There has not been a time in my life where I wasn’t in love with nature. From my pre-school days playing with toy animals and those 100 piece farm sets complete with farm animals and a metal barn, to my first set of binoculars and my very first copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, to my teenager days of dreaming to be the next Marlin Perkins or a Frank or John Craighead tagging grizzly bears, I was bitten by the nature bug.
While I was interested in other things, nature always took top priority. By the age of ten I knew every bird and every bird song emanating from the mountains surrounding my home. I turned my attention to learning about flowers, trees, mammals and everything else nature. I couldn’t wait to watch Wild Kingdom every Sunday night to see what Marlin Perkins and his side kick Jim Fowler would be doing, and I waited for each new National Geographic Special that would air on TV. I even taped those shows and would play them at night. Instead of music, it was these tape recorded shows that would lull me to sleep.
And while I was the only person in my community who had such a passion for nature, I wasn’t one to brag about it. I kept it to myself, except for my family. Living in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, the only connection most folks had to nature was to either fish for it, hunt for it, or trap for it. And it didn’t matter if how it was done was legal or illegal; the “dominion over nature” aspect of nature was the prevailing thought of the region. In many respects, it still is today.
Since my Dad wasn’t a hunter (he loved to fish), we did not have guns in our home. So I wasn’t exposed to the hunter approach to nature appreciation. I wasn’t interested in the consumptive aspects of nature. Instead, I became a fanatic birder and I was probably the only birder in the county or region for that matter. I became a self-taught naturalist, soaking in every nature book I could find in my school’s library and on the shelves of the Book Mobile that visited our town once a month. I couldn’t get enough of learning about the trees, animals, natural history and ecology of our country. I thought nothing of roaming the mountains around my home – most of the time alone. I dreamed of being a wildlife biologist and a refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That dream came true for me as I spent 28 years working for the Service and other organizations in wildlife ecology.
How did a little boy growing up in a poverty-stricken region of the country achieve his dream? Well, determination and not paying attention to all the naysayers helped, and believe me, there were many folks who told me it wouldn’t happen. My rock of strength during this time was my mother who saw my passion for nature as a way to escape the harsh life of the coalfields. She also figured out that this fascination with nature would keep me out of trouble most of the time. So she encouraged me to continue learning and exploring. She got me books, my first binoculars and field guides. She sent me to a science camp when I was 13 and surprised me one Christmas with a brand new Sears and Roebuck spotting scope.
My mother didn’t actively participate in my love for nature (she was bit older than most Moms), but she did play a critical role in encouraging me to continue learning about it. She provided the tools to help me learn and develop my skills. She was always there.
So, as a father today, I’ve attempted to do the same thing with my son Carson. To see what I offer as a father in getting kids engaged in nature, read Part IV: A Father’s Perspective.