Account/Log In

Book Review

Connecting with Nature: A Naturalistís Perspective

Early in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard discusses the art, for lack of a better word, of observing keenly. She writes, “I squint at the wind because I read Stewart Edward White: ‘I have always maintained that if you looked closely enough you could see the wind—the dim, hardly-made-out, fine debris fleeing high in the air.’ White was an excellent observer, and devoted an entire chapter of The Mountains to the subject of seeing deer: ‘As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious, then you too will see deer.’”

To read Connecting with Nature is to understand that Robert Stebbins is one who is both a lover of and knowledgeable about nature.

In the first paragraph of Chapter 1, he writes: “One of my earliest memories is of a warm day, a field with many grasshoppers, a shallow creek with cold water, and the joy of a day in the hills with my parents. My dad had gone fishing and I was free to wander about nearby. It was summer in the Gray Pines foothills of the Sierra Nevada, near Chico, CA, where I was born…. along the creek I found a turtle! I had hoped someday to have one as a pet. I ran with the wondrous creature cradled in my hands to show my Mom. I was enthralled with its bright eyes, the feel of its claws, and its cold body as it struggled to free itself from my grasp. So began a lifetime of connecting with nature.” This emeritus professor of zoology and emeritus curator in herpetology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, is the kind of science teacher you would like your kid to have.

Roughly the first quarter of this book is devoted to getting kids interested in nature and helping them to see as well as Annie Dillard’s herpetologist sees. A later section, “The High Cost of Ecological Illiteracy,” makes the case for having students understand the significance of the ecosystem and the price the earth and its creatures (including humans) pay when we ignore that significance.

We can see Stebbins’s concern for this in the section where he discusses “An Excessively Human-Centered Perspective—Causes and Consequences.” Here he discusses attitudes that cause environmental problems. He lists three:

“(1) The assumption that humans have the right, or ‘manifest destiny,’ to extract from nature whatever is needed or desired regardless of, or indifferent to, the cost to other organisms.

“(2) The assumption that other organisms have little value except as they may in some way serve our needs and desires. ‘What good is it’ or ‘Of what use is it?’ may be common questions.

“(3) The assumption that human ingenuity, technology, and know-how can ultimately solve all problems, including unending economic growth…. Nature exists to serve man, thus nature is to be used. A giant sequoia is seen in board feet; deserts and swamps as places needing development. To what extent are natural resources considered as also belonging to the nonhuman animal and plant world?”

We can all think of instances in which this sort of myopic reasoning has resulted in damage, not only to the natural environment, but the people living in that environment: mountain tops removed to expose buried coal, fracking to release natural gas trapped in rocks, forests clear-cut to reduce the price of lumbering, wolf populations eradicated to protect herds of cattle introduced into wolf habitat.

This book also contains imaginative activities to get students interested in nature, excited about what they learn, and to make them good stewards of the natural environment. Among these, Stebbins encourages drawing and writing, not only to record information, but also to sharpen students’ observational skills.

This book could enliven the lessons of all K–12 life science teachers. It is also a book parents would enjoy owning. Want to know what to do with your daughters and sons when you go camping? Check out Stebbins.