By Katie Finch
At Audubon, winter is the season of classroom programs. Many of my winter weekdays are spent in elementary classrooms presenting programs about science concepts. In a third-grade program called Hunters and Hunted, students examine images and play games to learn about adaptations of predators and prey. When asked about fast predators, nine times out of ten students say, “Cheetah!” Yet, our example of a fast predator is a Cooper’s Hawk. When asked about a predator that sits and waits for its prey to come to them students say “Panther!” Yet our example of a sit and wait predator is a Praying Mantis.
All the examples of predators and prey in this program are animals found locally. The exhibits and signs inside and outside the Nature Center interpret local plants and animals. Many of our live animals are native to the region. The animals that are not native are used to teach about our local animals.
Why does Audubon focus almost exclusively on local flora and fauna, habitats, and natural phenomenon? Most science concepts, whether it is predator and prey, life cycles, ecology or more can be taught using examples from habitats in any part of the world. It is more common to teach about a dramatic African predator than one that children could see in their backyard.
In classrooms, I tell students we teach about local nature because they may have a chance to see these things in real life. If they have experiences outside, nature can continue this lesson for them. Nature can also be their teacher – or already has been.
I think it is also something more. I think we choose to interpret local systems and their inhabitants because it helps develop a sense of place. A sense of place is defined as the characteristics that make a place what it is. It is also the feel we have about a place and the meanings we attach to it. This idea of a sense of place feels obvious, yet is hard to explain. It feels simple, yet highly significant to understanding our world and ourselves in it.
Think about a place you know well. How have you come to know it and what does it means to you? For me, I’ll use Audubon. When I first started working at Audubon, it was all new and held little meaning to me. Each day, the place started to develop its own identity. In my mind, the photo blind on Spatterdock is also called “The Cattail Party” because one fabulous fall day, a small group of campers and I explored the seed heads of cattails by picking them and enthusiastically shaking them out in the small space. The light, wind-borne seeds were everywhere – the best confetti ever! So were our smiles and laughs.
The corner of Route 62 and Riverside Road was the place where, in 2014, a Snowy Owl hung out for weeks. Every time I drive by in the winter, I look for that distinctive white shape atop a telephone pole.
I’ve learned when, where (and sometimes why) things are likely to happen. On Audubon’s blue trail, there is one bend I check for River Otter tracks in the winter snow. The next bend I keep my eyes and ears open for the illusive wetland bird, the Sora, in spring.
As I move through the building and grounds, I encounter lots more places tied to memories like these. In the years of looking, listening, and working in this place, I’ve learned about birds, seeds and the travels of animals and how to apply this knowledge to other places. Most likely, we all have places like this. For students, and really for everyone, my hope is that they can develop a similar sense of place. Cheetahs and lions are amazing, but for most of us, they don’t add to our understand of the yards, streets, trails, and region we spend most of our time.
Developing this sense of place can be important because knowledge can lead to appreciation. And appreciation for a place may lead to deeper emotional attachment, including a sense of belonging. And sometimes, when a place feels like “yours”, acts of care, compassion and stewardship may follow.
As an environmental organization, this responsibility to learn about and care for our natural spaces is important. But something else happens when we get to know a space too – we learn about ourselves and others.
At Audubon, I learned how to be a better teacher and a better human. The loose parts in the play area will always be known to me as the place where kids, in one boy’s words, “save themselves” by manipulating loose parts, failing, and deciding how to fix things. In the spruce forest, I have seen the lightbulb of connection go off while students make their own discoveries with little to no input from me. I see the wild honeybee hive, where encouraging feelings of comfort and safety were more important than sharing facts. I can walk by locations where I have made mistakes, places I should have listened rather than talked, stopped to problem solve rather than plow ahead, and places I should I have spoken up rather than stayed silent.
A sense of place is the bond we have with a place and the meanings we attach to it. So, why does Audubon focus on local nature? For my part, it is to help students of all ages develop a sense of their place. A sense of belonging and home. To feel rooted in the large world around them. To show them that the world is great and grand but made up of lots of small, important parts, including each of us. To know your neighbors, whether they are people or plants, animals, soil and sun, is to also to know yourself.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.