We need to provide opportunities for students to establish connections with the natural world, to be in awe of its power and beauty.
t was February 2012 in northwestern Ontario. I was in teachers college and my outdoor, environmental education cohort was on a winter camping trip. Cold winds blew outside, but inside of our cabin it was cozy as my peers snuggled up under blankets, ready for story time. I was about to share with them Stuart McLean’s “Burd”, a short-story from the author’s Home from the Vinyl Café.
“Burd” tells the story of Dave, a second hand record store owner, who becomes a reluctant new birder when an unexpected visitor begins to frequent Dave’s backyard birdfeeder. The visitor is a summer tanager, completely off-course from its usual winter habitat of Mexico or Brazil. Dave comes to cherish the time he spends with his bird; waking up early to feed the bird, and coming home from work at lunch so that the bird does not go hungry. When, on an early May morning, Dave discovers that his bird has left, he is heartbroken and hopes she will return next winter.
“Burd”, in its simple way, speaks to the pain and gratification that can come with the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Can you recall a time when the natural world overwhelmed you? Have you ever felt in awe of the beauty of nature? Have you sat in salutation to the sun, or in quiet reverence to the river? Has nature left you speechless? When I posed these questions to my peers, in anticipation of reading “Burd”, they shared stories about thunder storms and the stars. Of canoe trips that they wished had never ended. One friend talked about that moment at night when you roll over in bed and catch a glimpse of the full moon outside your window. Magic moments, courtesy of our natural world.
But what about heartbreak? Nature provides those moments too. As educators of environmental literacy we can all surely reflect back on moments of loss, as something from the natural world was taken from us. It may have been as small as returning to your childhood home to find that the tall birch tree in your front yard had been cut down. Or it might be bigger – those lost fights against short-term gains and corporate interests that take away our rivers, our lakes, and our forests.
Does this sense of loss have a place in our classrooms? Indeed it is our students’ generation that is going to be handed the consequences of greed and inaction – rising sea levels, frequent and severe natural disasters, a complete disconnect from the natural world. If we continue down our current path, their losses will be far greater than anything we have experienced.
And yet, a feeling of loss necessitates that a connection has been established in the first place. In a world where children and adults alike are spending increasingly less time outdoors, these connections to the natural world are precious. For every story we have of loss, we each have a million more of those little moments of taking time for nature – time to be in awe, to slow down and find connection. If it weren’t for these moments, we wouldn’t be working as hard as we are to ensure a healthy and sustainable future for our children. The environmental movement wouldn’t exist. Dave’s summer tanager may not have survived an unplanned Canadian winter.
It is moments to build connection, awe, and wonder then that we must help create for our students. Moments that connect our students to the natural world, for not only is time in nature good for them, but they will then be good to the natural world. We can share our own experiences and the experiences of others, like Dave’s romance with a bird. But we must also provide opportunities for our students to have their own experiences – to establish connections with the natural world, to be in awe of its power and beauty. We know this already, it is why we seek out resources like CLEARING to inspire us to rely less on our four-walled classroom.
The most powerful story I can share, of my own experience creating space for awe, is from a most unlikely place: a suburban Grade 8 classroom. It was mid-December, the air was chilly, the sky was clear, and anticipation was building…snow would be coming soon. And sure enough it did, just as I started an afternoon lesson on local hunger issues. I didn’t notice the snow at first, but rather the sudden excitement on students’ faces as they began whispering and furtively pointing to the window. I looked outside and there it was – the first snow of the year! Big, beautiful snowflakes whipping around outside of the window.
I had two choices: as a student teacher I could maintain “classroom order”, aware that my teacher advisor was evaluating me, or I could allow space for awe. I chose the latter: “It’s snowing – look outside!” And then my students cheered. Suddenly, without any prompt from me, they ran to the window and cheered for snow. I cheered with them and also made a promise to myself: if I was ever lucky enough to be in front of a classroom again when snow fell for the first time outside, my class would bundle up, run outside, and lift our faces to the sky.
I made this promise because the first snow only happens once a year. Because nature has a way of spontaneously providing beautiful and powerful teaching moments, with no lesson plan required. And because these are the moments that students remember, and are the reason us educators do the work that we do.
Dave was heartbroken when his bird left. Not only had he lost a bird that he had come to care for, but he had also lost that very real connection to the natural world. In a world that is continually spinning faster and faster, Dave had found something small and vulnerable to focus on and to care for. He had been gifted with a reason to sit and watch nature – and to wonder. Why did this bird come to his backyard, of all places? How did it get there? Would it return? Dave did not know all of the answers and that was okay, because the answers were not what mattered. What mattered was that Dave knew how his bird looked in warm sunlight, and from what direction she flew in from the hedge to be fed. That is the beauty of “Burd” –it makes you want to go outside, sit by a bird feeder, and see what happens.
Let us make a promise to ourselves that as educators we will allow more time for awe. For wonder. For connection. That we will consider it a lesson well done if all our students do is sit by a bird feeder to see what happens.
Kim McCrory is a certified teacher and experienced outdoor educator from Ontario, but now calls Victoria, British Columbia home. Kim works for Sierra Club BC as the organization’s environmental educator, traveling the province to reconnect students with the wild products of our Temperate Rainforest.
McLean, Stuart. 1998. Home from the Vinyl Café. Toronto, ON: Viking by Penguin Books Canada Ltd. P. 256. ISBN 0-14-027743-9.