Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Changing Face of Natural History

Twenty years ago, David Orr from Oberlin College wrote a superb essay entitled “The Virtue of Conservation Education” in the journal Conservation Biology (Vol. 4 No. 3, Sep. 1990). In that essay he attempted to make clear that although conservation of natural resources is a rational need with a sound economic basis, it is more importantly a moral imperative. He then used this foundation as the basis for an argument for more resources to be devoted to conservation education.

Ten years later, David Wilcove and Thomas Eisner wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sep. 15, 2000, p. B24) of the “impending extinction of natural history.” In this exceptionally clear call to higher education’s leadership, they noted that the kind of detailed observation-based awareness of the natural world that is customarily classified under the heading “natural history” was being devalued precisely at a time when it was most needed in academe and in K-12 education. In that same year The Economist (April 29, 2000, p. 77) recognized the need for a continued recognition of the useful work of amateurs (what a Cornell University scientist called “citizen scientists”) in many sciences, particularly field studies.

In 2002 came the Great Manifesto, Steven Herman’s extraordinary commentary “Wildlife Biology and Natural History: Time for a Reunion” in Journal of Wildlife Management (Vol. 66 No. 4 p. 933-946). Herman, then a professor at Evergreen State College in Washington, walked the reader through a short history of biological management and mismanagement, explaining why a detachment from the land almost always damages the ability of scientists to produce useful work in fields related to ecology.

Where are we today and where are we likely to go, on the road of natural history and the relationship between humans, especially young people, and the land? The answer is a strange mixture of hope and doubt for the years ahead.

Isaac Asimov, in his classic Second Foundation, allows a minor character to make a fool of himself pontificating to a teenager that he doesn’t need to go look at actual ruins himself to figure out which group of scientists is right or wrong. He just needs to read everything they wrote and weigh the “evidence.” That problematic attitude is, unfortunately, with us today, at least occasionally. Our increasingly urban young people seem to think that food comes from stores.

The habit of detachment from personal observation even affects professionals. When I served as co-editor of Birds of Oregon (Oregon State University Press, 2003), at least two authors employed as academic professionals stated in drafts that the species they were writing about was sedentary, that is, the birds present in an area as breeders are essentially the same individuals that are present year-round: they don’t migrate. Had either author actually spent time in the field outside the breeding season they would have realized their error, because a distinct migratory movement occurs and they would have seen it themselves. As it happens, most of the literature on these species is about their breeding status, with winter data limited but showing that the species is present. The authors had read this material and concluded that because the species was present in the same places in summer and winter, it was sedentary. They were wrong.

How are we raising our students today? Do they ever see the natural world as it really is? Yes and no. Professors such as Stewart Janes at Southern Oregon University, Chris Butler at Central Oklahoma and Drew Lanham at Clemson regularly take classes into the field. Even “upper crust” colleges have had such faculty: Ann Haven Morgan of Mt. Holyoke was the nation’s expert on freshwater insects and other pond and stream life—one of the best photos of her shows her up to her knees in a pond, showing an amazed student what she had in her net. But do such colleges have field programs now?

Of course much depends on parents and their attitudes toward the outdoors and toward exploration by their children.

Colleges mold the clay they are given, and an 18-year-old who has never paid any attention to the outdoors except when it inconveniences her at the golf course is less likely to be willing to explore it at college. It is no accident that a disproportionate number of the nation’s wildlife managers and field biologists grew up in the interior West, upper Midwest and rural South, where the natural world is part of everyday life, and hunting and fishing are common pastimes.

The emergence of hyperprotective parents in the past generation or two has also had an effect, and is also largely an urban issue. It has some effect on the ability of teens to spend time in natural places. The notion that teenagers have to be tethered by cell phones and their location known at all times is very recent.

We have come a long way, and not necessarily in the right direction, from the days when Robert Ridgway, who became one of North America’s finest ornithologists, could join Clarence King’s 1867 western expedition at age sixteen, returning nearly two years later. On a smaller scale, Oregon naturalist David Marshall got permission from his parents to cross the Oregon Cascade Range in 1941 with fellow teenagers—by bicycle. A parent who allowed a fifteen-year old to take such an exploring trip today would probably get a visit from the local social service agency and be charged with child abuse.

Some organizations focused on the outdoors recognize that schools and colleges generally do a poor job of supporting meaningful education in how the natural world works. The American Birding Association has for many years operated special programs and camps designed for young people interested in birds and other wildlife. They even have scholarship programs for those students whose families can’t afford to send them. Organizations such as the Boy Scouts still conduct outdoor activities, but scouting does not appeal to many young people, in part because of its expressly religious character and the perception that liberal kids are not welcome.

Cornell University has had the foresight to establish the eBird database, through which field data can be entered, almost in real time, into a huge database from which range maps and movements can be generated as needed. The project, overseen in part by students, is working toward data-entry from field-friendly devices such as iPhones, which will, among other things, have the effect of making field biology “modern” in the eyes of many younger observers. These students are the ones who tell my office that they maintain an e-mail account (which didn’t exist when I was a student) only because they sometimes need to communicate with “old people.”

Let’s recognize that actual experience with the forests, rivers, grasslands and mountains of our continent is a necessary part of the education of a well-rounded student. Passion for a reality is always greater than interest in an abstraction. These generations cannot be expected to care about and preserve something that exists for them only in pictures. It isn’t necessary to cross the continent like Ridgway to find good places to study natural history. Schools at all levels can take steps to make sure that our future professionals know more than what they read in books.