"What's the action of greatest impact?"
This is the question I have taped to the top of my computer screen. As a scientist, educator, and mom concerned with the fate of our planet, it’s something I contemplate on a daily basis. I recently had the opportunity to plumb the depths of my mind regarding this question while on a 500 mile solo road trip through arguably one of the planet’s most altered regions: the U.S. Corn Belt. One of the answers I came up with was to teach my children well, especially regarding the laws of nature and human interactions with them. I try to do so through our everyday activities—some spontaneous, and some planned—in the great outdoors of our local community.
We’re lucky enough to live in a pretty ideal urban setting when it comes to nature: next to a large public park with a substantial area devoted to wildness in addition to the usual manicured picnic area and ball field. We’re literally over there every day. Trips with the kids (ages 4 and 2) regularly include stream stomping, rock turning, and leaf picking (“Oh, watch out for THAT one! It will make you itchy.”). In so doing we learn about species diversity and that some flora and fauna are more common than others (“Why Mama?”). When we find trash -- little of which makes for good habitat -- we pick it up.
As the kids grow older and more capable, we’ve started to engage in more structured volunteer activities, furthering our human-nature education. We began participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count when my kids were 3 and almost 1. For a few days each February, we catalog the birds that frequent our feeder, as well as those we see in the park. We learn how to identify birds common in Iowa, their adaptations to winter, and differences between habitat specialists versus generalists. Last year we found black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, and blue jays wherever we went. We didn't see house sparrows in the more remote areas of the park, but they were the most abundant species in our yard, choosing to roost in our discarded Christmas tree. Surprisingly, we saw two bald eagles (“Why are they bald, Mama?”). We found them flying down the stream corridor in the park, but never saw them anywhere else.
Over the last two summers we've also volunteered as "goat checkers" for a local conservation organization. Story County Conservation uses goats to keep woody plants from encroaching on a native prairie remnant at one of their high quality preserves, Robison Wildlife Acres. Goat checking involves weekly trips to the preserve to make sure the goats are all there, the electric fence surrounding them is still intact, and they have plenty of water to drink. My older son, Freddy, particularly enjoys pulling over the encroaching trees and shrubs for the goats to munch on (my, how they come running!). And so we connect with a local organization that’s doing good work while also learning about preferred forage and a prairie’s need for periodic disturbance to remain intact.
My husband also signed us up as IOWATER volunteers. IOWATER is a statewide citizen-based water quality monitoring program in which we periodically sample water and record the characteristics of two streams: the one in our neighborhood park and a country stream located about 20 minutes from our home. We like to guess what values we'll observe before we make measurements of dissolved oxygen and water clarity, or what critters we might find. Thus, we teach the kids about making predictions, hypothesis tests, and data collection, which, when you really stop to think about it, expand beyond science skills to key life skills (“There are dark clouds in the western sky; I predict it’s going to rain later today so I’ll bring my raincoat with me”). We also talk about the critical issue of where our water comes from and where it goes.
These family educational activities give us loads of healthy outdoor fun, cost us little-to-nothing, and provide fantastic family bonding experiences – I hope the pictures I’ve included provide good evidence of this. But we aren’t really doing much besides making observations, picking up the occasional piece of trash, and learning for our own sakes, so how could they be considered "actions of greatest impact? I believe our impact is much greater than you might think, and here’s why:
- While picking up litter seems like a pretty minor thing, its actual influence could be huge. Social science research shows people are more likely to care for well-cared for places.
- With the Great Backyard Bird Count and IOWATER, we’re connecting with larger efforts. While the data my family collects is sparse, collectively volunteers provide a high density of data on ecologically important conditions. These data can play a crucial role by helping to reveal patterns that the more localized professional scientific research and monitoring projects might not pick up or may help focus the efforts associated with these professional projects.
- The goats are only working on a couple acre patch of prairie, but Robison Wildlife Acres is a demonstration site that other landowners and conservation organization in the region are watching. If they like what they see in terms of prairie response and cost effectiveness, they might adopt the practice. And in a state that now hosts less than one-tenth of a percent of its native prairie ecosystem, even small gains can be huge.
Finally, if we scale up these small efforts to also include your family, my neighbors' families, your siblings’ families, their neighbors’ families, and so on, these kinds of undertakings could result in something immense: generations of people more connected to the soil, water, flora, fauna, and people they depend on. I posit this would be the greatest impact of all. So, cheers to the New Year! I hope you to get your kids outside, teach them well, and share your experience.
This blog entry was also posted on Ecological Society of America's EcoTone blog.