Outdoor Encounters - Ecological Literacy

By Nathan Bolls on October 17, 2019

A big topic during our recent “National Climate Week,” was that of “ecological literacy.” The current ecological crisis suggests the necessity for a steep ecological learning curve for all of our world societies, but especially for those of the “industrial belt” that circles the globe north of the equator. This area uses natural resources and produces trash and pollutants at levels that are disproportionate to its percentage of the world’s population. This ecological literacy goal has importance beyond the excessive levels of ease and convenience we have come to feel is our due; beyond greed-level profits; beyond the materialism within which we have allowed ourselves to become trapped—and stunted; and far, far beyond the outmoded notion that we must have dominion over everything.

    We do share a common environment with every other living species, but we, to our great peril, seem to make life on our beautiful blue planet all about ourselves, that we are all that matters. Human nature seems bent upon upsetting the delicate balance that the millions of other species in Nature have more-or-less maintained, a balance that—so far--makes Spaceship Earth habitable for us. We must accept that, and act as if we are an integral part of the whole.

    Kristin Lin, editor of the blog site “The On Being Project”, speaking of us as being in an age when the climate crisis is growing in urgency, borrows thoughts from well-known nature writer, Terry Tempest Williams, about how we ended up in this mess. Williams, author of many books, including Refuge and In Response to Place, argues that “we’re losing a heightened curiosity about—and awareness of our interconnectivity with—the natural world.” She also argues that “we’re losing an ecological literacy” for flora and fauna, even those that occur around our homes—from the migratory behaviors of birds to the life cycle (natural history) of the coyotes we can hear singing most every night on or near our MLH campus.  

    Editor Lin also borrows from biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of the beautifully written and powerfully insightful work, Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer examines the richness that comes from examining the natural world as we might examine ourselves: “Thinking about plants as persons, indeed, thinking about rocks as persons, forces us to shed our idea that the only pace that we live in is the human pace,” she says.  “It’s ...very, very exciting to think about what we might learn from them.”  

    And Lin adds thoughts from acoustic biologist Katy Payne. Payne’s work with both whale and elephant communication constantly reminds her of the many ways that other species can do things we can’t. Both species make sounds at frequencies we can’t pick up—and that is just the tip of the human-deficiency iceberg!

    Lin also makes the observation, from the work of all three authors mentioned, that the human, if truly tuned in, must feel a humility about humanity’s role in all of this. She wonders “if it’s the same kind (of humility) we may need to hold closer as we’re faced with the climate crisis—a reminder that we are not the only ones who inhabit this earth.” 

     I’m continually amazed at the depth of some examples of ecological illiteracy that I’ve met. I recall the Q & A period many years ago after a talk I had been asked to give about poisonous plants before a group of young parents. One parent exuded a fear of “any animal that comes into my backyard!”  This person undoubtedly had no idea of any good that any of those “visitors” did, of how dangerous they really were (very few), of how to prevent dangerous contact if necessary (rarely so), or of why we even should work to keep those species alive.  Enter the mindset of just label all of them as bad if in our way, and spray the lot.     

    To our great detriment, examples of a serious lack of knowledge about, and appreciation for, the valuable roles that species play in their ecological corners of the world (this includes us) are much more the norm rather than the exception.      

    Our own MLH Natural Area and trails, so close and convenient—and free from the threat of development—could, and should, be used as one tool for enriching our own ecological literacy. We don’t have to become scientists, neither biologists nor ecologists, nor even serious birders. Outdoor watching and learning—and gaining true appreciation—is a personal, healthful gift that keeps on giving.

    Experts say that we are fast approaching (some say we’ve passed) the tipping point in our ecological crisis:  that point when lifestyle revisions already should have occurred, when we already should have faced honestly the ecological costs of our drives for ease of life, for material things, for greed-level incomes. The time certainly has come for serious debates about limits on some aspects of our lives, for sincere acceptance of the need for some personal sacrifice. But, to appreciate the need for these changes, we must gain a true appreciation for the complexity, value, and sacredness of ecological relationships—and of our place in the mix. We can achieve ecological wisdom, or we can fail. If we fail, all else will be folly.