” reading about that stormy night when you ventured down to the seashore with your baby nephew Roger to witness the booming surf. I am still struck by the clarity and verity of your vision; give children abundant outdoor experience in wild places together with at least one adult mentor to share the journey.

I was a year old when Silent Spring came out, and only three when breast cancer prematurely ended your life. One decade later in 1974, my father was taken, also by cancer while in his mid-50’s. It is a terrible irony that those chemical pollutants you documented so carefully, wrote about so eloquently, and rallied against so fiercely may have been responsible for cutting short your time with us. On this auspicious day, we celebrate your life and mourn your departure.

Rachel, though I am far removed from your esteemed standing, I think it fair to say that we have some things in common. I too am a biologist and a science communicator. I too possess a lifelong passion for nature, and oceans in particular, having spent most of my five decades in close proximity to one coast or another. And I too am passionate about connecting children with nature. Indeed nature connection has become the focus of my professional life and, thanks to my daughter Jade, a wonderful part of my personal life as well. 

But I have a confession. I’ve felt haunted by your spirit.

The decades since your death have witnessed an utter transformation in childhood—in the wrong direction. Here in the early 21st Century, North American children are lucky to spend a few scant minutes outside each day, on the order of 90% less than their parents did. Indoors, reality has been replaced by virtual substitutes, with youngsters succumbing en masse to the siren call of glowing screens housed in powerful, often hand-held gadgets. Together with rampant rates of obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression, this indoor migration has left us with a gaping chasm between children and nature, critically endangering the health of both.

Sometimes as I’ve paused to gaze out the window, or walked to the kitchen for another cup of tea, I have felt your melancholy presence, saddened over the state of the world and our failures in nurturing the children-nature bond. Lacking substantial signs of progress, I’ve been unable to face you directly.

To be fair, there have been a number of bright spots along the way. Brightest of them all, perhaps, is another book, Last Child in the Woods, a 2006 bestseller penned by journalist Richard Louv. In this well-researched volume, Louv spotlighted the dangers of our current alienation from nature—what he termed “nature deficit disorder”—as well as the many health benefits of nature connection. Perhaps for the first time since Silent Spring, a book became the vital seed for a new environmental movement, this one focused on children.

Under the care and attention of grassroots supporters led by the non-profit Children and Nature Network, this seed has taken root and sent shoots skyward. Nevertheless, until recently it seemed that the tender seedling could succumb at any moment, overheated by the warming air or simply crushed by the technology gargantuan.

Then, in 2012, by coincidence a half-century after Silent Spring’s debut, the “new nature movement,” as it has been dubbed, suddenly matured into a robust, thriving sapling. This unexpected growth, speeded by nutrients from many quarters, has emboldened me to fill you in on recent events.

In 2011 and 2012 alone, the new nature movement has witnessed the following:

  • The Children and Nature Network documents more than 100 regional campaigns and 130 family nature clubs in over 80 regions around North America, reaching over 3 million children per year.
  • Several research compendiums of peer-reviewed studies are released, including the “Children and Nature Worldwide Summary of Research,” documenting a global spike in nature deficit disorder, as well as critical reasons to connect children with nature.
  • The Walt Disney Company, through their Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, honors five organizations for their work in connecting children with nature, giving each a grant of $100,000.
  •  President Barack Obama (an African American President!) launches the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, with the vision of connecting all Americans to the natural heritage of this country.
  • The U.S. Forest Service commits $1 million to getting kids outdoors around the country.
  • The federal America’s Great Outdoors and Forest Service initiatives are backed by various state level programs—including the Rocky Mountain Greenway project in Colorado and Twin Cities Parks project in Minnesota—aimed at connecting urban populations to local nature.
  • The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) adopts a resolution stating that every child has “the inherent right to connect with nature in a meaningful way, as a substantial part of his or her everyday life and healthy development, and to enjoy, maintain, and strengthen this connection through the direct and ongoing experience of nature.”   
  • Conservation leaders from around the world at the 2012 IUCN meeting sign the “Jeju Declaration,” resolving to work collectively through a new global campaign aimed at connecting people with nature through national parks and protected areas.

As if all this weren’t enough, in August I attended the 2012 Children and Nature Grassroots Gathering, which took place at the verdant National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. While staying several nights in a lodge named in your honor, I listened to over 100 committed people from the US, Canada, and Australia speak about their efforts to connect children with nature. David Room told us of his “Pacha’s Pajamas” project, which combines music, media, and celebrities to create a “cool” fictional story aimed at inspiring kids to get outdoors. Betsy Townsend spoke of her remarkable Cincinnati-based efforts to coordinate organizations and demonstrate the essential human health benefits of nature. Rue Mapp, Brother Yusuf Burgess, and Juan Martinez all spoke eloquently about connecting at-risk urban youth with nature. Martinez, born and raised in south central LA, did not even experience nature until his teen years; today he is a spokesperson for the Sierra Club and an outdoor company called North Face; he’s also a National Geographic Explorer and directs the Natural Leaders program of the Children and Nature Network. Together, all of these individuals convinced me that the new nature movement is ready to transcend its largely white, affluent base to become a truly diverse, global revolution.

Finally, I know you’ll appreciate hearing that your message of awe and wonder is finally beginning to sink in. More and more, people are realizing that the standard gloom and doom approach (focused on warming climates, disappearing habitats, and vanishing species) does not engage kids or adults. Instead there is growing awareness that a sustainable path into the future demands that we talk about love, about nurturing the emotional bond between kids and nature so that it becomes an invincible force capable of upending cultural norms. Why will people care for the places they live? Not because they have to, but because they want to. As the new IUCN campaign aptly states, “It’s about love. Not loss.” As you have long reminded us, our job is not so much to inform, but to inspire a love affair between people and nature. Now there’s a joyous task!

Rachel, I’m happy to say that, for the first time, I no longer sense the haunting of your spirit. These days, despite a host of frightening indicators, I find myself truly hopeful. A burgeoning passion for connecting people with nature seems to be “in the air.” Much remains to be done, of course, and we still need to discover ways to rapidly scale current efforts. Yet, by following the pathway of awe and wonder, I see a real possibility that the new nature movement will mature from its current sapling into a stout arbor, with shade aplenty for a harried species.

Yesterday morning, as I walked along the beach, tasting the salty morning air and inhaling the surf’s ebb and flow, I felt you walking by my side, an encouraging smile upon your face, cheering me on.

Thank you so much for all you’ve done, and all that your legacy continues to do. We will continue to work to live up to it.

With Much Love,

Scott Sampson

Thursday, August 30, 2012

In Defense of Wildness

When people think of nature, too often the only images that come to mind are distant, expansive places like Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon, or even more remote wilderness like Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is a grave mistake. Viewed through the wildlands lens, nature is something you might visit at best a couple of times a year while on vacation. Yet nature is everywhere—in our backyards, schoolyards, and gardens, thrusting skyward through sidewalk cracks and chirping in the neighbor’s tree. Indeed nature is quite literally everything, from stars and galaxies to planet Earth and the stuff in you. As Henry David Thoreau once said:

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador a greater wildness than in some recess of Concord.”

If we’re going to connect children (and ourselves) with nature, we must learn, as Thoreau did, to experience the natural world often, and with our full suite of senses. But what kind of nature do we need?

The human experience of nature can be divided into three commonsense categories: wild, domestic, and technological. By wild nature, I refer simply to organisms and natural environments outside direct human control, from backyard birds to vast wilderness areas. Domestic nature, in contrast, is human-controlled—vegetable gardens and tree-lined streets, organic farms and urban parks. In this sense, your indoor potted plant and pet dog can be thought of as nature. Finally, technological nature is any human-produced facsimile of the natural world, from photographs and paintings to natural history exhibitions and documentaries viewed on plasma screen TVs. As portrayals of nature rapidly expand both in variety and quality, people are interacting with stunning simulations, sometimes in high definition 3-D. So it’s important to consider such virtual experiences as well.

Boundaries distinguishing the members of this trio can be hard to define. Whether one calls an urban park wild or domestic depends on a number of subjective measures. Certainly many creatures inhabiting these parks are wild, living outside direct human control. The boundary between domestic and artificial nature becomes equally blurry when we think, for example, about looking through a telescope at a distant galaxy, or even experiencing nature through a window. Yet my concern is less with defining divisions and more about which of these broad categories we need most, and in what amount, to establish a meaningful connection with nature. This issue becomes all the more pressing as wild nature is rapidly replaced—both in actual abundance and human experience—by domestic and artificial alternatives. 

My friend Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has spent his career examining human interactions with the natural world, including technological nature [1]. One of his studies investigated the effects of nature images displayed on giant plasma screens in windowless offices. Adult occupants reported that, while they found the digital versions soothing, they strongly preferred firsthand nature experiences. Another experiment examined responses of young children to robotic dogs versus living canines. Once again, while kids enjoyed the artificial versions, they strongly preferred the real thing.

These studies and many others indicate that real nature—both domestic and wild—is far superior to technological nature when it comes to evoking emotional responses and sense of connection in adults and children. Some might counter this claim by pointing to the blistering pace of technological innovation. Granted, one day innovative engineers may harness replicated matter, force fields, and tractor beams to generate hyper-real artificial environments akin to those of Star Trek’s “holodeck.” Meanwhile, Kahn’s compelling conclusion is that technological nature experiences will be impoverished relative to the real deal.

This finding is backed by recent research showing that unstructured play in outdoor natural settings is essential for children’s healthy growth [2]. Compared to kids confined indoors, children who regularly play outside show heightened motor control—including balance, coordination, and agility [3]. They score higher on tests of self-discipline, and tend to engage more in imaginative and creative play, which in turn fosters language, abstract reasoning, and problem-solving skills, together with a sense of wonder [4]. Nature play is superior at engendering a sense of self and a sense of place, allowing children to recognize both their independence and interdependence. Play in outdoor settings also exceeds indoor alternatives in fostering cognitive, emotional, and moral development. And individuals who spend abundant time playing outdoors as children are more likely to grow up with a strong attachment to place and an environmental ethic. When asked to identify the most significant environment of their childhoods, 96.5% of a large sample of adults named an outdoor environment [5].

Why is outdoor nature play so powerful? For one thing, it offers a multisensory smorgasbord of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, immersing children in a much grander world than can ever be captured indoors, even on a computer screen. For another, natural playspaces tend to be complex, with a much greater variety of unspecified props (rocks, sticks, mud, plants, etc.) than indoor counterparts, so they stimulate more creativity and imagination. Then there’s that all-important sense of wildness, complete with birds, insects, and various creepy-crawlies, as well as the potential to create special places away from prying adult eyes.

We desperately need more research into the physiological, cognitive, and emotional effects of nature, especially the long-term impact of nature on childhood development. At present, it’s impossible to state with any exactness the ideal mix of wild, domestic, and technological nature necessary to forge a lasting nature connection in 21st Century children. Yet research insights and anecdotal reports help us rule out certain alternatives. For example, exposure to technological nature alone—from Lion King to Shark Week—isn’t going to foster emotional bonds with nonhuman world. Similarly, domestic nature by itself likely won’t cut it either. Even for the (now rare breed of) child who grows up on a farm with plenty of time spent outdoors, a deep connection with nature is unlikely without regular time immersed in some sort of wildness.

To be clear, I’m not denying that domestic and technological nature have important roles to play in fostering nature connection. They certainly do, and we need to utilize the unique assets of each, including such amazing tools as museum exhibitions and school gardens. Nevertheless, in contrast to these alternatives, wild nature seems to be an essential ingredient. When Louise Chawla of the University of Colorado asked a group of environmentalists to summarize the reasons behind their career choice, most identified two factors: “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature” [6]. Another study of 2000 urban adults from across the US, ranging in age from 18 to 90, similarly found that experiences playing in wild nature prior to age 11 were particularly critical in shaping both environmental behaviors and attitudes during adulthood [7].

The importance of wildness should come as no surprise, given that the human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in intimate contact with wild nature. And let’s face it—healthy relationships depend on recognizing and nurturing the autonomy of both partners. If we are to foster human-nature bonds, we must experience nature on its own terms, outside human control. On the flip side, daily, weekly, or monthly time spent in wilderness is neither practical nor necessary to forge a persistent nature connection. What children require is day-after-day, week-after-week exposure to some sort of nearby wild nature.

“But hold on,” I can almost hear you objecting, “what about the hundreds of millions of us who live in cities? Where are we going to find wild nature?” This question underscores a critical point. Like beauty, wildness is in the eye of the beholder. A child’s perception of wildness changes dramatically with age and life experience. A backyard or empty lot with bushes, bugs, and an abundance of dirt, while ho-hum to most adults, can be plenty wild for a young child. Kids in this early childhood phase instinctively focus on the immediate—flowers and earthworms rather than forests and mountain vistas. For children in middle childhood, a walk up a rocky creek flanked with trees is a wild adventure, whereas adolescents require more expansive natural places, including occasional wilderness excursions.

In future posts, I’ll delve deeper into the shifting target of wildness. For now, let me wrap things up by summarizing a major challenge now before us. If kids are to have those all-important, everyday experiences with nearby wild nature, we will have to re-nature—or, perhaps more accurately, "re-wild"the places we call home, from backyards and schoolyards to city streets and button parks [8]. It's time for a "Go Wild" revolution!

Notes and References
1. Kahn, P. H. Jr. 2011. Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
2. Kellert, S. R. 2002. Experiencing nature: Affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children. Pp. 117-152 in P. H. Kahn Jr. and S. R. Kellert (eds.), Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA; Lester, S. and M. Maudsley. 2006. Play, naturally. A review of children’s natural play. Children’s Play Council, Volume 3,; Munoz, S. A. 2009. Children in the outdoors: A literature review. Sustainable Development Research Centre, Volume 4,; Hughes, B. 2012. Evolutionary Playwork. Routledge, London.
3. Fjortoft, I. 2001. The Natural Environment as a Playground for Children: The Impact of Outdoor Play Activities in Pre-Primary School Children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(2):111-117.
4. Cobb, E. 1977. The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, New York, Columbia University Press; Taylor, A.F., A. Wiley, F. E. Kuo and W. C. Sullivan. 1998. Growing up in the inner city: Green spaces as places to grow. Environment and Behavior, 30(1): 3-27.
5. Sebba, R. 1991. The landscapes of childhood: The reflections of childhood’s environment in adult memories and in children’s attitudes. Environment and Behavior, 23(4): 395-422.
6. Chawla, L. 1999. Life paths into effective environmental action. Journal of Environmental Education, 31(1):15-26.
7. Wells, N. M. and K. S. Lekies. 2006. Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children, Youth and Environments, 16(1):1-25.
8. Louv, R. 2011. The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin, New York; Finch, K. 2012. Nature Play as an Everyday Joy of Childhood? For Kids, Frequency Requires Proximity. C&NN Natural Families Network; Finch, K. 2010. “A Parents’ Guide to Nature Play” from Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood:  

Image Credits (top to bottom)
Image 1 & 2, Author
Image 3:
Image 4: 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mothers All the Way Down

Not long ago, I stood with my nine-year old daughter Jade on a rocky knoll over the ocean near our home. Minutes earlier, the sun’s orange disk had slipped below the horizon. In the distance, San Francisco began to glow. Much further away, starlit pinpoints began poking through the darkening dome overhead. We watched a clan of turkey vultures execute spiraling descents before settling for the night in a eucalyptus tree. As we began our own short descent toward home, it seemed as good a time as any to tell Jade the Universe Story, that grand saga of everything. 

This story, perhaps science's greatest contribution, is all but absent from our culture. As a result, a major proportion of people in the industrialized world live without any cosmology to root them to the earth, to the rest of humanity, and to the place they call home. With the exception of Montessori schools, even our education system has ignored this epic tale. As the all-encompassing story of us, the Universe Story deserves to be center stage in homes and classrooms around the country. What most folks don't realize is that the story of everything can be told anywhere, in an hour or less. Every place has the makings for a simple, yet dynamic retelling. And home turf is often best. 

I began with a flourish. “Once upon a time 14 billion years ago, the universe was born in a humongous explosion called the Big Bang. At the moment of its birth, the entire universe was super-hot—trillions of degrees—and crammed into the tiniest of spaces, far smaller than a speck of dust.” (For effect, I revealed a grain of sand held in my palm.) “Zooming into existence, the universe cooled as it expanded, starting off as a simple place with no stars, no planets, and no life.

“Stars came first, born from sprawling clouds of hydrogen gas. The pull of gravity caused parts of these clouds to collapse into giant balls. As they shrank smaller and smaller, these hydrogen balls grew hotter and hotter until, suddenly, their cores burst into flames and began to burn incredibly bright. What had once been a simple cloud of gas now held thousands of glowing suns. These newborn stars gathered with others in huge, spiraling cities of stars called galaxies, each one with billions of suns. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, looks to us like a thin veil of light crossing the night sky. But point a telescope at that veil and you’ll find that it’s jam-packed with stars.

“Although stars are pretty simple—just enormous balls of hot gas—they share a lot in common with people. They’re born, have lifetimes, and die. They come in different sizes and, like you, go through many changes as they age. A major difference between stars and people, though, is how they die. Truly gigantic stars go out with a bang, exploding in monstrous events called supernovas. A single supernova can outshine all the other billions of stars in its home galaxy! Astronomers have discovered these exploding stars in distant galaxies, but the last one seen in the Milky Way was over four hundred years ago, just before the first telescope was invented. So stargazers on Earth are waiting excitedly for the next supernova in our little corner of the cosmos.”

I stooped to pick up a hunk of sandstone, handed it to Jade, and continued.

“Deep inside the cores of those very first stars, all that burning transformed hydrogen into heavier and heavier bits of stuff, like helium, carbon, oxygen, and iron. When giant stars exploded as supernovas, all of this heavy matter cooked up inside their cores was blown out into surrounding space, creating more clouds of gas and dust. Rumbling shock waves from later supernovas then triggered the collapse of these wispy clouds into new stars.

The leftover heavy stuff swirling around newborn suns became families of planets. Our sun was one of those later stars, born with eight circling planets—from little, rocky worlds like Earth and Mars to gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Billions of other solar systems are traveling around other stars in the Milky Way, and in other galaxies. So the stars gave birth to the planets. And all the stuff that makes up planets—from that rock in your hand to the entire Earth—was created inside a burning star.”

Jade’s eyes widened and she handled the chunk of stardust gingerly, as if it might still be hot.

“When Earth was born, it was red-hot, bubbling with molten lava. There was no life back then. Not even any land or oceans. Over millions of years, the surface cooled and formed a thin crust. Think of a hot apple pie, and you’ll get the idea. Earth’s rocky crust split into enormous chunks that moved around, bumping into each other. You and I are standing on the Marin Headlands, made mostly of rocks that formed underwater during the Age of Dinosaurs. But this particular slab of Earth’s crust, including that rock you’re holding, started way down south near the equator. Over millions of years, the land crawled slowly northward, traveling about the same speed as your fingernails grow. Eventually, it crunched into North America down near Mexico and was shoved northward, setting off earthquakes as it inched its way up to where we are today, near San Francisco Bay.”

 Jade grasped the rock tightly and whispered, “Coooool.” Upon reaching the beach, we trod barefoot into the surf, the icy vestiges of waves dancing across our legs and feet. Stooping to gather a cupped handful of seawater, I said, “How many living things do you think I’m holding?”

“Millions,” she guessed.

“Hundreds of millions,” I replied slowly. “The oceans are overflowing with tiny bits of life.”

Jade scooped up her own watery sample, staring intently in hopes of glimpsing the bacterial bounty.

“Life got its start here in the sea,” I continued, “made from stuff in Earth’s crust. The earliest kinds of life were bacteria, each one made of a single cell. And believe it or not, for most of the past four billion years, all life on Earth has been one-celled and microscopic. But those early bacteria were amazing. They learned how to do things like breathe oxygen and grab energy from the sun.”

From amongst the flotsam and jetsam, I grabbed something long and whip-like.

“Hundreds of millions of years later, some of the sunlight-eating bacteria began to merge with each other, becoming creatures with many cells. Their descendents gave rise to seaweed like this bull kelp, and also to land plants.”

We continued down the beach, with Jade clutching her rock in one hand and now dragging the bull kelp with the other. After crossing a creek, we paused to visit some familiar neighbors at the junction of land, sea, and air. Unable to discern much in the gathering darkness, I encouraged Jade to gently feel the bevy of rock-clinging critters: thickly ridged shells of blue muscles, granular arms of ochre sea stars, leathery “necks” of goose barnacles, and tiny swirls of checkered periwinkles. The squishy stickiness of a giant green anemone elicited a delighted scream. Amidst the din of breaking waves we could hear the scurryings of rock crabs.

“Alongside the sunlight-catchers, other kinds of life learned to feed on the sun’s energy by eating each other. These were ancient ancestors that would one day give birth to animals, including the sea stars, muscles, and barnacles on these rocks. Fishes appeared early on too, becoming top predators in the seas. The great white sharks out at the Farallon Islands, and the Coho salmon that struggle up Redwood Creek each year, are direct descendents of those primitive fishes. Eventually, a few ancient fishes found their way onto the land, first transforming into amphibians and much later into reptiles. Some of those scaly reptiles became dinosaurs that stomped around right here on the coast of North America. A few of those dinosaurs sprouted feathers, and then wings, reinventing themselves as birds like those turkey vultures we saw awhile ago.”

I settled on a chunk of driftwood and Jade immediately clambered onto my lap. We were nearing the story’s end.

“When people first arrived here around 15,000 years ago, the place resembled the Serengeti of Africa today, with lots of huge herbivores. Mammoth, mastodon, giant ground sloth, horses, camels, and bison all roamed along this coast. There were plenty of big carnivores too: American lions, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, and giant short-faced bears. It was the Ice Age, a very cold time when so much water was locked up in ice that the oceans shrunk and sea levels dropped. Back then, the land between where we’re sitting and the Farallon Islands, more than 20 miles away, became a grassy plain jam-packed with animals. Imagine being able to walk from here to the Farallons, keeping a watchful eye out for elephants and saber-toothed cats!

“Sometime after those big mammals went extinct and the oceans grew bigger again, humans arrived, including the Coast Miwok people. They lived here for thousands of years, sharing the oak forests and grasslands with wolves, grizzly bear, and soaring condors. The Miwok hunted mule deer, fished for salmon, ground up acorns, and made woven baskets. When Europeans first arrived about 200 years ago, people from Portugal decided to settle in this beautiful spot where they could catch salmon and farm the land. Today, you and I are fortunate to share this place with bobcats, skunks, and red-tailed hawks. Many others will come after us.”

Approaching the lights of home, I knelt and looked Jade in the eye.

“The real secret of this story is that the universe’s journey is your journey. Your Mom wasn’t the only one responsible for your birth. It was your grandmother, and, before that, your great grandmother and great great grandmother. It was the long, unbroken chain of mammal mothers, reptile mothers, and amphibian mothers. We also owe deep thanks to our fish mothers and the countless other sea creatures and bacteria that gave rise to them even further back in time. Earth Mother gave birth to the first life, and the Great Cosmic Mother birthed the first stars. So you see, in the cosmic family tree, from the tips of the topmost branches to the deepest roots, it’s mothers all the way down! Without them, you and I wouldn’t be here, and neither would all the other wondrous creatures on this planet.

“Most important of all, the journey is far from over. Every plant and animal alive today, including us, is part of this journey, and nobody can say for sure how things are going to turn out. So you can make a big difference in the future of the universe. Pretty amazing, huh?”

Jade nodded slowly, paused, and then broke into a wide smile. “C’mon daddy,” she blurted out, now sprinting up the stairs still gripping rock and kelp. “We’ve got to tell Momma!”

Image Credits (top to bottom)
3-5) National Geographic
6) Author photo