Being one of the few B.O.C. (Birders of Color) out there, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to expose non-traditional audiences to the joys of birding and being out in nature. I get the chance here and there but hardly ever the extended time and concentrated attention I’d like to get my point across. My summer gig gives me the perfect opportunity to do just that. A few years ago, I signed on with South Carolina State University and the USDA Forest Service at Savannah River to teach wildlife ecology to students in a an environmental sciences field station. Clemson has a formal partnership with the station and I've pretty much appointed myself as the emissary between the two. Call it a mission born of my desire to see Land Grant Mission reach beyond the traditional audiences. And so I go south to Aiken, home (sort of) for me. Most of the students are juniors and senior undergraduates and come primarily from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The mission of the field station, run by my good friend Dr. Denise Simmons, is to expose a traditionally under-served audience to environmental issues ranging from remediation to soil science and in my class, wildlife conservation ecology. Although relatively few of the students are in majors I would consider “environmental sciences, they are at least in S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology , Engineering, Math) disciplines. It is a palette I can paint on. The goal is environmental and conservation literacy. And so for four weeks in June, I finally have the forum to focus a small group of folks in to the necessity of nature and why it is especially important that they think about the environment as people of color.
For the past few weeks I was out and about in the near hellish heat and humidity of an Aiken, South Carolina summer with eight students trying to help them “connect the conservation dots.” The task, as everyone knows is putting the pieces together to make some greater whole. For us birders and conservation professionals that means connecting bits and pieces of habitat to make things better for the birds we love. Since most of the students have never birded or botanized my goal for them is not so much be able to identify every critter they see and hear or snap off the latin names of plants. Rather it is to put themselves in the context of a larger, nature-centered focus. So my questions to them often go like this: “So guys, we’ve seen 1,000 year old cypress trees in the Beidler swamp watching over Prothonotary warblers, people promoting hunting to save wild turkeys and other wildlife at the National Wild Turkey Federation, and longleaf pine forests that need to be burned to conserve bobwhite quail. What ethic connects these things together ? “
Of course the simple answer is conservation. They all get “A’s” there. But I press the issue forward, asking them how THEY fit into all of this. For an African-American engineering technology major from suburban Columbia who doesn’t know a warbler from a hole in the ground, the answer is never an easy one. To see the larger picture one of the first assignments I gave was to have each student compose a conservation ethic. Not only that but I ask them to blog about it and talk to their peers about it. Now some of you know that I’m a LEOPOLD-ITE and as such push the ideas of the land ethic whenever I can. And so the students are also responsible for reading A Sand County Almanac to help prime their pumps for the “connect the dots” exercise. Although I got back a couple of questions like “What’s a conservation ethic?” I was pleasantly surprised at the responses. Words like “sustainability”, “love” and “legacy” showed up. Phrases reflecting the connections between life, wildlife and our lives or honest statements about a lack of connection to nature but a desire to learn filled my head and heart with hope. Their blogging is evolving and I can see the connections being made from the ground up.
Note to self here—As much as I push the prophecy of Aldo Leopold, I’m learning a valuable lesson from my octet. It is not an easy thing for many young African-Americans who’ve grown up connected to nature by a satellite dish and a few wildly exaggerated nature shows to relate to some old white guy who wandered around on an abandoned farm in Wisconsin waxing poetically about “good oaks” and such. As much as I’d like to think that these kids would connect like I did –growing up rural and full of wonder when it came to birds and the world outside—it’s not the case. Most are in urban or suburban settings and even those that grow up in the "country" are looking to get out as soon as possible. We need to help these folks reconnect in relevant ways. And so I think that I will begin to work on a “translation” of my beloved “Sand County”—a “revised standard version” of the conservation “Bible” if you will. Heck, if folks can translate the words of God and religious prophets to make them modern and relevant, why not the words of a conservation prophet? It’s high on my writing to-do list! Stay tuned.
Outside of a couple of lectures to introduce them to the principles of conservation ecology, I didn’t want to waste good daylight on boring PowerPoint presentations. That means that on most days we loaded into an aging but functional (and most importantly--air conditioned!) mossy green Dodge van and hit the road. My eager eight visited the National Wild Turkey Federation in my home town of Edgefield, SC (http://www.nwtf.org/ ) to learn a little history and how conservation in the United States has been supported by the efforts of people who like to occasionally kill the things they love. Doesn’t that sound odd? That someone would watch birds and try to kill some of them seems “wack” to many folks. Well it’s not. As a turkey and deer hunter, I pay taxes and license fees that go back into supporting the resources I occasionally exploit. Let’s be honest here. Because I spend so much time watching for other birds in the new green spring woods, the turkeys win almost every time and so some might call my efforts less hunting than just being out. But I proudly carry the hunter banner and the ideals of the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation (http://www.rmef.org/Hunting/HuntersConservation/ ) and want the students to understand the ethic that underlies that. I saw the connection exemplified almost like nowhere else when I was at Magee Marsh a few weeks back at the “Biggest Week in American Birding” and was re-invigorated to make sure I carry the message forward (http://wildandincolor.blogspot.com/2012/05/black-birder-in-black-swamp.html ). The students seemed thrilled to be so up close and personal with such a grand bird as the wild turkey and I think they got the message. Even though none of them hunt, they all like to eat meat and so they understand the connections to legacy, sustainability, ethical hunting and conservation. They were rewarded with a stop at a local produce stand on the way home to buy some of the sweetest peaches in the world that grow on the sandy South Carolina ridges and in doing so support local foods and sustainability!
Next, I wanted them to see conservation on the grandest and oldest scale with superlatives presented in the ages of trees and expanses of rare habitat. We took a trip to Beidler Audubon Sanctuary in Harleyville, South Carolina (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DrGnVUssOs) .
This is the kindest, wildest place I know as you can wind through true old growth, virgin timber in your tennis shoes and shorts without concern for cottonmouths. And so novices and non-nature-nics can be comfortable in the midst of wildness. It is a place where many of the bald cypress, tupelo and other trees are hundreds of years old with a couple of specimens more than a thousand years in the growing.
It is the largest expanse of virgin bald cypress swamp in the world and it’s in our back door here in South Carolina. It’s a place where golden nuggets of feathers called Prothonotary warblers flit through the buttressed colonnades of forest almost close enough to touch. It is a place where water controls the ebb and flow of life. It’s a place I wanted them to hopefully be engulfed in by so many grand things that their minds turned off of the mile-a-minute mental interstate for a moment and wandered the back roads at a slower, more contemplative pace.
Sure, I wanted them to have a close encounter with a Prothonotary or hear the baritone bawl of a barred owl; but more than that I wanted them to see the connections to conservation in saving things that maybe serve less of a tangible purpose. Sure, they understand the ecological services bit—tree give us oxygen, pollinators give us food, watersheds filter…blah, blah, blah. Really I wanted them to let a little bit of the idea that these were beings that had seen sunrises over a landscape where Native Americans held property right and shared the bounty of a largely unbroken land with panthers , Carolina parakeets and Ivory-billed woodpeckers . I wanted them to touch something that had seen more than they, their children and legions of generations forward would ever see. I wanted them to think about time outside of the years in the span of a lifetime. I wanted them to let the trees and the swamp into their souls. As we stood around the Meeting Tree, a humongous bald cypress that would take a half-dozen of us to hug, I could see the place getting into some of them. The questions flowed along with” ooooo’s” and “ahhhhhh’s”.
By the day’s end, we had indeed seen a Prothonotary up close and personal, singing his little golden swamp warbler guts out to proclaim his swampy knothole as the best in Beidler. But I could detect that the students took away a lot more than just the names and field marks I pointed out. Check! More dots were connected .
On the next trip I had a chance to expose them to something new. This time, I wanted them to see how the same organization, South Carolina Audubon (http://sc.audubon.org/), could conserve old growth in one place with a preservationist perspective, and not more than a couple of hours away in another sanctuary at Silver Bluff (http://sc.audubon.org/silver-bluff-audubon-center-and-sanctuary).
Here they manage the threatened long leaf pine ecosystem and wetlands for federally endangered wood storks in a much more intensive manner. Our trip to the center was a hit as Brandon Heitcamp, a trained forester with an ecologist’s heart, took us on a tour to talk about how he helps the forest work for birds by burning it.
What! Burning things on purpose to make them better? As Brandon showed us stands of longleaf pine in different stages of recovery and regeneration, it was clear that this is a very hand’s on place. He spoke with pride about the strip fires he employs like a paintbrush to get the pine to grow with a carpet of wiregrass and broomsedge underneath it. He talked about the risks of natural resources management and the reward in walking through head high wiregrass or hearing a bobwhite whistle in the pine. Only a few years removed from where my summer students are as undergraduates, Brandon showed them what it took to be a competent, confident conservationist. The students listened intently to him and were asking questions even though the humid heater of the day was turning up.
About mid-morning we made our way to the namesake place for the sanctuary and looked over the sluggish Savannah River from a bluff fifty feet above the water.
A red-headed woodpecker flashed black and white and red through the woodland and then a pileated laughed maniacally at us –maybe for being out in the heat --before flapping across to the shade on the Georgia side. The place is full of history and Brandon helped the students connect the dots between all the peoples that had stood where we stood-Indians, Spanish Conquistadors, English settlers, African slaves--- and us.
As we left the river to finish up at the fish ponds looking for wood storks, I felt the swelter we were enduring was worth the sweat. I am constantly asking question on the van as we travel and the responses are largely thoughtful. At the ponds where the managers draw down the water to make the fish more available to the flocks of waders that will come into the refuge, the students watched a Mississippi kite float on the humid air. They got to see and learn about water turkeys (that’s Anhinga anhinga for you purists) and even saw a wood stork spiraling higher and higher on a thermal like a glider. One of the students found a molted nuptial plume from a great egret and I got a chance to explain how much of the conservation movement got started because of the greed over such a fine and delicate thing and women’s desires to satisfy the fashion thing. It was hot and getting hotter but they trudged on listening and seeming to enjoy the day.
And so that is how I spent my June. It has been a rewarding experience for me and I hope for the students. While their bird list limited out at just a few birds and a smattering of lizards, frogs, toads, turtles, mammals and plants, I am not unrealistic in trying to create uber-birders or naturalists. No, I’ve had to release my "make an army of mini-me's" ego and understand that not everyone is going to connect the dots just like I do. It is understanding Aldo's state of harmony but with a different beat. On the last day of class I played Marvin Gaye's soulful,eco-social antem, "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)", where he laments the environmental degradation and call to conservation stewardship that Aldo Leopold called for almost forty years before. I then showed them the Michael Jackson music video set to his little known but extraordinarily moving "Earth Song". It was as if someone suddenly upped the wattage from 60 to 100 watts! I saw the bulbs brighten beyond "Good Oak" and "Thinking Like a Mountain" to encompass something more. Things were indeed coming together. In the four weeks that I had the pleasure of being in the company of Javashia, Iris, Briana, Quinn, Michael, GiGi, Simone and Chris, there’s been teaching and learning alike. And it’s been a pretty fair exchange. The essays they presented on the last day included introspective pieces that made me choke back tears. As these young folks connected the dots to where they live and how they see nature, I’m hopeful. Sometimes it just takes a different rhythm to get someone moving. I'm happy to say that there are now eight more multi-colored dots that might think about birds, nature and their connection to them in their own way. That can only move the mission forward. I'm singing y'all. "Oh Mercy, mercy me...conservation is a state of harmony..."