Megan, Maguire Fellow in Dallas

Megan B. is a graduate student studying anthropology. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility. She is spending the summer studying environmental advocacy with the Trinity River Audubon Society.

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Learning to See

If you were given a box of crayons and asked to draw a scene from nature, you would probably first start with the green and brown crayons, maybe adding a swath of blue for the sky and a round yellow ball in the sky as your sun. When you start to look closely at the world, though, you realize that there is a lot more detail than you can capture with four crayons.

We took the campers on a “color hike” last week. Before we left, each camper was given a few swatches of paint color, and then had to look for those colors while on our hike. The campers aren’t just given swatches of green and brown, but also brighter colors: purples and reds, magentas and yellows, blues and whites. As we hike through different habitats, we see how the colors of plants and animals change. More importantly, we start to notice details that might have escaped us previously.

Paint swatches from our color hike.

As a young anthropologist, too, much of my work involves learning to see. I am learning to notice the words people say and how they say them, the spaces with which they interact and the ways in which they move their bodies. Just like learning anything, this takes practice.

As I wrap up my summer, I’ve been reflecting on power, space, morality, and our obligations to other living things – sweeping themes that trace their way through human history, all the way to nature camp.

The main goal of these summer camps, as camp staff have told me in their interviews, is for children to be able to engage with and explore the environment in a fun, positive setting. I have watched children start off the week screaming about every bug they see (and the nature center, as a healthy habitat, has a lot of insects), but finish the week happily exploring the trails. A positive experience at nature camp might look different for every child: for some, conquering their fears of insects and diseases might simply mean being able to take a hike without screaming or shouting in fear. For others, they get the opportunity to have a tactile interaction with the wild earth: a place with stinging insects and poison ivy and the sharp spines of the honey locust tree, but also a place with a startling range of strangely shaped leaves, curious insects, and quiet creatures going about their lives.

On one hike, a group of kids crowded around a brown male wolf spider, as one boy screamed, “KILL IT!”

“It’s okay to be scared,” one counselor told the group. She turned to the child who was screaming.

“Are you at home?” she asked him.

“No,” the child replied.

“Are you at a nature center?”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“What’s a nature center’s purpose? To respect animals.”

This simple interaction reframed the child’s experience in terms of a core value of this space: respect for other living things. Fear is an acceptable, and even healthy, emotion to feel at times. But at camp, fear of others or the unknown is not a justifiable reason for causing harm. The children relaxed as they realized that the spider was not trying to hurt them, and, after watching the spider curiously for a few more moments, the group hiked onward.

During an animal encounter with one of the center’s chuckwallas (lizards), the kids were reminded that they were a group now, not individuals, and the poor behavior of one student would mean that all of them would not be able to interact with the chuckwalla. We talked about how chuckwallas have feelings, like fear, and how they make decisions. As the chuckwalla roamed around the circle of children the second time, one of the girls leaned over and told me, “The first time I was scared, and now I want him to crawl on me.”

A chuckwalla (center) with a counselor and campers.

In the face of climate change and other pressing environmental challenges, adults put a lot of hope in the next generation of children. At nature camp, the children start to see the environment as something that is not separate from themselves. The environment is not merely something which surrounds us. We as humans are an active element of our ecosystems. Our actions affect the lives of others. Campers practice respect not only for each other, but also for all living things they encounter. They benefit from the positive health effects of spending time outside. Mostly, though, the children think they are just having fun as they play games in the lab or look through their binoculars.

Spending the summer at nature camp helped me to become more familiar with the history of land here in Dallas; people, plants, and animals who live on that land; and the way the land in our backyard connects with the lives of others downstream, as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. It has been an experience in learning to see everything from insects and birds to patterns of power.

As the summer wraps up and we move into the semester again, I challenge you to keep your eyes open. Look for the life that surrounds you, and consider the broader systems at play.

“The world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle…” – Robert Warren, All the King’s Men

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