My first conscious encounter with nature was during the Thirties, in Washington Park in Albany. Walking by the edge of a sloping beach, I spotted a dozen little fish finning around in three inches of water. They were used to grabbing bits of popcorn, and watched me expectantly. I didn’t know what they were, but I desired them acutely.
By my next trip I’d made a fishing rig from a bent pin and a few feet of twine. For bait, I rolled white bread into a ball. To hold my catch, I’d brought a mason jar. Nobody advised for or against it, so I proudly carried home two or three of them to our fourth-floor flat. I fed them bread crumbs. They turned translucent, died, and floated to the surface. I flushed them down the toilet.
The Langes were city folks. Their only comments were hygienic; nothing about humane treatment of other creatures. In this philosophical vacuum, my personal ontogeny recapitulated the phylogeny of the human race. I obtained age-appropriate weapons, and shot at anything within range. In the process, I amassed a tremendous debt to the animal kingdom, which I’ve been trying for decades to repay. I’ll die still in the hole. But it got me outdoors.
Richard Louv’s bestseller, Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, was praised by The Boston Globe as “an absolute must-read for parents.” It describes the results of a generation being “raised without meaningful contact with the natural world.” I’ve recently seen the catastrophic result of squeezing three cuttings of hay out of fields where grassland birds nest; of building resorts on land occupied by mangrove swamps, sea turtles, saltwater crocodiles, and migratory birds. And not all of that is due to short-sighted greed; it’s mostly ignorance.
The obvious answer to the pandemic of ignorance that’s all but upon us – as with most ills of humankind, is education – early and engrossing education. I’ve seen kids in Nicaragua who routinely killed songbirds change their behavior when each “became” a particular bird, drew pictures of it, learned to imitate its call, then shared their experiences with kids in the United States who were studying habitat degradation.
Anyone who’s planted lima beans between a piece of wet blotter and the sides of a water glass, watched wriggling tadpoles turn into frogs, or cheered on a turtle laying her eggs in dry gravel – will never forget it.
This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.