Connecting people with nature is a mantra you hear repeated over and over at Cleveland Metroparks. It's verbally spoken by staff and volunteers, written in our mission statements and it's even captured in images featured in marketing materials. It's repeated by Outdoor Experiences, Outdoor Recreation, Special Events and Guest Experiences, Human Resources, Marketing and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. But what does "connecting people with nature" really mean? Why does it matter?
I think the best answer can be found in a quote by Baba Dioum. Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist, is well-known for the following quotation, which comes from a speech he made in 1968 in New Delhi, India, to the general assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"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."
Connecting people with nature can happen in many ways. Sometimes it happens through an organized program led by an educated and experienced Cleveland Metroparks naturalist. Sometimes it happens at a summer day camp for kids at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and sometimes it happens easy and serendipitously in your own back yard.
My family connects with nature every day. That's because we connect the image of a human face with an old oak tree out in our back yard. Out of the trunk of this oak tree, we all see a face. There's a knot for an eye, two branches for a nose and another knot for an open mouth -as if he's blowing wind through the branches. I imagine this is how ancient people connected with the natural world. By connecting human characteristics with nature found all around them. For my family it's an oak tree with a face.
Can you see the face?
We connect with this oak tree because it provides awesome shade in the summer. Our house faces east to west so at about 3 p.m. when the sun starts to lower in the west, the oak tree provides fabulous shade. Our oak tree is also home to a family of squirrels and a variety of birds. I don't know the different species but there are brown birds, black birds, and even an occasional red or blue bird. If I was a naturalist, I'd have no problem identifying each and every bird. But that's the beauty of connecting with nature. You don't always need to know the scientific names, terms or explanations. The experience in and of itself is what matters.
Our oak tree provided an awesome "connecting with nature experience" this past Christmas morning. I'm not sure who spotted it first, but a hawk was enjoying a Christmas feast up in our oak tree. We all stopped to watch. We stopped unwrapping presents, devouring Christmas cookies and attempts to hook-up the new Xbox One. We all stopped what we were doing to watch this hawk eat its prey. What a magnificent spectacle! My husband called for our son to get his binoculars so we could get a better look. How intriguing it was to watch this hawk devour its prey. It was a "connecting people with nature" experience happening right outside my kitchen window. Awesome!
Another time we had a great experience connecting with nature when we all watched a bald eagle soaring overhead then it spiraled down and caught a fish with its talons and before soaring off into the sky. Magnificent! We all stood frozen - not saying anything - but we all watch this awesome feat. We had never seen anything like it before. We've been hanging out along the banks of the Chagrin River for years. But, that was the first time we saw a bald eagle in action. We were so glad we did. Connecting with nature? Absolutely!
My 11-year-old son loves to go fishing. I remember him catching a bluegill smaller than a stick of butter and he held it up and asked, "Can we keep him and eat him?" My son wants to go ice fishing in the winter and perch fishing in the fall. He'll fish from a river bank, Lake Erie or my cousin's pond. He'll fish anywhere, anytime. Is he disappointed when he doesn't catch anything? Yes, but when he does land a fish, the look of excitement, pride and accomplishment is priceless.
Two summers ago my two children attended summer day camp at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. They attended three weeks of camps so they had many "connecting with nature" experiences. They experienced close-up encounters with animals, cool behind the scene tours and they even learned a repertoire of catchy camp songs. I'll never forget picking them up after the first week and as soon as we got back in the car, my kids were quizzing me. "Mom, do you know why a giraffe's tongue is black?" Gee, I didn't even know giraffe's had black tongues. And for the record, giraffe's have black tongues so they won't get sunburned.
By why connect with nature? How can we, as citizens, care about important environmental issues we face today as a society, if we don't care about the natural world in our own back yard. It all begins with personal connections to the natural world. Sometimes the connections are planned education opportunities liked summer camp at the zoo, other times serendipitously on the banks of the Chgrin River when you watch a bald eagle and sometimes it's a daily reminder when you look out your kitchen window and see a human face on the trunk of an oak tree. Opportunities to connect with nature are just waiting to be discovered.
How do you connect with nature?