That which can
best be learned in the
outdoors, should there be taught.
In a celebrated and oft-quoted letter,
Wallace Stegner writes:
have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining
wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests
to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if
we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into
zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and
dirty the last clean streams... So that never again can we have
the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and
individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and
rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the
natural world and competent to belong to it.(1)
Just what will we have lost?
Nothing, replies Martin Krieger, in his notorious paper,
"What's Wrong With Plastic Trees?" After all, we are "plastic people"
-- that is, infinitely malleable. We can adopt to anything, and like
My guess is that
there is very little wrong with [plastic trees]. Much
more can be done with plastic trees and the like to give most
people the feeling that they are experiencing nature. We will
have to realize that the way in which we experience nature is
conditioned by our society...(2)
If Krieger is right, then perhaps
Governor Byrne should have shut down this School in the early
eighties. And you know I don't believe that!
In rebuttal to Krieger's
de-naturalized humanism, we presented the biophilia
hypothesis of E. O. Wilson - the contention that, in the words
of Hugh Iltis, "like the need for love, the need for nature, the need
for its diversity and beauty, has a genetic basis." The biophilia
hypothesis is compellingly plausible. If true, it tells us that a
human life entirely detached from nature suffers an experiential
amputation. Moreover, biophilia bears profound educational
implications, for it supports the contention that an artificialized
education comprised of abstract and isolated facts, confines the
understanding and the imagination. To illustrate this point, consider
something as ordinary as a rock.
When tossed on a table in a geology
lab, the student will appropriately attack that rock with an iron
nail and a piece of glass to determine its hardness, then a couple of
drops of HCL to test for calcium, following which he will reach for
other diagnostic chemicals, then take it to a water tank to measure
its specific gravity, and so on. If he is a competent student, he
will correctly identify its mineral content. If he aspires to become
a mining engineer or even a concert pianist he will likely have spent
the hour most profitably, for he will either have moved closer to
professional competency, or will have been "liberally educated" in
the methods of scientific analysis.(3)
But let him encounter the same rock
where it was found - on a mountain ridge, or by a brook, or on a
talus slope at the based of a cliff. Once he has applied the nail,
glass and acid, the student might then explore the natural contexts
of his discovery, whereupon he will become more than a student of
geology. What formation did the rock fall from? What are the
immediate neighbors of that formation? Where did they come from? How?
When? How do the materials in this rock affect the soil, the plants,
and the wildlife of the area? How does the mountain from which it
came alter the prevailing weather conditions? How have the wind in
his face and the water by his feet carved the mountain to this shape?
In the laboratory, the student will duly mark the word "sedimentary"
and, if asked the ago of the specimen, will put down some digits with
several zeros after them. At the site of the discovery, he sees the
ripple marks of an ancient sea near the mountain top. Or he looks a
thousand feet up a sheer cliff that has been cut by this little
river, calm enough now that the can see the trout poking at the
bottom. In a book, time and space are abstracted and coded into
numbers. In nature, they may be encountered in close
interrelationship and with profound implications. Time is
manifested in the spatial depth of this canyon. Space is
measured by the time the light of that star began its journey to our
retina. The immensity of time and space are personal to us in the
wilderness: as personal as hiking across or paddling through a
canyon. As personal as gazing at the starlight in the moonless
mountain night sky.
The rock, encountered where it lay
for millions of years, belongs to no department. With it, from it,
one feels the immensity of geological time; but one also learns of
weather, of plants, and of resources. One sees nature as a community
in which a change in one part changes the whole.
Science has enormously and
permanently expanded our knowledge of nature. It is a lens and an
analytic grid which makes sense of that which, encountered naively,
is full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing. Aldo Leopold makes
the point vividly when he contrasts the modern scientist's encounter
with nature to that of Daniel Boone, who's reaction to the
only on the quality of what he saw, but on the quality of the
mental eye with which he saw it. Ecological science has wrought
a change in the mental eye. It has disclosed origins and
functions for what to Boone were only facts. It has disclosed
mechanisms for what to Boone were only attributes.... We may
safely say that, as compared with the competent ecologist of
the present day, Boone saw only the surface of
Science, then, is indispensable to
our understanding of nature - but it is not, by itself, sufficient.
For science is an artificial construct of technical vocabularies, of
theoretical structures and of methodologies. To paraphrase the
philosopher, Immanuel Kant, the artifice of science without the
natural is empty, while nature encountered without scientific
hypothesis (or artistic expression) is encountered blindly. Nature is
nothing less than the pre-existing and co-existing reality from which
the scientist endeavors to abstract his knowledge. And nature is a
reality which the artist proposes to interpret and express;. Homo
sapiens is necessarily and at times gloriously artificial.
However, as we human beings directly encounter, respond to,
elaborate, and glorify our natural dimension and estate, our artifice
becomes powerful, profound, and marvelous.
Herein I refer to the simple
distinction between knowledge and appreciation. Yet
the educational implications of that distinction are clear and
compelling, and provide a philosophical foundation for outdoor
education. We must restore and enhance our contact with the Earth
both by understanding the earth through the sciences, and by
appreciating the Earth through direct encounter outside our
artificial doors. Knowledge is intellectual, and
appreciation is the esthetic, emotional and moral supplement
to the knowledge that leads to action. The heavy smoker knows that he
is taking a risk: appreciation comes too late, with the diagnosis. We
know that the tropical rain forests are disappearing at the rate of
an acre a second, but do we appreciate it? The National
Geographic will teach us that the Grand Canyon is a mile deep
and two-hundred miles long; appreciation comes from sitting
on the south rim, feet dangling over a thousand feet of sheer drop,
looking across to Bright Angel Canyon. Books will tell us of the eras
and periods of geological history; appreciation comes as we leave the
rim of that canyon and walk down through the strata of frozen time
toward the Phantom Ranch in Granite Gorge. Star Trek's Spock
and Data have knowledge, but lack appreciation.
Captains Kirk and Piccard have both, and thus they are appropriately
In my environmental ethics classes
and in throughout my publications, I discuss the theory of Biophilia
-- the theory that we have a genetically coded affinity with natural
landscapes. But it was my own biophilic appreciation, nourished
during my youth in these New Jersey forests, and later in the rivers
of Colorado, the deserts of Utah and the mountains of California that
led me to my career and thence to those classrooms and pages. And it
was the same appreciation, nourished in that same Utah and California
wilderness, that inspired and motivated the founding directors of
this School of Conservation.
I rather doubt that any amount of
scientific knowledge, or scare stories about the consequences of our
environmentally evil ways, will suffice to save our natural world and
thus ourselves. If we preserve nature, and with it ourselves, it will
be due to our love for it and not simply our need of it. And
that love must come from direct encounter.
And so we have at last, but by no
means least, articulated what is potentially the most important, if
insufficiently valued, of your contributions to Education here at the
New Jersey School of Conservation: the humanization and activation of
knowledge through appreciation Sadly, the need of
our youth to encounter nature directly is increasing, just as the
opportunities, the demand, and the places for such encounters are
shrinking. We need in the public, and especially among the youth, a
constituency for the earth, and for that we need professional
educators to lead the youth away from the tube, out of the classroom,
and into nature's realm.. "In wildness," wrote Thoreau, "is the
preservation of the world."
May your good work, and that of your
students and theirs, continue so long as the rivers run to the sea,
and there are moral agents worthy of our good Earth.
Copyright 1998 by Ernest Partridge
1. Wallace Stegner,
The Sound of Mountain
Water, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969, pp. 146-7.
2. Martin Krieger, "What's Wrong With Plastic
Trees?" Science, February 2, 1973., 453.
3. Most of these final comments are
"auto-plagiarisms" from my "The Lessons of Nature," in The
Journal of Environmental Education, 5;3, Winter, 1973.
A Sand County Almanac,
Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 194.