I’m a natural resources ecologist. As part of my job, I get to canoe streams and lakes, hike the forests and fields, wade the streams and wetlands. But I don’t get paid just to appreciate the natural beauty. I get paid to study how it works and how we can keep it working that way and to train students to do keep it working.
When I’m in the field with a class we’re mostly taking field ecology measurements, talking about how to set up studies, how we’ll analyze the data, what quantitative models we’ll use. As we’re hiking thru a woodland or along a coastal marsh, I’ll stop and say ‘Look!’ The students are expecting me to point out some technical detail of the ecology of the site, but instead I say ‘How pretty is this?’ Then we take a moment to step back and look at the beauty of the site.
Many of my students intend to be natural resource ecologists. It’s too easy to get all wrapped up in the science and overlook the sheer beauty that should inspire our work. I generally relate the following anecdote to illustrate the need for scientists to remember the aesthetics…
I had an opportunity to attend a training workshop on a particular outdoor-ed program for grade school students. Our school puts on such camps and I wanted to get some training for that. The audience of this particular workshop was university students about to graduate in elementary teacher ed. For the workshop, we did some of the activities designed for grade school students and one such activity was the carpet square sit. So we all took our carpet square out into an on-campus woodlot and were instructed to sit still for 10 minutes and just look. We were then to note our observations using a format of our choice. Back in the classroom, it was time to share.
The first student said “I wrote this little poem…” and she proceeded to read this superb poem she apparently dashed off in those few minutes. Everyone sighed with appreciation of how she truly captured the feeling of sitting still in a woodland. The next student say “I made this little sketch…” and she showed us this wonderful study of how a pair of joined red pine needles had fallen to the ground and gotten caught on a maple leaf lying sideways on the ground. Everyone sighed with appreciation. It went on like this for the remainder of the students and then it was my turn. Knowing I hadn’t really gotten the point of the exercise, I tried to beg off. “No, it’s the rules, you must share,” said the instructor. Hesitatingly, I explained how I had written down a mathematical representation of nitrogen cycle kinetics. “Umm, yes, well, OK” the leader said. No one sighed in appreciation.
That’s why I now go out of my way to make sure my students remember to appreciate the aesthetics of our field sites.