I grew up in California, and in my high school biology class I remember having used Peterson Field Guides when out at Walnut Creek Park for field trips. One of those field guides – A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians – was authored by herpetologist Robert C. Stebbins (b. 1915). According to this blog post celebrating his life and work, Stebbins “helped nurture [western herpetology] into a respected field of science through his pursuit of education, outreach, and advocacy in the name of reptiles and amphibians.” In 2011, Stebbins published Connecting with Nature, a book giving his thoughts and advice for fostering ecological literacy, with Llumina Press. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) republished Connecting With Nature: A Naturalist’s Perspective in 2012.
Stebbins has been studying animals in the field since World War II, so surely he has something to say about how to get people, children especially, to bond with nature. He describes his “nature-centered worldview,” and through anecdotes and activities, seeks to combat “ecological illiteracy.” Stebbins wants people to know about the nature of which they are a part (the book is infused with thoughts about evolution and humanity’s place in the web of life), but he further wishes to encourage people to gain “knowledge and ways of thinking that can help us deal objectively, yet compassionately, with our manifold social and environmental problems.” He notes the decline of popularity in colleges and universities of natural history and ecology – the “whole organism” approach to biology – and its link to a decline in respect for nature and planetary stewardship.
First (Ch. 1), Stebbins describes his childhood as a “nature boy,” at first finding an interest in nature when coming across a turtle while his dad was fishing. He then (Ch. 2) moves on to describing his views of an ecological approach and advice for implementing a nature-centered educational program (he praises the direct observation-based “nature study” of Anna Comstock in the early 20th century, but suggests that it lacked the unifying theme of evolution and too often anthropomorphized non-human life).
Next (Ch. 3), he describes various ways to make that nature connection: start in early childhood, encourage solo experiences in nature in the teenage years, through drawing, opportunities on school grounds, through gardening, and many more. A variety of activities and anecdotes are included. In Ch. 4, Stebbins describes the work of the school district in Barstow, CA to implement a nature program and its success (other models are given in an appendix).
In Ch. 5, “Listening in on a Naturalist’s Experiences,” Stebbins takes his decades of experience in nature to share ways to encourage an interest in nature. For parents, he suggests that a “let’s find out” approach is the best attitude to take when bringing children out in nature. We don’t need to be expert naturalists in order to be successful; we need to be interested, we need to be engaged, and we need to ask questions – all together, with our kids.
Evolution, to Stebbins, “is not a peripheral subject but the central organizing principle of all biological science.” If students are to appreciate the biodiversity of Earth, or more simply, their own school, neighborhood, or region, they must understand evolution and its mechanism, natural selection. In Ch. 6, Stebbins gives several examples of activites for learning about evolution for teachers. He also gives a quick look at evolution “in action,” describing the speciation of the Ensatina salamander.
Ch. 7 covers some impediments to nature connection: the isolation of ecology from mainstream education; attitudes of dominance or indifference toward nature; and human overpopulation. “An excessively human-centered focus can interfere with efforts at nature bonding,” Stebbins writes. While this chapter seems depressing, in Ch. 8 Stebbins offers some hope. And Ch. 9 goes into more detail about establishing a nature-centered educational program.
In his Conclusion, Stebbins writes: “I cannot except the premise that things have gone too far and that nothing can now save us. There is a developing groundswell of hope that must become the great force of the future. What we are short on is time. Given enough time, and if we can escape nuclear and ecocatastrophe, a more humanely oriented use of science, I trust, will in the end prevail.”
The future belongs to our children, so let’s get them outside and let us – as Stebbins so passionately encourages and shows how – bond them with nature.
Robert C. Stebbins, Connecting With Nature: A Naturalist’s Perspective (Arlington, VA: NSTA Press, 2012), 206 pp.