“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”
“After an afternoon hike on the Appalachian Trail and cooking by the fire, I saw a visible calm wash over my students.”
—Tamara Jolly, Half-Earth Project Master Educator Ambassador
First Annual National Wilderness Month
On August 30th, the month of September was declared National Wilderness Month by President Biden. September has been designated as the month to raise awareness about beauty, fragility, and power of wild landscapes.
“Our natural wonders are at risk. Now more than ever, we must come together to combat the climate crisis and unprecedented acceleration of species extinction, to protect and conserve our great outdoors before it is too late.” —President Biden
With Wilderness Month coming to a close, I found myself reflecting on the importance of wild spaces and our access to them. I have spent most of my adult years working closely with incredible young people, as a high school science teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools. As a biologist and educator, I’ve grown to love and appreciate the true magic of natural spaces quite honestly through luck. My drive for adventure was cultivated through friends and travel opportunities presented through work, rather than growing up with these habits or learning them through my studies. As a black female, I never truly felt a connection to wild spaces or the land for a number of reasons, but I will save that story for another time. Through my travels, I learned first-hand how biased and exclusionary some of our most beautiful spaces can be. These experiences only reinforced how truly essential representation is for traditionally marginalized communities in our world. The unmatched beauty and healing properties of nature should be welcome to everyone, which unfortunately is not the case.
When I asked my students to go camping they scoffed at the idea and joked about it being only “for white people”. After some encouragement, they agreed to trust my suggestion and attend our inaugural trip. After an afternoon hike on the Appalachian Trail and cooking by the fire, I saw a visible calm wash over my students. The quick transformation that occurred in just an afternoon was baffling. I watched them chase each other in a thrilling game of tag, and I realized that they were allowing their inner child to return; letting go of the pressures and burdens they carried. As the sun went down, we laughed and talked fireside, watching the stars twinkle through the canopy above. As the night went on, they shared stories and bonded in ways that I could not have imagined. I am forever grateful for those moments and it was clear they were thankful as well. Before we left they asked if we could do it again next weekend, which was exactly how I was feeling as well. I convinced more students to join me for another trip which only confirmed what I had observed on our first trip. My students need to be closer to nature to truly understand that they belonged there. The founder of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson, often speaks about the need for proximity to truly understand an issue, and this was no exception. Students cannot understand something if they feel no connection to it, so we must work to create these wild spaces in any way that we can.
I began infusing more environmental education into my chemistry course, but when I learned of statewide changes to our science curriculum concerning environmental science, it was the last straw. I decided to apply for a sabbatical to study environmental science full-time, in hopes of becoming an expert that could advocate for systemic changes to our science curriculum. Thankfully the sabbatical was approved and I earned the privilege of moving to a remote part of the Adirondack Park to attend the SUNY Environmental Sciences and Forestry Ranger School. I spent the year studying environmental and natural resources conservation through their intense outdoor, hand-on program. My temporary home, which is part of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, forever changed my understanding of true wilderness and outdoor experiences. The clean air and water, the thriving wildlife, and the local emphasis on protecting these spaces, penetrated my being in a way that I will never forget. I left knowing one thing; we must do better for our young people, especially those living in urban spaces.
All children deserve to learn holistically about the world around them, especially about their role in our natural world. Students in urban classrooms are leaving without an honest understanding of human impact and this disservice may have massive impacts on their future. We can change this, but it starts in our classrooms and communities. While large cities may not have true wilderness like the spaces promoted this month, they do have green spaces filled with biodiversity. It is not the final answer, but it is a start. By using the resources that we have to showcase the wilderness in our own backyards, we can start to forge the long-term relationship with nature that students deserve. Many city school teachers know how difficult, or nearly impossible, it is to get funding or approval for trips – especially transportation, making ideas like this feel daunting or overwhelming. Instead we must use whatever wilderness we have at our disposal.
After taking some courses on nature education and diving into literature like E.O. Wilson’s Naturalist, I realized small changes can have significant impacts in this area. While recently enjoying the graphic novel edition of the book, I observed how seemingly small events had profound impacts on his life. Similarly, I hope these elemental changes will positively affect my students. In addition to infusing more nature into my chemistry curriculum, I started a Nature Block that can easily be infused into our schoolwide advisory model each week. Simple activities (even just 15 – 20 minutes each week) are already having a shocking effect on students’ connection to our campus and community. A quiet solo observation under a tree, cloud watching and sketching, and nature inspired art projects have already started to change their perception of the space outside of our classrooms. One group of 9th graders had the time of their life simply picking their favorite tree on campus and journaling about it. It became a heated competition, and watching students argue about why their tree was better filled my heart with joy. After our first solo moment outdoors, one senior wrote, “I feel like I don’t have a body anymore and I’m just a part of nature, like a sense of belonging.” Another said, “I noticed how peaceful it can be to sit outside with no phone and take time for yourself. This activity made me feel peaceful, calm, and relaxed. I will be doing this more often.”
While it is not the exact wilderness described this month, we did create our own little wilderness right outside of our building. I cannot wait to see how the new Nature Block progresses throughout the school year. Stay tuned for updates and ideas of how to infuse nature and biodiversity education into all schools, so that all students understand it is their right to be in nature too.
Northeast Wilderness Trust Helps us Celebrate Wilderness Month
The Northeast Wilderness Trust celebrates wilderness all year round but it’s wonderful to now have an officially dedicated month for elevating awareness, visibility, and engagement around all things wild.
Here are a few ways you can share the joy and beauty of wildlands!
· Visit a wilderness area to take a hike, paddle a boat, learn about a new plant or bug, or simply sit quietly and listen to the sounds of nature. To find lands protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust near you, click here.
· Throughout the US there are amazing State Parks, some more wild than other, but all worth visiting and exploring, click here. Pictured at the top of this blog post is the falls at DeSoto State Park in Alabama. Learn more about the incredible biodiversity in Alabama here.
· Share the good news with your friends and family in conversation or over social media.
· Learn something new about wildlife and nature by reading a book or article. Check out our recommended “Great Readings in Biodiversity” selections!
Keeping the Wilderness Forever Wild
In this fascinating conversation with Jon Leibowitz, Executive Director of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, we learn what it means for an area to truly be “wilderness” and the differences and designations between public and private land. A must listen to get a better understanding of how we can work toward conserving Half-Earth.