Nature & The Naturalist

By Kerri on January 3, 2014 in Blog

Our friends at the Dallas County Conservation Board released their winter newsletter recently, which included a piece by Naturalist Chris Adkins that we found especially beautiful and in tune with our work at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. With Chris’s permission, we’re sharing his meaningful column with you in hopes that you, too, will connect with his words and experiences. – KS


ReWilding – How, then, am I to find you, if I have no memory of you?
The not-so-whimsical words of a wee-one.

Chris Adkins, Environmental Education Coordinator/Naturalist, Dallas County Conservation

If you have not taken the occasion to read Laura Zaugg's, DCCB Naturalist, article in our 2013 Fall Equinox newsletter – please pause now and enjoy it – Whimsical Words of Wee-ones. These gifts from the wee-ones are one of the many blessings afforded to a naturalist learning in the wilds with these young souls. Sometimes however, the wisdom of the wee-one's words are not whimsical – but instead profound and life changing.

The words of a wee-one at a program this fall served as an epiphany for me. A child's words, a revelation, a manifestation of sanity. Rachel Carson, the renowned scientist and writer, cited by Laura in her article implores that a child needs the companionship of one adult in their life to help keep their sense of wonder alive. Carson's quote actually extends this thought in the long version of the statement with these words, “I sincerely believe… it is not half so important to KNOW as to FEEL.”

My thesis here is that we adults need the company of children, as much or more, than they need us. We humans know with our minds. We feel with our hearts. As we mature, we tend to lose the balance between knowing and feeling. In our relationships with the wilds, we need to set aside our heads and the knowing and embrace the heartfelt remembrances of the wilds. Saint Augustine asked, “How, then, am I to find you, if I have no memory of you?” The memory of the wilds are in the fabric of our beings. They are found not with the head, but with the heart. To find the wilds about us, we must search the memories of our hearts. It was a wee-one's words and actions that reminded me to feel.

The following is the recanting of the events that precipitated this article:

This fall, standing in the auditorium of the Prairie Learning Center at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, with a mass of elementary students from one of our county's schools, I was encouraging them to find their wildness. Remember the tall grass prairie, our ecological heritage here in Dallas County.

This task is daunting, in light of Saint Augustine's words, as these children have no memory of this wildness– the prairie. How can they have hope of finding it? The leading scientists in the field of Historical Ecology agree with the Saint. One of this science's axioms is, “to know what is, you must know what was”. The “what was” of our place is that in the early 1800's, 85% of the 36 million acres that would become the state of Iowa was prairie. That's a 30 million acre memory. The memory shattering fact, that I have long been mindful of, is that only 1/10th of 1% of this wild memory remains today. I know now that my heart was not feeling this fact.

To drive home the confusing mathematics, I developed a demonstration which removes the mysteries of percentages from a child's mind. A dollar bill is presented to the learners as a representation of the original 30 million acres of our prairie. Now, in the context of money, even a wee-one can grasp how much of the original dollar's worth of prairie remains. Answers from the student audience of a quarter's worth, or a dime's worth of prairie illustrate the failure to grasp the concepts of percentages. However, when the side cutters of my multi- tool pliers chop off Abe Lincoln's nose from a penny – creating for them a symbol for all that remains of their prairie – the wee-ones get it. Or at least I thought they were getting it. We could now talk of how hard it is for them to find prairie in their 2013 world with such a small bit to help them form a memory. We could talk about the precious nature of Abe's proboscis and how it must be conserved, protected, nourished and re- constructed if we are to remember and find our wilds.

On this day, the telling of this story took a heart-felt hard left turn because a wee-one in the audience was not learning with his head, but instead felt this reality with his heart. This wee-one is actually an old friend of mine – we have known each other in the wilds since his 1st grade field days at Kuehn. This child is a special needs student. As I, with great ceremony, extracted Abe's nose from the penny, I knew from that the concept of 1/10th of 1% was sweeping like a prairie fire through my audience. A confusing mathematical concept was masterfully overcome. It was at this very moment that my friend bolted upright from his seat and at the top of his lungs vocalized what he was feeling, not what I had just taught him. He cried, “No Chris! That's a bad story! I don't like that story! NO, NO, NO!!!”

This wee-one next bolted at top-speed out of the auditorium, with his classroom teacher in full pursuit. This was the point of my epiphany. This lesson had rolled off of my tongue a hundred times in the past two decades to the waiting minds of my audience. However, today was the first time someone listened with their heart. I quickly handed off the program to my fellow naturalist and joined in the chase.

Huddled there in the foyer, I thanked this wee-one from my heart for the lesson he had just taught me. I told him that I believed he was the first to hear that story in the decades I had been telling it. Everyone in the previous audiences had taken to mind this 1/10th of 1% fact, with stoic nods of recognition, knowing, but not feeling. My wee friend that day did not listen with his head, he listened with his heart and responded in the way any sane person would, “NO, NO, NO!”

These words challenged me. I was forced to realize that my listeners were responding in a startling fashion, and that I too was too busy knowing and not feeling. Why are we not all jumping up from our seats, screaming and running for the hills when faced with the lost memories of wildness in our world today? My pursuit of an explanation led me to cognitive psychologist, Gary Marcus. His explanation for our less than sane responses in the face of today's ecological catastrophes is termed “the error of historical present”. In simple terms, we are under the delusion that what is now, has always been.

Marcus attributes this generational amnesia, which allows us to remain quietly in our seats when confronted with the facts of ecological insanity, to an ever-shifting baseline for our memory of wildness. The historical present provides no memory. Not only can we not find the wilds, but we don't even recognize their loss.

The wild places that Dallas County Conservation protects, conserves, and reconstructs are the keys to us finding the wilds again. They can overcome the error of historical present and remind us of what once was. Time spent in these wild places can cure your generational amnesia. We do still have a memory, all be it perhaps no more than 1/10th of 1%. These remnants of wildness provide us a place to step inside the stories and experience the memory of the land. Here's to the coming year of 2014. Let us heed the not-so-whimsical words of a wee-one and feel the wilds with our hearts. These wild memories are waiting for us. Together we can venture out and explore. In finding them, we will also find ourselves.