Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.
How often do you spend time in nature? How closely do you observe your surroundings? Has the pandemic changed your relationship with the natural world in any way? If so, how?
In honor of Earth Day, we invite you to ponder these questions and tell us, too, about the coolest and most memorable things you’ve ever seen or experienced outside — whether on a camping trip in a remote place or in your own backyard.
To help, we’re excerpting two inspirational pieces. One, an Op-Ed essay by Margaret Renkl, “We Were Born to Be Wild,” points out how disconnected many of us are from the flora and fauna all around us:
Many people no longer feel a connection to the natural world because they no longer feel themselves to be a part of it. We’ve come to think of nature as something that exists a car ride away. We don’t even know the names of the trees in our own yards.
Nature is all around us anyway, and I’m not talking about just the songbirds and the cottontail rabbits in any suburban neighborhood. I’m talking about the coyote holed up in a bathroom at Nashville’s downtown convention center; the red-tailed hawks nesting in Manhattan; the raccoon climbing a skyscraper in St. Paul, Minn.; the black bear lounging in a Gatlinburg, Tenn., hot tub; the Eastern box turtle knocking on my friend Mary Laura Philpott’s front door.
These encounters remind us that we are surrounded by creatures as unique in their own ways as we are in ours. And our delight in their antics tells us something about ourselves, too. We may believe we are insulated from the natural world by our structures and our vehicles and our poisons, but we are animals all the same.
Thursday is Earth Day, and even if you can’t observe it by planting trees or pulling trash out of nearby streams, this week is a good time to remember that it’s never too late to become a naturalist. And the first step is simply waking up to our own need for the very world we have tried to shut out so completely.
For we belong to one another — to the house finches and the climbing raccoons and the door-knocking turtles and the bathing bears. Recognizing that kinship will do more than keep our fellow creatures safer. It will also keep us safer, and make us happier, too.
Another article, this one by Michelle Nijhuis and headlined “Plant a Love of Nature in Your Kids,” reminds us that, with an estimated one million species of plants and animals now at risk of extinction, the need for humans to coexist with other species is more critical than ever. It offers advice that anyone of any age might benefit from, including:
Show kids they can find refuge in the outdoors.
Almost every budding conservationist has discovered that plants and animals can be a source of comfort in difficult times. Rosalie Edge, who fought for the protection of hawks and eagles in the 1920s and 1930s, started bird watching in Central Park after the collapse of her marriage in 1921, reflecting that the sight of birds in flight “comes perhaps as a solace in sorrow and loneliness, or gives peace to some soul wracked with pain.”
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, a poet, essayist and author of “World of Wonders,” recalled that when she was growing up in Phoenix during the “stranger danger” panic of the 1980s, she felt as if the tall saguaro cactuses in her neighborhood watched protectively over her and her friends. Now, Dr. Sampson noted, the outdoors and its inhabitants can be a refuge from the stress and isolation of the pandemic.
“I think every single one of us — adult, teen, child — has been going through some kind of trauma or suffering over this past year,” he said. “We all need some rehab, and one of the easiest ways to do it is just to step outside.”
Enjoy other species in good company.
Conservation is about preserving relationships — among species, between species and their habitats, between humans and other species — so it’s fitting that conservationists often learn to care for plants, animals and habitats while in the company of friends and relatives. Emmanuel Frimpong, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies the ecology and conservation of freshwater fishes, attributed his love of streams to his childhood in Ghana, where he followed his father and uncles on long hikes to promising fishing holes.
Michael Soulé, the founder of the field of conservation biology, spent much of his adolescence roaming the Southern California desert with friends from the junior-naturalist program at the San Diego Natural History Museum. When exploring habitats with your kids, multiply their opportunities for wonder (and turn the experience into a party) by inviting their friends along, and allowing them to roam together.
Students, choose one of the two articles to read in its entirety, then tell us:
Is Margaret Renkl right? Do you no longer feel a connection to the natural world because you no longer feel a part of it? Is nature mostly a place you visit a car ride away? How would you describe your relationship with the natural world? Has it changed since you were a child?
Do you know the names of the trees and flowers, birds and animals in your backyard or local park? Have you, like many others, learned more about them during the pandemic? What is one thing you’ve noticed about nature in your own area recently? For instance, what is in flower right now? What birds are visiting your area this spring?
Think back, even if you have to go all the way to childhood: What are some of the most memorable moments you’ve had in nature? What have you observed that inspired awe or brought you joy? When have you ever felt true “kinship” with the natural world? Make a list if you can, the more specific the better. (If you’d like to be inspired, we asked a similar question back in 2013, and you can read the comments teenagers posted then.)
After thinking about some of your most memorable experiences, would you agree with the doctor quoted in Michelle Nijhuis’s article that, after the year we’ve all had, one of the easiest ways to “rehab” is to step outside? Do you find that going outside brings you the kind of solace and peace that many quoted in the article seem to feel?
One piece of advice in “Plant a Love of Nature in Your Kids” is to explore nature in the company of friends and relatives. Is there someone in your life who knows a great deal about the natural world and has taught you about it? What have you learned, and how? Do you have friends or relatives with whom it might be fun to plan a nature walk? Is there a park, garden, forest, pond, river or ocean near you, and, if so, are there volunteer opportunities to help care for it? In short, what plans can you make to get out into nature soon in a way that will be rewarding for you?
About Student Opinion
• Find all of our Student Opinion questions in this column.
• Have an idea for a Student Opinion question? Tell us about it.
• Learn more about how to use our free daily writing prompts for remote learning.
Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.