The Evolving Naturalist
Towards Building A Philosophy Of Life, Nature, And BelongingPosted on: January 21st, 2021
Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #39
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein
I often think that it was a small miracle that I ever became a biologist and a conservationist. I grew up in a tropical country, in constant contact with amazingly rich flora and fauna surrounding me, even in the big, sprawling capital city. Framed by a mountainous national park and crisscrossed by rivers, the valley where my home city of Caracas developed was always rich in wild animals, flowering trees, and daily encounters with nature. Not only was the national park accessible with many trails and even a cable cart that took you to the top of the mountain range, but the city also had large public parks, zoos, and playgrounds. My primary school had vast soccer fields surrounded by trees and flowering hedges.
My favorite city park, where we spent many birthdays picnicking and exploring, was also a modern zoo, with large habitat-like enclosures where animals roamed in relative freedom. It also had a serpentarium, huge aviaries, an arboretum, several ponds with free-ranging waterbirds, and many trails right in the city’s center. The backyards of the homes I grew up in were filled with trees and close to streams and vacant lots.
My father and my uncle owned a large ranch about 2 hours outside the city. To get there, we crossed a river (there was no bridge at the time), which was always an exciting part of the weekend trips when I was allowed to accompany them. While they conducted the ranch business, I would set off to explore on foot, or more often on horseback, the chaparral-like areas of the ranch and the gallery forests that grew along streams and creeks. Wildlife was abundant. Flocks of ground doves would take off in flurries of dust, feathers, and noise. Enormous iguanas sunned on the branches of trees. Bright blue-tailed lizards scampered across the dusty trails, and vultures circled above, riding the thermals without having to beat their wings even once.
One would think that in this environment, my sisters and I would grow up as nature lovers, in-tune with the rhythms of the tropical seasons (as different as they are to our temperate seasons), and loving plants and animals of all kinds. Well, not so much. My earliest experiences with the natural world were a complex mixture of direct personal experiences like the ones described above, commingled with an extraordinary cocktail of misinformation and superstitions that defy belief. Besides the traditional “break a mirror and get 7 years of bad luck,” the “black cats are bad luck,” and the “walking under a ladder will also bring bad luck,” and many, many more beliefs, there was a richness of artifacts and suspect notions from my family’s past that made it into my early years. For a long time as a pre-teen, I carried a prized possession: a rabbit’s foot that would bring me luck. My dad had in his pocket an “Ojo de Buey” or ox-eye seed (from one of several tropical climbing vines or lianas of the genus Mucuna) as an amulet that would bring strength, stamina, and a shield against negative influences. Ferns, bamboo, and lavender protected the homes, but cacti and certain climbing vines could do the opposite. The list is truly endless.
The animal-based superstitions were also abundant and terrifying. A black moth in the house meant someone may die; bats nesting in the fronds of the palm tree that framed our front porch were vampires and would give us rabies; all caterpillars could sting you (some do, but jeez!); and while a mouse in the house could bring in diseases and mayhem, a rat was a real major disaster that required guns, traps, poisons, or more often all of the above. Fear was the primary motivator to stay away from insects and spiders. We went out of our way as a family to protect us, kids, from mosquitoes (which was actually a good thing). However, I still remember burning my toes on the lit green coils of Plagatox placed strategically under my hammock or bedside. Rude awakening indeed. Killing by any means was a solution that extended to all and any other invertebrate that could fly, perhaps except for butterflies.
The most terrifying of all were cockroaches. To see a cockroach scamper around would bring into action a “chancleta,” broom, or shoe to mercilessly squash it. To see one take flight would set off a screaming panic across the entire household. In fact, squashing any invertebrate was OK in our childhood household book.
However, nature offered many more pleasant, loving, and stimulating encounters than negative ones. Despite the archaic cultural leftovers of a colonial era that mixed indigenous, African, and European myths and superstitions, the pleasant experiences associated with life and nature helped relegate those myths to their proper places.
Today, I see some children growing up in as close as perfect harmony with nature. My own children spent long periods of their lives living so close to the wild that they blended in the most natural ways. There were no insects to squash but millions to observe and learn from. The forest was an exciting classroom; researchers and students were their informal teachers, and as their experiences multiplied, their love for nature and wildlife grew. I am convinced that their empathy and environmental ethics as fully-grown adults today are directly the results of their early nature-loving upbringing.
I also see many children, even those physically close to natural areas, isolated by their urban trappings, afraid to touch a caterpillar, or stand close to a bird, or walk into a swamp, stream, or forest with the curiosity and expectation of seeing something extraordinary for the first time. While teaching summer camps in Florida, I saw children transform in a few days from scared, shy, and apprehensive city-dwellers into bold, excited, and fearless explorers of the natural world. I wish I could have followed them all into their adult years to see how they were now raising their own kids.
As the combined preventable tragedies of climate change, pollution, overpopulation, and wars continue to challenge our society and our future, I am convinced that early experiences with nature can build the empathy and the drive to preserve and restore the portions of the natural world that are still available. We need children to grow up loving and respecting nature. We need youth to become early leaders of their peers and even adults. And we need our industry and government leaders to stop thinking about their lifetime materialistic achievements and wealth and start thinking about the next generation’s quality of life. We can’t burn down the library of life and expect a more enlightened, sustainable society any more than we can expect a child that never learned to read and write to become an enlightened, successful, or influential adult.
We can’t solve the most pressing societal and planetary challenges without a healthy dose of science and knowledge, generously combined with unflinching empathy and a genuine desire to do well to others, wildlife included. As Einstein said a long time ago, perhaps we start as something, someone separate from nature instead of an integral part of it. That delusion got us to where we are. Breaking that delusion is not that difficult if we understand the benefits for this and for future generations. We barely have time to make this switch, and the time is now.
Carlos de la Rosa
- You can join with your children some of Lindsay’s online programs, exploring the wildlife and nature of our Bay Area and beyond. Check out these programs on our website:
- Our region is rich in guided and self-guided activities and places to be in contact with nature. Check some of them here.