May 252014
 

Memorial

As Memorial Day approaches yet again, the naturalist’s thought turns to how we memorialize those our nation has lost in wars. We construct monuments of granite and marble, polished stone faces with lettering that has come to signify, in our culture, the tragic reality of death, of loss. Perhaps on Memorial Day we might visit a memorial, brush our fingertips against the cold stone letters, and touch, for a moment, our own inevitable mortality. Perhaps even while standing beneath an appropriately leaden sky, we weep for the enormity of our losses along the path to maintain the freedom we first fought for over two hundred years ago.  And while we weep, the chainsaws growl, and another tree falls in a stand of forest that stood untouched for the past fifty years or more. Bulldozers scrape their way across the land, and the forest is forgotten.

There is another way.

There is a way to honor our fallen and also to protect and cherish the living forests all around us. It is a model whose roots go back at least to ancient Greece, and probably further. The Greeks (and many other civilizations) maintained sacred groves, patches of forest where they could approach the great Mystery through ritual. The forest was a place for spiritual connection — an awareness not lost on Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, who had a vision of God and Jesus while praying in a ten-acre beech grove on his family farm in 1820. As a result of this vision, that patch of forest is now cared for and protected. As Donald Enders writes in an article at www.LDS.org, “The Sacred Grove is one of the last surviving tracts of primeval forest in western New York state….. The Church has for some years been directing a program to safeguard and extend the life of this beautiful woodland that is sacred to Latter-day Saints.”  Along the streets of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and many other towns and cities across the United States, trees have been planted to honor the deceased. Beside the trees, small stone plaques bear a name, a few words of remembrance, and birth and death dates. Within this tradition, the idea of honoring the dead through caring for the living still remains. The next step back to the grove would be to recognize healthy, mature forests as being fitting sacred sites.
Through dedication ceremonies and markers in the forest, they can become places to acknowledge our losses while celebrating life’s continuance, in leaves of an oak and flowers of a tulip poplar.  It is this very idea that Joan Maloof proposes in Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest.

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she lives, a tract of mature forest was obtained by her county for conversion into a public park. For many residents and county officials, such a park meant ball fields, parking areas, and open spaces — not necessarily a forest. And then September 11th happened. In her grief, inspired by a talk on Buddhist approaches to nature, she decided to turn the forest grove into a memorial for the victims. With red yarn, she hung name tags of the fallen on trees, creating the September 11 Memorial Forest. The act at once established a sacred space for grieving, and protected the trees from being cut.  Imagine another Memorial Day in Georgia, years from now. Families gather together, fill their picnic baskets, and wander off into the forest. They come at last to a sturdy beech, or sweet gum,
or sycamore, growing along the banks of a stream. At its base, a small stone bears the name of a brother, a husband, a son. Against a backdrop of birdsong and flowing water, they share memories of the love he had given, and tears, too, for the loss they have endured without him. All
around, they are consoled by the living presence of nature, in a forest forever protected as a memorial grove.

As Memorial Day approaches yet again, the naturalist’s thought turns to how we memorialize those our nation has lost in wars.  We construct monuments of granite and marble, polished stone faces with lettering that has come to signify, in our culture, the tragic reality of death, of loss. Perhaps on Memorial Day we might visit a memorial, brush our fingertips against the cold stone letters, and touch, for a moment, our own inevitable mortality.  Perhaps even while standing beneath an appropriately leaden sky, we weep for the enormity of our losses along the path to maintain the freedom we first fought for over two hundred years ago.

And while we weep, the chainsaws growl, and another tree falls in a stand of forest that stood untouched for the past fifty years or more. Bulldozers scrape their way across the land, and the forest is forgotten.

There is another way.

There is a way to honor our fallen and also to protect and cherish the living forests all around us.  It is a model whose roots go back at least to ancient Greece, and probably further.  The Greeks (and many other civilizations) maintained sacred groves, patches of forest where they could approach the great Mystery through ritual.  The forest was a place for spiritual connection — an awareness not lost on Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, who had a vision of God and Jesus while praying in a ten-acre beech grove on his family farm in 1820.  As a result of this vision, that patch of forest is now cared for and protected.  As Donald Enders writes in an article at www.LDS.org, “The Sacred Grove is one of the last surviving tracts of primeval forest in western New York state…..  The Church has for some years been directing a program to safeguard and extend the life of this beautiful woodland that is sacred to Latter-day Saints.”

Along the streets of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and many other towns and cities across the United States, trees have been planted to honor the deceased.  Beside the trees, small stone plaques bear a name, a few words of remembrance, and birth and death dates.  Within this tradition, the idea of honoring the dead through caring for the living still remains.  The next step back to the grove would be to recognize healthy, mature forests as being fitting sacred sites.  Through dedication ceremonies and markers in the forest, they can become places to acknowledge our losses while celebrating life’s continuance, in leaves of an oak and flowers of a tulip poplar.

It is this very idea that Joan Maloof proposes in Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest.  On the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she lives, a tract of mature forest was obtained by her county for conversion into a public park.  For many residents and county officials, such a park meant ball fields, parking areas, and open spaces — not necessarily a forest.  And then September 11th happened.  In her grief, inspired by a talk on Buddhist approaches to nature, she decided to turn the forest grove into a memorial for the victims.  With red yarn, she hung name tags of the fallen on trees, creating the September 11 Memorial Forest.  The act at once established a sacred space for grieving, and protected the trees from being cut.

Imagine another Memorial Day in Georgia, years from now.  Families gather together, fill their picnic baskets, and wander off into the forest.  They come at last to a sturdy beech, or sweet gum, or sycamore, growing along the banks of a stream.  At its base, a small stone bears the name of a brother, a husband, a son.  Against a backdrop of birdsong and flowing water, they share memories of the love he had given, and tears, too, for the loss they have endured without him.  All around, they are consoled by the living presence of nature, in a forest forever protected as a memorial grove.

Feb 022014
 

A posted gap in the fence along a trail at Newman Wetlands offers wetland access to visitors.

Last weekend, this author took a visit to Newman Wetlands Center, following a familiar half-mile trail of gravel and boardwalk along and through areas of ponds and woods. Fences or railings along most of its length keep visitors to the straight and narrow, preventing them from stepping off trail — and potentially, into the muck.  Gravel and boardwalk surfaces are level, and capable of sustaining heavy foot traffic.  The wetlands themselves are not.  A single deep boot-print in the mud could remain for months.

It was quite a surprise to discover, along the trail, that a section of wooden fence had been removed.  According to a laminated paper sign attached to one of the remaining fence posts in that section, the purpose of this break in the fence was to enable visitors to use “new trail areas”.  Perhaps the plan is to add gravel and perhaps a wetland overlook, with more fence and railings.  Or maybe the gap is there to enable visitors to feel mud underfoot and thorny briars rubbing against their bare legs.

Beyond the gap in the fence, a zone of flattened leaves marked an impromptu path a few dozen feet to the edge of a stream within the wetland.  A bit of bushwacking led to a great spot for photographing some aquatic turtles (painteds and sliders) sunning themselves on a log.  In his enthusiasm, the writer startled many of them while trying to approach, and they plopped into the water and swam away.

The “adventure” was one of the high points of the author’s trip, and marked the only point on the trail where there were “hazards” such as thorny underbrush and patches of deep mud.  There is something unsettling, though, about that gap in the fence.  It is not the gap itself that is troubling, but the fear of what its impact might be.  The same space that provides children (accompanied by adults) and adults alike with a way to get closer to nature can also become heavily compacted and eroded with so many passing feet.  And what of the turtles on the nearby log?  Will they eventually move on, after too many times of being scared off their chosen logs?  No doubt the wetlands would be much better protected if we all kept to clearly marked paths of gravel and wood.

And yet, this line of thought is even more troubling to the author, as an environmental educator.  As Richard Louv has documented so powerfully in his Last Child in the Woods, children today have fewer opportunities to get out into nature than their parents did.  They spend much less time splashing in the water, jumping in the mud, catching frogs and salamanders, and using leaves and branches to construct imaginary realms.  Increasingly, children are growing up in suburban developments whose doctrines and convenants expressly forbid tree forts and wild spaces in residents’ yards.  Where can children go to bond with nature?  “Where do the children play?” as a famous songwriter once asked.

There are so few places left in Georgia, and throughout much of the eastern U.S., for children to connect with the natural world.  So naturally, those few places open to them are in danger of abuse from overuse, because they are all there is.  We need more gaps in the fence, not fewer.  We need a lot more places without fences, or “keep out” signs, or wood-chip paths where nature is to be observed at a respectful distance, like paintings behind ropes in a museum.

This article was originally published on March 31, 2010.

Jan 052014
 
Tiger swallowtail butterfly.  Photographed June 2011 at Newman Wetlands Center, Hampton, GA.

Tiger swallowtail butterfly. Photographed June 2011 at Newman Wetlands Center, Hampton, GA.

According to the book of Genesis in the Holy Bible, one of Adam’s first actions after being created was to gather together all living things and give them names. Clearly, the human predilection for classifying and naming plants and animals goes back thousands of years. It is most evident today in birders’ life lists: collections of scientific names of all the different birds one has seen over a lifetime. My own bookshelves overflow with field guides, nearly a hundred in all, covering birds, trees, salamanders, moths, mushrooms, and many other kinds of living things. In medieval alchemy, names had power to them, as shown by the fact that to spell refers both to stating the letters in a word and exerting magical influence in the world. Nowadays, to know the name (common or scientific) of a plant or animal is enough for a naturalist to find dozens of images and species accounts scattered across the Web. It is possible to take a digital photograph of a butterfly in the morning and spend the rest of the day indoors and online, reading about the butterfly, its life cycle, host plants, behaviors, etc.

But naming is only one access point into learning about the natural world. And particularly for children, perhaps names are not the best place to start after all. The naturalist Barry Lopez warns, in his book of essays, Crossing Open Ground (pp. 150-151), “The quickest door to open in the woods for a child is the one that leads to the smallest room, by knowing the name each thing is called. The door that leads to a cathedral is marked by a hesitancy to speak at all, rather to encourage by example a sharpness of the senses.” Once we learn a name for something, there is a sense of completion, a suggestion that it is all that is necessary. Yet there is so much more out there to discover. When we take the time to study the more-than-human world closely, we begin to notice how trees and insects have individuality and personality of their own. A label just captures a static form, while living things are always changing. Caterpillars become butterflies, and a holly bush outside my window comes into bloom and suddenly swarms with bees and other flying insects craving nectar.

Thinking back to my own childhood (with many hours spent running barefoot across neighbors fields or tromping through a woodlot behind my house), I recall how few plants and animals I could identify. I knew what poison ivy looked like, and my brother taught me about jewelweed because it could be used to treat poison ivy. There was a shrub that grew in several places in the yard that I was confident was witch hazel; a few years ago, I learned that it was actually spicebush. There were dandelions, bane of my father, resident Lawnkeeper. And then there was Queen Anne’s lace, or wild carrot. My brother taught me that one, too. It’s roots tasted quite similar to carrot, but their texture was much closer to that of many strands of dental floss twisted together. In the front yard, there were black walnut trees that periodically covered the lawn with large green nuts, and in the far front, by the road, a stately sycamore that I learned in school was one of the oldest deciduous trees in the evolution of life on Earth. Animals I knew only by categories: ants, spiders, squirrels. My knowledge of classification was ad hoc and full of holes, having as much to do with uses plants could be put to as anything else.

I am in good company. Even the famous biologist E.O. Wilson recognized that this kind of nature experience may be more important in fostering a love of nature and sense of wonder about the environment around us. In his autobiography, Naturalist, he wrote (pp. 12-13) that “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” Wilson went on to quote Rachel Carson’s essay, The Sense of Wonder, in which she commented that “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of childhood are the time to prepare the soil.”

How, then, to encourage children to connect with nature, if not by way of field guides? One approach would be simply to encourage children to go on backyard safaris, to see what they can discover and study it closely. All that is needed are long pants and repellant against ticks and chiggers, knowledge of how to avoid fire ants, poison ivy, and other hazards of going adventuring, a magnifying lens, perhaps a jar with holes in the lid, maybe even a digital camera, and plenty of time. I suspect the child will return with tales of sights and wonders you had not imagined before.

Another activity is to choose a few trees and shrubs, observe them closely with a child, and encourage him or her to give them names. Periodically over the seasons, the child can be encouraged to revisit Bendy Tree and Prickly Shrub. How are they changing day to day, and season to season? Are there new visitors to the tree that weren’t there before? Are the leaves just unfurling, or are they perhaps riddled with holes from someone’s latest meal? Eventually, as the child gets to know the plants better, and is on familiar terms with them, he or she may inquire after their scientific names (or at least their common ones). Then it will be time to break out a field guide. The name will add one more layer of knowledge to what is already there, rather than being sufficient by itself. There is so much about nature hidden beneath the names, like salamanders beneath cobbles in a stream, just waiting to be explored.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2012.