It is time to revive natural history

It is time to revive natural history

When our son was growing up, I learned not to worry about cleaning his room. We lived in a wooded area, and as he explored the forest, his bedroom soon became a small museum of natural history. There were tree branches with fungi tucked under his bed, rocks and leaves on his dressers, and field guides in his bookcase. He had become a natural-history nerd.

He spent endless hours in the forested canopy behind our home, educating himself in the natural history of our property. Often, he would drag me into the woods to point out a new plant he had identified. Of course, he didn’t have to drag me too hard as I too grew up with a woodland as my backyard and a passion for nature.

The formal definition of natural history is “the scientific study of animals and plants, especially as concerned with observation rather than experiment.” A person who studies natural history is called a naturalist. You might have encountered a naturalist at a park or a nature center. I know there are several great naturalists at The Wilderness Center in Wilmot. We often took our granddaughters to their great children’s programs throughout the years.

Sadly, the formal study of natural history in our colleges is all but gone. At a time when we are facing major environmental problems such as climate change, college and university programs have dropped coursework in this field. Natural history is no longer a recognized major for a college degree.

When I first started my doctorate degree, I had a professor, Dr. Mitchell Thomashow, who pointed out this fact. He taught my global change processes course. One of his assignments for that class required each student pick out one natural setting and take observations from that area for a 30-day period.

I chose Tappan Lake in January 2003. During that time span, I watched as the lake slowly froze. By the end of the month, my hubby and I could cautiously walk out on the ice. With a drill and tape measure, we determined there was an 8-inch layer of ice on the lake. However, this year the lake barely glazed over during a few cold spells.

One of Dr. Thomashow’s books, “Ecological Identity: Becoming a reflective environmentalist,” talks about forming connections to the place where you live. Many people live in their “homes” but never really see beyond the walls to observe the biological landscape outside where they live.

For example, when I used to teach environmental science to high school and college students, one of the first exercises I would ask them to do was list five birds, five trees, five plants, five reptiles and five mammals found in the area where they lived. Now mind you I taught in Tuscarawas and Stark counties, not New York City. Most students struggled to fill in those five slots for each category. If I were to make a guess, I’d say many people reading this column right now might have a hard time doing this task as well.

The amount of life and diversity residing in a teaspoon of soil on earth would dazzle NASA scientists if it were discovered on another planet. Yet the remarkable biodiversity and uniqueness of our planet passes us all by without inciting a blip on our radar.

A 2014 article in the journal BioScience, “Natural History’s Place in Science and Society,” stated the decline in the study of natural history also “parallels a decline in public participation in nature.” Now more than at any other time, humans need to study organisms and their interactions with us and other species, especially as we witness a massive extinction event unfolding in all kingdoms of life. Yet since 1995, the number of natural-history courses required for a BS in biology is zero.

The ongoing investigation into how, why and where the coronavirus began is an example of our need to understand the “human to other species” connections. The BioScience article points out “75% of emerging infectious diseases that afflict humans are associated at some point in their life cycle with other animals.” Additionally, the human-population explosion has forced mankind to further encroach into natural environments. Humans are living side by side with wild species.

Our need for more land also is coupled with a demand for more protein sources; hence “wet markets,” where live animals including many which are exotic are slaughtered and sold. There are hundreds of these markets, both legal and illegal, in the USA. A May 2020 BBC news article stated “it was a matter of when, not if, an animal passed the coronavirus from wild bats to humans.” Bats have a “super immunity” and have been known to carry coronaviruses without themselves getting sick, but this outbreak was specific only to a region in China.

Prof Andrew Cunningham, from the Zoological Society of London, explained when asked about wet markets, “We’ve actually been expecting something like this to happen for a while. Mixing large numbers of species under poor hygienic and welfare conditions and species that wouldn’t normally come close together gives opportunities for pathogens to jump species to species.”

The study of natural history would help us understand these interactions and the problems associated with them.

Today we approach the study of natural history with a smart phone and an app rather than a journal and a field guide. But given the ongoing threats from climate change and diseases like COVID-19, we need to enlist citizens as well as scholars to engage in a multi-disciplinary approach to observe, report and analyze data from the natural world. We need to revive natural history.

An appropriate quote by Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”

Psychologist Dr. Allen Kanner of Wright Institute said, “By the age of 3, our kids can recognize an average of 100 brand logos, and by age 10 that number increases to over 300 brands.”

Advertisers for corporate media are teaching our kids to be consumers, not conservationists. When our kids can recognize more corporate logos than they can birds in the neighborhood, we know the planet is in trouble.

If you are interested in learning more about natural history, you can become an Ohio certified volunteer naturalist via a program offered through Ohio State University. I did my training at The Wilderness Center in Stark County. You can find information at this link:

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