Being green can be lonely. As a botanist and urban conservation biologist, I fancy myself a real eco-type: preserving open space and restoring rare plant populations, what could be greener than that? Yet in the environmental community at large, I feel like an outsider.
Apprising people of my line of work, the response is either puzzled looks or inquiries about a certain stubborn mildew on prized garden roses. People no longer know what a botanist does, which is study plants in the wild. The current green conversation gushes over emerging technologies and new design. It is enthralled with the latest eco-iteration ("Is your pen good enough for the planet?") and focused on calculating carbon footprints. This focus on "modern" and "cutting edge" ignores the history of the movement and leaves me feeling like I exist in backwater, a quaint and irrelevant anachronism. Where, in this discussion, is nature? After all, doesn't the color green come from good ol' chlorophyll?
I found the answer this summer in the mainstream media. Over a two-month period, The New York Times published six articles with the same message -- people need to connect to nature. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
After a few happy days of feeling relevant, I started to consider the logistics. While I applaud the Times' urging people outside, I wonder who will guide them? For most folks, the logical first step is a guided walk in the woods with an expert who can provide information and context. Someone to explain how the invasive garlic mustard threatens spring wildflowers and point out the differences between rough and early goldenrods. Someone to enrich the vista with meaning. Where does such an education come from?
It doesn't come from our schools. Botany, entomology and other organismal science departments have been sorely neglected or cut, over-shadowed by revenue generators like genetics and biotechnology. In lower grades, environmental science classes focus on global issues and ignore local nature. Students aren't given an opportunity to meet their foliar neighbors. Just as biodiversity has become a buzzword, the number of people trained to recognize it has dropped precipitously. Even in a scholastic environment, the latest and newest have an allure that overshadows tradition and quiet observation.
Not only has the academic framework for natural history faltered, scientific repositories are also threatened, such as herbaria. These collections of pressed plants are important records of the floristic past and useful for identifying species. The Mannahatta Project that is so hot right now? Wouldn't exist without herbarium specimens. These kinds of records are essential tools for biodiversity. Yet it is also true that budget cuts make preserving these collections less attractive to administrators. Many an herbarium has been tossed thoughtlessly into the trash.
Cut botany programs, discarded herbaria -- no wonder people have to be told to go outside by columnists of a national newspaper. Nature education is no longer easily accessible or known. It is sad that even within the green community, the study of plants in the wild is an alien concept. Who will connect people to their own innate love of nature? What institution will help engage people in the rich, fecund, and fascinating natural wonders around them? NYC Wildflower Week strives to do exactly that, but we are one small program and the need is vast.
I hope the leaders and trendsetters of the green movement read the Times' articles and take the advice to heart. In the meantime, the dearth of fellow naturalists is making me feel lonely again.
Learn more about Nature Deficit Disorder
Also check out this exclusive TDG video of Marielle Anzelone talking about Wildflower Week and the importance of protecting, and exploring, urban nature:
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