Last week I joined an enthusiastic crowd for a talk given at Zealandia by Bill Oddie, a former member of a British TV comedy troupe called the Goodies. Familiar with neither Bill nor the Goodies, I was drawn by the description of Bill as a keen birder and ardent conservationist who had hosted many wildlife shows with the BBC.
Bill’s talk skimmed over his early career as a comedian and focused mostly on his conservation work, including some of his adventures with banding puffins, being dive-bombed by great skua birds, and observing other birds around the world. Early on in his talk, Bill said that one of his primary concerns was the lack of opportunity that modern children have to explore the outdoors freely. He went on to describe his own formative experiences that included avidly collecting birds’ eggs (something that I also ruefully recall doing), and emphasized the role that adult mentors played in giving him opportunities for field experience.
So I was not surprised when he returned to this theme in his closing comments. “You’ll recall I said that I believe kids need time to explore without adults directing them.” He continued with a story about his daughter, Rosie, when she was 13. A lovely fox had come into the garden, and he called to her to come look at it. She declined, and the fox left. But eventually it returned, and this time Bill insisted that Rosie leave whatever it was she was doing (“Probably playing a computer game or something like that…”) to come see the fox, and she reluctantly complied. When Bill excitedly pointed out the window, Rosie uttered a phrase that now, years later, has become family lore: “And this affects me how?”
I loved this story and that response, mostly because they so perfectly represent the struggle that many naturalists face in trying to induce a sense of wonder among not only our unimpressed family members, but also in our students, colleagues, and the entire rest of the world, it often seems. I was also halfway anticipating a magical Disney moment in the story, when girl meets fox and falls in love and becomes an avid conservationist – and the reality is, that particular happy ending probably never happens. “This just goes to show,” said Bill Oddie, ending his story, “that we can’t rely on kids to naturally get it. We have to show them.”
Much of my time in New Zealand has been spent thinking about and observing ways to help kids find the answer to that question, “And this affects me how?” Some of the best practices that I’ve seen here for teaching an ethic of conservation and sustainability include asking that same question of the children who have field experiences at the Zoo and Zealandia sanctuary. How does this make you feel? How will you take it with you, and what will you do with it? Ultimately, the question shifts from a focus on the self to one’s role in a community: How will you share this with others?
At the end of his talk, Bill took questions from the audience. His response to “Which bird do you find the most amazing?” was to show a final film clip. You can see the clip here, the second one near the bottom of the page (for best view, don’t enlarge).
One starling is one starling, but one starling among many is a symphony.