I first wrote this article over twenty years ago but in reading it over and revising a bit I wanted to share this message again as an encouragement to those who are doing the important work of connecting people and nature.
Does outdoor environmental education really make a difference? Does spending a few days or even hours in the woods listening, looking, feeling, and smelling with a group of kids really change anything? Is the planet better off because someone spent some time in one of our programs as a workshop participant? Is it really worth the effort?
It seems that just about everyone who has worked at a residential environmental learning center or been involved in environmental education in some form asks these or similar questions at some time. I have on more than one occasion been confronted with a naturalist/instructor asking, “do I really make a difference?”
Sitting back and contemplating the questions once again, while realizing that I wouldn’t still be at it if I believed any differently, I always come around to the same reply. Yes, you make a difference. It is worth the effort, and you are not alone.
I usually come back to the idea that we are planting seeds. The seeds that we plant have great potential but require continued care, and nourishment. Some seeds have not yet sprouted and need the fertile soil of opportunities that will help them develop wonder in the intricacies of a creation of which they are a part. Some are already well rooted in wonder and appreciation and need to be nurtured by experiences and knowledge that will cause those roots to go deeper seeking answers and solutions along the way. Others have experienced drought and need to be refreshed and re-charged by returning to a place where they can drink in the wonder once again.
One might observe that the gardener who plants seeds but does not see them bear fruit will become weary. This may be the point at which the, “do I make a difference?” questions come about. Since our outdoor experiential education encounters with people are brief, it is difficult to know if the small seeds that we have planted have taken root or not. In some cases our short time may be one of few such encounters that that individual may have. The gardener too cannot foresee which seeds will produce fruit and which will rot or be eaten by the birds. The gardener does know however that if she/he stops planting seeds there won’t be a harvest.
We often have a sharing circle at the end of a program where participants have an opportunity to share something that had meaning to them during their experience. After these sessions instructors will often share that a child that they had perceived as unmovable had given a startling testimonial as to the impact that the week had had upon them. The sharing sessions that we have at the end of our adult sessions are equally surprising as participants share insights, and impressions that they say have had significant impacts upon their lives. These along with the daily discoveries and joys are signs of growth that are certainly encouraging. Of the things that happen once departed we receive only glimpses.
The longer one is involved in outdoor environmental education however, the more glimpses come to view, and the confidence in the importance of planting seeds becomes more certain. Letters from appreciative teachers and students, encounters with those who attended programs as a child, friends who return again and again with students or to attend a special workshop, stories of students whose experience affected their choice of career, instructors who send a thank you note a decade later about the impact of their time leading people to engage with wild places, those who have been motivated to do something to care for the Earth.
Each of us can trace our love for nature to some early experience when and where the seeds were planted. Mine began with parents that took me camping, Scouts, and then an opportunity to work at a natural history museum while in high school. There were people in my life, and yours, who were planting seeds. Some of those people were probably wondering if it was really worth it. There were really many seeds, and opportunities to nourish them along the way. Those who planted them were not alone. Rachel Carson said,
“children need the companionship of an adult who can share their sense of wonder, rediscovering the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. …..It is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soils in which the seed must grow.”
So, outdoor environmental educator, interpreter, naturalist, teacher, gardener, just interested, or whatever you want to call yourself, consider your own growth. Many of you are testimonials to those who planted seeds or exposed you to fertile soils and nourishment. Is it worth it? Is the planet better off? As for me, changing the world all at once is too big a job. But planting a seed? It needs to be done carefully, but it’s easy when you enjoy it. I’m not the only one who will care for that seed, It’s potential reaching far beyond my lifetime. After all we’ll only reap what we sow.