Wild Heart by Karen Schneller-McDonald | Omega

Environmental knowledge—without heart—is not enough to assure a sustainable future. Ecological consultant and wetland specialist Karen Schneller-McDonald urges us to help kids make an emotional connection with nature by taking them outside.

Recently, I brought my two granddaughters, who live in Colorado, to the Verkeederkill  Falls. This is a very special place to me; it’s also, as the sign proclaims, “One of the Last Great Places on Earth!”
I was fresh from a long discussion with their parents about the educational and communication-wonders of new technology, i.e., the iPod, iPad, Twitter, etc. My daughter-in-law believes that kids today have already evolved beyond previous generations in terms of information retrieval and assimilation, and communications skills. The wonders of our future can only be imagined as our technological capacity grows.
I left the discussion mildly depressed. In my field (ecology and conservation biology), evolution means something more. I see increased evidence of our inability as a culture to effectively protect our most valuable natural resources based on the availability of information alone. In fact, from where I’m sitting, I see land-use decisions being made in the absence of science-based information, even though more and more of that information is available to decision makers. Sometimes the lament is that there is too much information or you can’t tell which information is true or not, or the political will to protect natural resources is just not present.
In my experience, there is more to the equation of Knowledge + Information = Environmental Protection. The missing piece? A day at the Verkeederkill with my granddaughters Hanna and Joelle made it obvious to me. It’s heart.
The missing piece is an emotional pull, the feeling of the wild. Somewhere, there has to be a personal connection to some element of the natural world that makes enough of an impression to last and to motivate. You can’t “get it” just from reading about it, or watching a video. You have to be there, to catch that glimpse of the unexpected—something large as a bear, or small as a squirrel, shuffling in the brush, pausing for just a second to catch your eye before disappearing; or the stunning color of a tiger swallowtail alight on a branch of mountain laurel; or the exhilaration of a splash of cold, clear mountain stream water after a hot sweaty hike; the smell of the ferns; the soft coolness of a mound of green moss at the stream’s edge… As Richard Louv, in Last Child in the Woods so aptly puts it:
“…while knowledge about nature is vital, passion is the long-distance fuel for the struggle to save what is left of our natural heritage… Passion does not arrive on videotape or on a CD; passion is personal. Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart.”
At eight and ten, Hanna and Joelle are accomplished athletes and students, quite adept with their iPads. Their lives are structured to allow little time for just “being” outdoors. And though they hike, it is always in order to arrive at a destination. There is always an itinerary.
Well, this time, we took them for a pretty rigorous, meandering hike, some of it bushwhacking (no small matter in mountain laurel), some of it climbing boulders in the streambed and along the rock face of the Ridge. The top of the falls was impressive, and they were especially interested in the sign: “What does that mean, ‘Last Great Place,’ and why is it called that?”
My reply was short; mostly I let the Ridge work its magic. At that point, my job was merely to show the way, and guide them to the experience. The swimming hole was gratifyingly awesome. It knocked their socks off, literally, and all I had to do was smile, and take pictures, and jump in myself!
There were even a few early blueberries. How good can it get?
Then the kids wanted to explore upstream, and we entered that magical Verkeederkill “tunnel” of overhanging bushes, cushy bright green mosses, and stepping stone slabs of rock with just enough running water to challenge our footsteps and keep us cool. They left me sunning on a flat rock, and wanted go a little further just on their own. I let them have their own small adventure in the stream channel.
I didn’t sell it. I didn’t push it. All I did was get them there, and leave the door open for them to discover the magic themselves. Days later, after their return to Colorado, the message came back: The pool and the stream at the top of the falls was the best part of the whole trip.
I have no idea if Hannah and Jo, as adults, will care enough to do what they can to preserve and protect our spectacular, special wild places. Do they know that the future of clear, clean water and healthy air is in their hands? Do they understand that protection of the world that harbors the flash of wild, bright eyes through the leaves will be up to them? Maybe not yet. But, eventually, I hope so.
In the meantime, I want to speak for the value of passion about our natural world. I want to encourage those who understand the value of unpolluted air and water and the survival of all the other creatures that share the earth, the feel of it all, to take any opportunity, however small, to show that world to a child. It doesn’t have to be a rare species; it can be a bird at a backyard feeder, a praying mantis in a grassy meadow, small fish in a stream, a firefly at dusk…
What do you love most about the world of the wild? Why do you want to protect it? Share that. The possibilities are endless.

© Karen Schneller-McDonald. Used with permission.

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