A Part of Your World: Learning and Being in Place

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer

Last month I had the privilege of hearing all the Hitchcock Center’s educators talk about their work. They spoke about getting children outside, helping them see the natural world that is right around them— sometimes on their own school grounds, sometimes on local field trips. Instead of reading about the frog’s life cycle, kids see frogs develop in a stream. Instead of watching a video about pond life, they dip a net into a real-life pond and see what comes up.

Why this focus on place? Because helping children directly experience and observe nature is not only a great way for them to learn, it’s also the only way to connect them to the world they’ll need to steward and protect when they grow up. As adults, we too can take that lesson—we work hardest to care for what we love, and we learn to love the world around us by coming to know it up close.

When the Hitchcock Center agreed to produce this column in March 2009, our Gazette editor asked us to focus on local stories. She couldn’t have given us—and our readers—a better gift. Our various authors have written about local flora, fauna, waterfalls, geology and prehistory, agriculture, even great places for a nap. We’ve taken you on scientific explorations through an author’s yard and casual walks along woodland paths. And we’ve invited you to slow down and walk or bike through your world, or to stop and watch birds right near your home.

The message is the same for everyone: Nature isn’t something exotic “out there”; it’s immediate and forever a part of us. All that’s needed is to step out the door and open our eyes, ears and minds. We don’t have to travel to understand and appreciate the world, nor do we constantly need to seek out new places to experience the diversity of life.

There’s real value in revisiting the same places, for indeed they’re never the same. For instance, I have a favorite bike ride I take when I want an hour’s exercise. It loops from North Amherst into Leverett and back again, a distance of about 12 miles on quiet country roads. My only variation is whether I start the loop by taking the eastern or the western side, returning by the one I didn’t start with. I don’t tire of this route despite its outward sameness. If I’m paying attention I can notice how things change or perceive features of the landscape I’d missed before. In spring and summer I hear a variety of birdsong; in the fall I’m aware of other sounds or of silence. I see the leafing out and the fall turning, and occasionally get treated to seeing a flock of turkeys cross the road.

The same can happen on a familiar walk. My wife, who is a good tracker, is often on the lookout for new signs to tell her what has been along our path recently. On our land in Vermont, she’s keenly aware of what is different since last year or in the change of seasons—what trees are down in the woods, how the meadows evolve. We occupy this land, but it also occupies us. The more time we spend on our home ground, the greater meaning it has for us.

When we love a place we enter into a relationship with it and want it to thrive as a parent nurtures a child. And, as with a lover, we get to know the family and its history—how this place is connected to others,  where its inhabitants come from and where they go and what it needs to be healthy. We’re linked to the rest of the planet through the migratory birds and insects that we see here and the movement of water and air that interconnects us all. We turn the slogan “think globally, act locally” around and act on global issues because of the understanding and compassion that our love of place gives us for all places. (Perhaps the best local place to experience this expanded perspective is at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Great Falls, which vividly illustrates the habitats, plants and animals along the entire length of the Connecticut River from source to sea.)

So I invite you to visit those waterfalls and nap places, take those hikes and bike rides on our local trails and back roads, join some nature walks, watch the birds at your feeder and check out the ancient trees in our area. It’s true that there’s no place like home, especially when we truly inhabit it.

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and member of the Hitchcock Center board. For information about the Great Falls Discovery Center, visit www.greatfallsma.org.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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