As birders we all appreciate diversity and in fact I like being different. How so, you might ask? You see, I happen to be a B.O.C.. What’s that? Well, it’s a Birder of Color. In case you haven’t noticed, birding is a pretty homogenized past-time. The flock of folks who enjoy what many have characterized as the most popular outdoor hobby in the U.S. might be favorably compared to a gaggle of white-phase snow geese – with a few dark hued blue morphs thrown in here and there to make things interesting. I happen to be one of those uncommon dark hued birds. I’m not blue though, I’m black.
Being one of the few B.O.C.s out there, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to expose non-traditional audiences to the joys of birding and being out in nature. I get the chance here and there but hardly ever the extended time and concentrated attention I’d like to get my point across. My summer gig gives me the perfect opportunity to do just that.
A few years ago, I signed on with South Carolina State University and the US Forest Service at Savannah River o teach wildlife ecology to students in a an environmental sciences field station. Most of the students are juniors and senior undergraduates and come primarily from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's). The mission of the field station, run by my good friend Dr. Denise Simmons, is to expose a traditionally underserved audience to environmental issues ranging from remediation to soil science and in my class, wildlife conservation ecology. Although few of the students are in majors I would consider “environmental" sciences, they are at least in S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology , Engineering, Math) disciplines. It is a palette I can paint on. And so for four weeks in June, I finally have the forum to focus a small group of folks in to the necessity of nature and why it is especially important that they think about the environment as people of color.
Yesterday, I was out and about in the heat and humidity of a South Carolina almost-summer day with eight nearly dehydrated yet attentive field station students trying them to “connect the conservation dots.” The task, simple in concept but absurdly difficult in practice, is putting the pieces together to make some greater whole. For us birders and conservation professionals that means connecting bits and pieces of habitat to make things better for warblers, thrushes, tanagers and other birds we love. Since most of the students have never birded or botanized my goal for them is not so much be able to identify every bird they see and hear or snap off the latin names of plants. Rather it is to put themselves in the context of a larger, nature-centered focus. So my questions to them often go like this: “So guys, we’ve seen 1,000 year old cypress trees in the Beidler swamp watching over Prothonotary warblers, people promoting hunting to save wild turkeys and other wildlife at the National Wild Turkey Federation, and longleaf pine forests that need to be burned to conserve bobwhite quail. What ethic connects these things together?"
Of course the simple answer is conservation. They all get “A’s” there. But I press the issue forward, asking them how THEY fit into all of this. For an African-American engineering technology major from suburban Columbia who doesn’t know a warbler from a hole in the ground, the answer is never an easy one. To see the larger picture one of the first assignments I gave was to have each student compose a conservation ethic. Not only that but I ask them to blog about it and talk to their peers about it. Now some of you know that I’m a Leopold-ite and as such push the ideas of the land ethic whenever I can. And so the students are also responsible for reading A Sand County Almanac to help prime their pumps for the “connect the dots” exercise. Although I got back a couple questions back like “What’s a conservation ethic?” (…and sadly, one that I also get from my Clemson wildlife and forestry major students who are supposedly steeped in the stuff at a Land Grant Institution) I was pleasantly surprised at the responses.
Words like “sustainability”, “love” and “legacy” showed up. Phrases reflecting the connections between life, wildlife and our lives or honest statements about a lack of connection to nature but a desire to learn filled my head and heart with hope. They are showing that there is a color to conservation and it needs to be brought out. Their blogging is evolving and I can see the connections being made from the ground up.
As much as I push the teaching of Aldo Leopold, I’m learning a valuable lesson from my summer students. It is not an easy thing for many young African-Americans who’ve grown up connected to nature by a satellite dish and a few wildly exaggerated contrived "nature" shows to relate to some old white guy who wandered around on an abandoned farm in Wisconsin waxing poetically about “good oaks” and such almost eighty years ago. As much as I’d like to think that these kids would connect like I did –growing up rural and full of wonder when it came to birds and the world outside—it’s not the case. Most are growing up in urban or suburban settings and even those that grow up in rural areas are looking to get out as soon as possible. We need to help these folks reconnect in relevant ways. And so I think that I will begin to work on a “translation” of my beloved “Sand County”—a “revised standard version” of the conservation “Bible” if you will. Heck, if folks can translate the words of dieties and religious prophets to make them modern and relevant, why not the words of a conservation prophet? It’s high on my writing to-do list! Stay tuned.
Outside of a couple of lectures to introduce them to the principles of conservation ecology, I didn’t want to waste good, sunny days on boring PowerPoint presentations. That means most days we load into an aging but functional (and air conditioned!) mossy green Dodge van and hit the road. So far my octet of students have been to the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, SC to learn a little history and how conservation in the United States has been supported by the efforts of people who like to occasionally kill the things they love. Doesn’t that sound odd? That someone would watch birds and try to kill some of them seems “wack” to many folks. Well it’s not. As a turkey and deer hunter, I pay taxes and license fees that go back into supporting the resources I occasionally exploit. Birders seldom bear the same burden. Let’s be honest here. Because I spend so much time watching for other birds in the new green spring woods, the turkeys win almost every time and so some might call my efforts less hunting than just being out. But I proudly carry the hunter banner and the ideals of the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation and want the students to understand the ethic that underlies that. I saw the connection exemplified almost like nowhere else when I was at Magee Marsh a few weeks back at the “Biggest Week in American Birding” and was re-invigorated to make sure I carry the message forward. The students seemed thrilled to be so up close and personal with a bird as grand bird as the wild turkey and I think they got the message. Even though none of them hunt, they all like to eat meat and so they understand the connections to legacy, sustainability, ethical hunting and conservation. They were rewarded with a stop at a local produce stand on the way home to buy some of the sweetest peaches in the world that grow on the sandy South Carolina ridges and in doing so support local foods and sustainability! Experiential learning is a good thing!
This is the kindest, wildest place I know as you can wind through true old growth, virgin timber in your tennis shoes and shorts without concern for cottonmouths. And so novices and non-nature-nics can be comfortable in the midst of wildness. It is a place where many of the bald cypress, tupelo and other trees are hundreds of years old with a couple of specimens more than a thousand years in the growing. It is the largest expanse of virgin bald cypress swamp in the world and it’s in our back door here in South Carolina. It’s a place where golden nuggets of feathers called Prothonotary warblers flit through the buttressed colonnades of forest almost close enough to touch.
And so yesterday was another chance to expose them to something new. This time, I wanted them to see how the same organization, South Carolina Audubon could conserve old growth in one place with a preservationist perspective, and not more than a couple of hours away in another sanctuary at Silver Bluff, manage the threatened long leaf pine ecosystem and wetlands for federally endangered wood storks in a much more intensive manner.
|l to r: Iris, Simone, GiGi, Javashia, Michael, Briana, Quin, Chris--Me in green|
|Silver Bluff overlooking the Savannah River|
|egret nuptial plume - a feather that started a movement!|
P.S. A huge thanks to Robert Mortensen for giving me this platform! I am amongst bird-brained conservation kindred here and some really cool folks. I'm glad to be in the number and offer a little "Down South" flavor of a different hue! Looking forward to the blogs ahead!