by Denny Olson

One of the unfortunate curiosities of Western Neo-European culture is that pesky illusion we have of disconnection from nature (when we are in reality totally comprised of nature, and nature is partially comprised of us).  The natural outgrowth of that illusion is two-fold: (1) we assume that we can stand apart from nature as objective observers, and (2) we can control most of nature for our benefit without any fear of paying later consequences. For most of Western culture, it is a state of permanent denial of reality.

Indigenous cultures around the world have always been bewildered by these attitudes. Living closer to nature in tribal, economic hand-to-mouth societies makes disconnection from the nuances of nature painful and usually fatal. But existing in “civilized”, urbanized, technologically enhanced and interconnected society takes us farther and farther from the immutable truth: we are still subject to the needs of all biological beings—food, water, shelter and space – and the layers of civilization mask that from us. We have signed up for an “exemption” from the usual laws of nature, namely that the logical consequences of overpopulation, of assuming that finite resources are really infinite for us (because we are “special”, I guess) simply don’t apply to us.

That is why, as a “conservation educator”, I view my prime directive as remedial – re-connecting people to their life support system (it’s called “nature”). When this happens to us, what naturally follows is a wider awareness of our surroundings, a feeling of belonging to a benevolent “something” larger than ourselves, and careful, thoughtful changes in our behavior. Sounds awful, I know.

That is what is so wonderful, at least for me, about birding. Birds are out there, all the time, actively doing the nature that is culturally unfamiliar to us. Watching them closely, through binoculars, we see their struggles for food, water, shelter and space as a reminder of our own real needs. Under the guise of “identifying” them, we can’t help but learn from them, often accidentally, but effectively just the same. Birding is a sequential process, from noticing the American Robin cocking it’s head on the lawn to get its eye closer to the worm, to studying an immature Iceland Gull to determine if it is in its first or second year. It is work. It takes time and patience. You have to start at the beginning. Every new bit of knowledge is based on what you learned before.

And teaching “conservation” is completely parallel. When I recently overhauled the Flathead Audubon Riparian Wetlands educational trunk, which teachers can check out and use with their students, I first had to think about “where they probably are now, and where do I want them to be” after doing the activities and using the materials in this trunk. It is a sequence, and each activity is based on the knowledge gained from the one before.

In the new trunk, first they get a geographical sense of “where am I” in the natural world, by using laminated maps without human constructs to determine their “water address” or their exact location on the water system as opposed to street, city, state, etc. I’m at: Drainpipe X, on Sewer Main Y, Kalispell Water Treatment Plant, Ashley Creek, Flathead River, Clark Fork River, Columbia River, Pacific Ocean (“Sip Code” unknown). The students’ connection to the water system of the Water Planet is clear and apparent. Next, again with the maps, they draw all the stream connections both upstream and downstream from themselves (which allows them to define the Flathead Watershed and the Columbia Watershed), and discuss the consequences of being downstream from and the responsibilities of being upstream from others.

From there, through the rest of the sequence, students (3) study the diluting effects of moving water in a river re. nutrients and pollutants, (4) study the way plants and animals bio-accumulate (exponentially!) nutrients and pollutants and re-concentrate them, (5) who are the birds by the river and (6) what are their food webs and vulnerabilities, (7) how do migrators use rivers, ridges and weather to find their way to and from the river bottom next door, (8) what are their survival headaches and sanctuaries on migration – all followed by (9) a schoolyard bird survey, (10) some beginning bird song recognition exercises and emotional appreciation of bird music, (11) and then a field trip to Audubon’s Owen Sowerwine Natural Area to do an actual breeding bird survey.

The net effect (pun intended) is (hopefully) “connection” to the big wide world of the river right next door. In a perfect conservation educator’s world, it starts with “who am I” and “where am I” and ends with the birds right outside my door. Hopefully, that ending awakens a beginning – a sequence leading to the “shock and awe” of connections to everyone and everything. In case you were curious, that’s what a conservation educator does.