One of the most important lessons that I have learned from experiencing and exploring the outdoors is the potential for knowledge in human wonder.
The idea that one can learn from observing their surroundings through exploration is something that my parents instilled in me from a young age. Family vacations, although a time to be spent together, often became a time for my siblings and me to investigate new surroundings. Even while walking on the same trail, my brothers and I always saw things that made us feel differently. On a trip to Petrified Forest National Park, I remember overhearing a conversation from another park visitor about vultures circling in the sky. I immediately noticed the birds a little distance away. I was fascinated and frightened by them at the same time. What if those vultures thought I was a potential meal? Were they strong enough to carry me away?
Looking back on my naive impression of those raptors, I am still amazed by those two vultures soaring in the Arizona sky many years ago. What did those birds see as they circled? How long did they soar before giving a flap to their wings?
I have taken Avian Biology courses and learned about the behavior of New World vultures. I have read about thermal updrafts and understand why raptors take advantage of the rising air to conserve energy while flying. I have researched the diets of vultures. I am glad to say that they do not seek little girls in pink shirts. None the less, I still wonder what it was that those particular vultures were thinking.
I continue to find myself wondering about the doings of birds. Even while sitting in the passenger’s seat of a car, I’ll notice the turkey vultures circling above the interstate. I ask myself the same questions about those vultures as I did their relatives at the Petrified Forest many years ago.
This curiosity, this sense of wonder, is as important to me now as it was then. My parents raised my siblings and me to question the world around us but to never lose touch of the things that make the world special. I was reminded of this when Cohort 8 shadowed the Classroom at Crater Lake program this October. The students who visited on a class field trip learned important ecological concepts that make Crater Lake unique, but the knowledge they gained was nothing compared to the sense of wonder expressed on their faces when they looked over the rim and imagined what lurked in those beautiful blue waters. Those students identified with that place, and now they are connected to it forever.
As I learn to become a successful environmental educator, I remind myself that some of the most important lessons that I can pass on to students are the same lessons that I learned from my first teachers, my parents. Just as my parents allowed my brothers and me to explore our surroundings, from the woods in our backyard to the national parks of the United States, I should let my future students explore the world around them. Although I have faith that these students will be able to identify plant species along the trails they walk, I would rather they expand their mind beyond classifications and imagine what species are the favorites of the animals that call the land beyond the trail home. Like Rachel Carson, who eloquently described this experience in her 1965 publication The Sense of Wonder, I hope that these children will never falter in their sense of wonder and find inspiration in the everyday. When they enjoy their time outdoors and have fun exploring, they will be able to better understand the world around them and the additional discoveries that await them.
Encourage your sense of wonder. Explore your backyard, your neighborhood, your city, your state. Identify what makes your place unique and how that uniqueness translates into the extraordinary. Place your feet on a trail outside and see where your sense of wonder inspires you to explore.