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Whatever happened to the nature program?

Generation ago, Rachel Carson jarred the world into a realization that we were endangering our planet and its living things. Her book Silent Spring raised the specter of a spring season without the songs of our beloved birds who were poisoned by DDT and other deadly pesticides. Her call was heeded and the poisons were banned from use.

Camps of today face the imminent loss of another endangered species ...the nature program. Its loss poses a serious threat to the quality of the camp experience for current and future generations of youngsters.

It's the kind of loss that could go unnoticed; the realization may come too late that nature programming has been squeezed out of the camp program and replaced by other activities. And since campers won't know what they're missing, it won't be missed by them.

How did we allow this loss to occur? Every year, I see fewer request for nature leaders in the employment want-ads for camp personnel. Directors seek counselors of all specialties; nature doesn't seem to be among them. Area conventions seem to feature more disc jockeys and entertainers, fewer canoe sales. Except for the few nature specialty camps, such as those run by Audubon or National Wildlife Federation, advertisements aimed at campers and their families do not depict, list nor promote the kind of camp experience that will allow children to know nature intimately.

Finding excitement in the sound of a woodpecker's tapping seems to be passe. The sound of the boom-box seems to be more prevalent. The after-dark joy at finding the Big Dipper and gazing at the Milky Way seems to have been displaced by the glitter of strobe lights and the throbbing of rock music. Delight in the beauty of wildflowers is not considered "cool," not valued; fewer and fewer youngsters are being exposed to these quiet wonders. What's wrong with this picture?

Considering the environmentally conscious and perilous times we are living in, why does this condition exist? I am frankly at a loss to comprehend this lack and invite readers to respond describing their reasons and/or experiences regarding this apparent gap.

When children are asked how they know nature, the majority respond that they "know about" nature via television ...from PBS, National Geographic or Discovery videos! How sad to realize we have not seized upon children's innate curiosity and opened the door to the whole world of real nature that lies within their reach, especially in the camp setting.

As our population becomes more urbanized and our daily lives increasingly tense, getting close to nature is all the more important. When and where can our city children develop the respect for nature if they do not experience it directly and especially in the company of an admired adult or older teen-aged leader whose love of nature is apparent and contagious? Undoubtedly, impressionable youngsters pick up their sense of values from the adults around them.

The people of our nation have lost touch with the land and with nature; they have no reverence for it. They prefer the man-made, the built environment. It's more comfortable, cleaner, climate-controlled and with no bugs! Today's children do not labor to bring forth from the earth. To them, the source of food is the supermarket, the fast-food restaurant, the freezer carton. They are too far-removed from their food source, the soil and the land. They will not value what they do not know. Is it any wonder that strip and shopping malls are replacing fields and forests?

I have a saying posted above my head in my office. It is by Baba Dioum, a forester from Senegal in Africa, and simply states, "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." This quote acts as constant reminder to me of the role of the teacher or leader who interprets the natural world to his or her charges. We can further broaden this view to emphasize the necessity of the total first-hand nature experience, one that is intellectual as well as aesthetic, emotional as well as spiritual...all of these.

Has the camp community lost sight of what should be a prime obligation -- to give the campers in our care a love for the natural world and an understanding of their role in that world? If that is so, the time has come to turn it around. The flame of an environmental ethic must be rekindled by camp professionals.

Nature study and environmental education must be part of every child's camp experience. It is our moral responsibility as camp professionals; it is the right thing to do. We owe it to the legacy of a past which introduced the world of nature to millions of campers. We owe it to the promise of the future which requires environmentally literate citizens. We owe it to the children we nurture. And we owe it to the Earth itself, the home that has nurtured us and whose protection is in our hands.

Lenore Miller teaches environmental studies at New York University. A nature instructor for camps in Pennsylvania from 1972-1986, she is author of The Nature Specialist. In the July/August issue of Camping Magazine, she will present strategies for camps wanting to expand their nature programming.
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Author:Miller, Lenore
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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