There are many large natural areas throughout our region, and they present a wide range of ecosystems and species. Yet few of us are familiar with common wild plants, their identification, natural history, food and medicinal uses, or the folklore associated with them. Because we live in an age when environmental issues are crucial, we must do more than provide our children with textbook information if we expect them to understand and appreciate the natural world, and to play a responsible role in conservation.
We study wild plants in the field from various perspectives: As the kids learn plant identification, we emphasize key characteristics, so everyone can recognize the various species. We include botanical and ecological concepts, and use stories and humor to make the lessons come alive. Tales come from natural and human history, as well as from my personal experience. We include ethnobotany-traditions of plant use for food, medicine, and crafts-as well as some of the ways folk wisdom complements science.
Related information from many areas of science is interwoven, and the campers are encouraged to ask questions. Conservation is paramount. We distinguish between renewable and nonrenewable resources, and stress the importance of managing our planet wisely. Appreciation of nature, more than fear of environmental destruction, leads us to take conservation to heart.
To reinforce the lessons, each participant collects samples of very common plants (i.e. weeds). Later on, the kids may draw, create craft projects, make pressings or spore prints, take photographs, or write about what they've discovered. The group may also prepare a wild food dish. Of course, there is repeated emphasis on the poisonous nature of some species, and we often point out that nobody should ever eat any wild plant without expert supervision. I try with my questions to encourage the kids to become involved, and to think for themselves. We also bring up my well-publicized history as an urban naturalist, to project a positive role-model.
Many well-informed young people watch nature shows on TV and are eager to learn more, but have no access to meaningful field experiences. We tell kids to say 'no' to drugs, while denying them an environmental alternative. I've been trying fill this gap since 1982, and welcome every opportunity make a greater difference. My goals are still to provide the finest hands-on education possible, and inspire people to learn about and care for their planet.