I believe in the power of life, that vital force that manifests itself in microbes and plants and in all creatures great and small. The ways of nature may offend human sensibilities: In nature, the species takes priority over the individual; living things must nourish themselves, reproduce, and avoid being eaten to perpetuate their kind. The interrelationships of one species to another and to its environment creates a dynamic tapestry of life that fascinates me.
In my formative years I spent countless hours outdoors exploring the woods and fields around my home in western Pennsylvania. I recall those halcyon days of youth when the universe could be found in a frog’s egg, that perfect sphere of cleaved cells surrounded by a gelatinous matrix. I hungered for knowledge, feeling that I could not learn fast enough to satisfy my youthful curiosity.
I was taken aback a few years ago when my neighbor, an affable teenager, expressed boredom with high school biology. He thought of biology as merely an exercise in memorization. I tried rather unsuccessfully to describe to him in a few sound bites that vast web of life that strains with restless energy.
As a pediatrician I am amazed at the number of children who spend little if any time outdoors. In our on-line, fast paced, wireless society, children are being reared disconnected from the inherent joys found in contact with the natural world. Richard Louv has coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to address this dilemma.
How do we counter this unfortunate trend? How do we imbue in our children the quality that Rachel Carson calls “a sense of wonder”? I propose that we harken back to an earlier era when the study of nature was considered a moral virtue. The challenge is to overcome the immediate feedback of our electronic age with the gratification that comes with a life in nature.
I do not suggest that we minimize molecular biology in our children’s education. I pursued a career in medicine in part because I felt there were few subjects more worthy of study than those processes occurring within my own body. Indeed, the phenomenon of life itself , that elusive spark that separates the animate from the inanimate, may someday be explained in molecular terms. However, we need to complement the pointillism of molecular biology with the broad impressionistic sweep of our four seasons and their nuances: the ringing calls of spring peepers that herald the spring thaw; the migration of birds that binds together hemispheres; the fire flies that punctuate the night with flashes of cold white light; the unlikely aerodynamics of a hummingbird or a bumble bee. Only with new awareness of the earth’s treasures can we groom our children to become the future stewards of this grand and incredible planet.
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