Developing a sense of place in a people who have no deep ties to the land is a major challenge to the environmental movement. An intellectual understanding of ecology and conservation is a necessary but not sufficient requirement of building a sustainable grass roots environmental movement. People need a sense of deep connection with the land to create the emotional engagement necessary to sustain a lasting environmental ethic. In a highly mobile society where few people have deep roots, developing a sense of place is especially challenging.

The urgent question is how to evoke an environmental consciousness in a populace with no deep connections to the place where they live. Typical of our generation, my husband and I moved to New Jersey because of employment. Neither of us had any connection to the history or the land. My family did have a strong land ethic and love of nature with deep roots in rural Virginia. Roaming the fields and woods of my aunt’s farm nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and encountering its wondrous flora and fauna cemented my love of nature. In time the love of nature inspired by the Virginia foothills transferred to a connection with all wild places, including the nature preserves of the Hopewell Valley where I now live. The most deeply committed conservationists I know can tell a similar story of a special place encountered when young. Developing a deep love of nature and a sense of place starts with exposure to the natural world while young.

Young children have a sense of wonder and a natural affinity towards the natural world, but it is important to expose them to nature before other interests distract them. My grandchildren started hiking as toddlers in backpacks as did their parents. The oldest grandchildren now point out birds for me to name as we hike, send me pictures of birds to identify, and are beginning to learn the local bird songs. With children, exposure is everything.

Because of the urgency of the problem of unsustainably diminishing wildlife and native flora, we cannot only engage the young, as important as it is, and then wait for the next generation of young conservationists to grow up. Sensitizing adults who have lost or never had a sense of wonder for the natural world is a more difficult challenge. Exposing adults to charismatic species such as birds is a good starting point. Hopefully as people bird their local “hot spots” they make connections between birds and habitats and begin to care about the conserving the places they bird. Take a friend or relative birding. That act may help start a movement.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS