Thursday, December 22, 2011

We will conserve only what we love

In the end, we will conserve only what we love.
We will love only what we understand.
We will understand only what we are taught.
-Baba Dioum, Senegalese poet

Through my fellowship, I recently attended a meeting in East Lansing that was hosted by the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative and the Great Lakes Fishery Trust. The conference brought together educators and outreach coordinators from across the Great Lakes region and focused on one key theme: Place-based education. Now, I had had an abstract, opaque definition of this term floating around my head for some time, but had not yet gained a firm grip on it. Truth be told, I had not made much of an effort to understand how place-based education differed from typical, run-of-the-mill education, or why it was important. That is, until I moved back to the Great Lakes area after spending a few years on the east coast…but I’ll get to this shortly.

So, what is place-based education (PBE)? PBE “focuses learning within the local community of a student. It provides learners with a path for becoming active citizens and stewards of the environment and place where they live” (Antioch University, Center for Place-based Education). Okay, this makes sense. What may be more of a challenge, and what is embedded in the definition and philosophy of place-based education is this: a sense of place. This is a key element of environmental stewardship and of PBE. By sitting in on talks and exercises with the rest of the meeting participants, I learned that a sense of place stems from ‘place attachment,’ which stems from both ‘place dependence’ and ‘place identity.’ Think of place dependence and place identity as our functional and emotional connections, respectively, to an area where we reside. I also learned that building a sense of place is less often the direct focus of environmental and place-based education than issues like service-learning and community engagement. Now, these surely are important components of an educational model. But, if we (teachers, informal educators, scientists, etc.) can enhance our focus on helping a student to discover his or her own sense of place, we likely will continue to count stewardship among the outcomes in addition to community service and academic excellence. Now we’re on to something!

All of this has me wondering: what are our functional and emotional connections to our places? How often do we take these for granted? And, following Baba Dioum’s conviction, how can we ensure that the youth of today gain a deep enough understanding of and appreciation for their local environment that they will be moved to protect it? These are questions that I have neither all of the answers to, nor the time or space to fully address. I will offer a few thoughts, however. Over the past several years I have had many opportunities to educate students and communities on different aspects of the environment. Much of this has taken place in lower Chesapeake Bay, where there are distinct and obvious connections to both the fresh- and saltwater habitats, as well as to the iconic species that define that region: the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), and others. These are ingrained in the ideals and lifestyles of local tidewater Virginians. As I observed these connections with an outside perspective, I found myself drawn to the bonds that those communities have with their ecosystem(s) and the layers of history that underlie those relationships. And, throughout this process, I was vaguely aware of a couple of things: 1) the people, landscapes, and ecosystems of tidewater Virginia and Chesapeake Bay were interesting and worthy of study and protection; 2) this was not my place.

Toward the end of my graduate degree in Virginia, I was consumed with thoughts of the Great Lakes – of home. As I mentioned, my return to the region ignited in me not only a desire to more fully grasp the concept of PBE, but also a strong awareness of my own sense of place and how this was instilled in me over time. So, what was it that drew me back? Why do I associate so greatly with these freshwater seas? Partly, it is because I want to study them. The Great Lakes basin is a rich, complex ecosystem that, until abandoning terrestrial ecology to delve into marine science out east, I thought little of exploring in much (professional) detail. Partly, it is because I was bred to love them. These coasts are where I swam for the first time, dug in the sand and mud, discovered my first bivalves, caught my first fish, and rolled down my first (seemingly endless and frighteningly steep) sand dune. It is also because I was taught to love them. I hiked the forests on school field trips, collected and examined countless jars of pond water, and pressed the leaves of native trees into art. We stand in the midst of one endless, freshwater science experiment; an open-ended ecological investigation; a living mural of some of the most picturesque places on the planet. I came back to the Great Lakes because I love them. I love them because I understand them. I understand them because their importance was both educationally and emotionally reinforced.

Living in Michigan for 23 years before moving away, my awareness for my own sense of place was buried, so much a part of me that I did not know how strong the connection was. However, my sense of stewardship for my place is sentient and energetic – a creature of its own. With or without an awareness of why, this has never wavered. Periodically, I question whether or not kids today have a solid appreciation for the lakes, rivers, and forests of this region. Is their sense of place at risk of being underdeveloped or overlooked? I think not. At the PBE Conference, aside from two refreshing days of ‘sharing’ games and arts and crafts, I gained two days worth of perspective on just what it takes – and what our formal and informal educators are doing – to implant in today’s youth the knowledge that this is their place. This is our place. If we stay on the path being paved by my fellow meeting attendees and those who came before them, I happily predict that the youth of today and tomorrow will come to love, understand, connect with – and fight to protect – the Great Lakes ecosystem well into the future.

Happy holidays (wherever your place may be)!
-Cassie
GLC Sea Grant fellow, 2011-2012

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