A love of being outdoors is one of the most important things I can pass on to my son. But contrary to the Beatles, love isn’t enough. In addition, I want to teach him how to recognize, respect, work and play in nature. From ancient forests to our own backyard, here’s what I want to teach my son about nature:
1) Both wildness and wilderness are valuable.
In his famous quote, Thoreau said: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” To me, wildness is a fighting spirit of survival that guides evolution and ecological relationships. The wilderness is where that wildness is most evident because human interference is minimal. We tend to be preoccupied with our own species, both as individuals and as a society.
Observing wildness on the small scale and wilderness in the large one helps us see the bigger geographic and chronological picture. Comprehending the size of a redwood or the complexity of a grasshopper’s leg puts our personal concerns into perspective.
2) Nature can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
While wilderness is valuable, nature isn’t limited to it. You can find nature in places dominated by people: weeds recolonizing disturbed ground on sidewalks, hawks nesting on bridges, trees rising from city streets, insects almost everywhere. Nature finds a way to make itself known, even when people have tried their best to suppress it. Finding and appreciating these organisms in even the most urban environments can help you remember that people are never alone–other species are trying to make their way as well.
3) Both nature and things made by humans can be beautiful.
As I believe that God shaped the natural world through evolutionary processes, I see His/Her fingerprints on every tree leaf and ocean wave. I also believe human-made things can be beautiful, from a hand-crafted quilt to a well-planned streetscape. Each has its place; conflating the two undervalues both the complexity of biology and human artistry. They can even complement each other, as in Andy Goldsworthy’s land art.
4) We will always have an impact. But there are ways we can mimic and work with nature to minimize our negative impact or even have a positive one.
Because humans are Earth’s dominant species, there’s no way we can eliminate our footprint. But by learning from nature’s structures, we can find ways to work within ecological systems instead of against them. According to the permaculture movement, we can combine ecological principles with agriculture to get what both we and the ecosystem needs. For example, I layer piles of compost, newspapers and leaves in my garden to simulate the forest floor’s natural composting process. The sustainability movement is exploring ways to build our cities, food systems, and transportation networks to support both economic and environmental justice.
5) Just as we can be healed when we’re sick, so can many ecosystems.
While wilderness is wonderful, there’s also great value in healing places where we’re had a negative impact. Ecosystem restoration efforts have led to clean-ups of the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River, the freeing of streams from canals, and the re-wilding of European forests.
6) Although nature can be dangerous, we should be prepared instead of afraid.
We control nature in many places and ways, but it’s never truly tamed. Nature’s citizens generally don’t care about us. But if you understand and get ready for the risks, you can experience the outdoors with a reasonable level of safety. Being prepared is a good motto for everyone, not just Boy Scouts.
7) Everything is both interconnected and has value on its own.
Ecological interactions are incredibly complex, with each plant, animal, bacteria, and fungus having its own unique niche. But as important as the keystone species that ecological webs are built on are, it’s also worth appreciating each organism’s coolness. I’m a big fan of weird bugs and funky plants, even the ones that aren’t big, beautiful, or ecological building blocks.
8) Human well-being relies on our ecosystems’ health.
Even if you don’t give a whit about polar bears, environmental issues are fundamentally human issues. From clean water to climate change, the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities are the most negatively affected by ecological problems. They’re the ones who most often get stuck with flooding from climate change, polluted water from mining, high levels of mercury from coal plants, and asthma from air pollution.
9) We have a responsibility to respect and care for those around us, no matter their species.
Even though we face many challenges, humans are very powerful. To quote Uncle Ben from Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”