I took my son Daniel on a backpacking trip to Colorado last week. The biggest reason I wanted to do that was to carve out some serious one-on-one time with him, which worked out wonderfully. However, I also hoped to add to the list of ‘defining moments’ he’s had in nature. I’m pretty sure that was also accomplished.
I’m not sure if ‘defining moments’ is the exact term I’m looking for here, but what I’m talking about are those events that become significant and permanent positive memories for us. The ones brought up at family gatherings or mentioned during a discussion with friends about significant life experiences. Everyone has those memories; winning a big game, our first kiss, or the first day at a new school or job site.
From a conservation standpoint, we need people to have ‘defining moments’ that include positive experiences with nature – visceral memories that will pop up in their minds when the topic of conservation arises. When they see a news story about prairies being plowed up at record rates, we need people to remember finding a nest of adorable meadowlark chicks or seeing the incredible and wonderful diversity of invertebrates emerging from a sweep net as a naturalist pointed out particularly interesting individuals.
I’m confident my kids have had plenty of those defining moments. They’ve had enough days at work with me or family trips in nature to ensure a conservation ethic is embedded within their brains. I feel great about that, and any additional experiences now are purely icing on that cake.
However, not everyone has ecologists for parents. Not everyone takes regular family vacations in national parks or even gets the chance to hike through a prairie or woodland in the county they live in. In fact, some people haven’t ever had a positive experience with anything they would consider ‘nature’. That’s a huge problem.
There are lots of ways to get people to care about conservation, including (I hope!) deluging them with pretty photos of birds, flowers, and butterflies, accompanied by fascinating stories about the lives of those organisms. Sharing facts about the importance of nature to the everyday lives of humans is good too, including the ways in which healthy ecosystems provide clean air and water, as well as food and other vital resources we need. However, there’s no substitute for personal experience. A ‘defining moment’ that evokes joy, wonder, and pleasure when it’s remembered later might be the most powerful way there is to create a conservation advocate.
My conviction about the importance of defining moments in nature is why I almost never say no to opportunities to lead tours or otherwise interact with people – especially kids – in prairies or other natural settings. It can be hard to quantify the return on my time investment, of course, but I firmly believe in the value of helping people have positive and memorable experiences in nature. If I have to do that 3-5 kids at a time, so be it. However, it’s nice to know countless others are working on this same effort.
During college, I worked as a teacher/naturalist at a local nature center, and regularly led groups of kids and adults on discovery hikes along the center’s trails. We did other programming too, but most of my favorite memories come from hikes for which the main objective was to simply explore and discover – and my role was to facilitate that and help interpret what the hikers found.
I’d love to know what memories stuck in the minds of the kids I interacted with back then. Do they still remember watching a spider wrap up a grasshopper in its web? Do they remember seeing the leaves of sensitive briar fold up when they touched them? Can they still hear the sounds of birds, bees, katydids, and countless other creatures that surrounded us while we closed our eyes and tried to just listen deeply?
Since those days at the nature center, my opportunities to help kids and adults create defining moments have been much more sporadic, but I still see them as a key part of my conservation career. When I lead tours or workshops on plant identification or prairie management, I will always stop to admire and rhapsodize about a toad, spider, grasshopper, or anything else we come across that I think might be of interest to my audience. I never know what might lodge in someone’s brain and become one of the ‘defining moments’ that turns them into a conservation advocate.