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Children are losing a connection with nature

By Kathy Chaffin
Salisbury Post
As a young man growing up in Davidson and Henderson counties, PBS producer, writer and host Tom Earnhardt says he worked Mondays through Saturdays and went to church on Sundays.
That didn’t leave any time for his passion ó trout fishing.
Earnhardt, who was at Catawba College Thursday for the “Faith, Spirituality and Environmental Stewardship” conference, said he asked his parents if he could miss church every second or third Sunday to go trout fishing.
They gave their approval provided he got permission from their Baptist minister, the Rev. Roy Bradford. When Earnhardt asked him, he said Bradford, who also worked as a policeman in Hendersonville, responded, “Tell me where you’re going to fish.”
Earnhardt proceeded to name a few rivers and creeks.
“Are these places that inspire awe?” he said Bradford wanted to know.
Yes, Earnhardt responded.
Bradford then asked what drew him to those places. Earnhardt said he described the natural habitat and vegetation of his favorite fishing spots to his minister.
“(Bradford) said, ‘I can’t compete with that,’ ” Earnhardt said, “so I got personal absolution and I’ve carried it through the rest of my life.”
As host of the PBS series, “Exploring North Carolina,” Earnhardt reports on natural resources all over the state, experiencing the awe of nature on a regular basis.
Because modern technology keeps many children in front of computer and television screens, they do not have the same opportunities to experience the same awe as earlier generations. “I’m afraid as a society,” he said, “we have not done our children any favors.”
Earnhardt, part of a panel discussing “Climate Change: The Communications Challenge,” said there is also a fear of nature among some children, sometimes prompted by adults. He shared a story told to him by a park ranger as an example.
Upon greeting a bus of students on a field trip to a national park, the ranger said he listened to the teacher’s instructions before they got off. “There are things here that can kill you,” the ranger said the teacher told the students before proceeding to name the various dangers: Lyme disease, copperheads, rattlesnakes and rabid animals.
The ranger, after hearing her warning, was ready to leave and go ask for hazardous-duty pay, Earnhardt said.
An important factor in getting people concerned about climate change is getting them connected to nature, he said. “We are bringing along a generation now that does not have that connection.”
Quoting a phrase made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he said there is a “fierce urgency of now” for people “to make the connection with the land in time to do away with any fear of the outdoors.”
Earnhardt said the earth goes through natural changes, but because of the lifestyles of its inhabitants, the climate changes occurring now are greater than any “we have ever seen on this planet.”
“The fierce urgency of now is upon us,” he said.
Another reason children don’t connect with the land as much anymore, Earnhardt said, is the demands on their time. They have school work, sports, computers …
Earnhardt said the lack of connection was evident from the responses of middle school students asked how many birds and trees they could identify.
“After cardinals and blue jays,” he said, “it pretty well stopped, and oak trees and pines … We are no longer agrarian. We are urban.”
Another man ó Lord Robert Baden-Powell ó had similar concerns about the young boys in London years ago, pointed out one member of the audience. Those concerns led him to start the Boy Scouts in 1907.
Earnhardt said children’s lack of connection with nature is also evident by the high number who ask for a hand sanitizer when they visit the N.C. Museum of Natural Science.
Dr. David Jones, director of the North Carolina Zoo, said the families often determine the level of children’s connection with nature. Two-thirds of the children who visit the zoo, for example, are accompanied by their parents, he said, sometimes their grandparents as well.
The other third visit with school groups.
Jones said 100 students of different races and IQ levels are now participating in classes at the zoo five hours a day as part of a study being conducted by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Exhibits at the zoo are used as part of the classes, he said. Participating students will be evaluated later to see how their relationship to the natural world is affected, he said.The Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, said the “divorce and distance” from the narrative has affected children’s lack of response to nature.
Getting back in touch with Biblical narratives will help children to understand the importance of the earth’s natural resources, she said.
“Children love a story,” Hodges-Copple said. “Grandparents love to read a story.”
Earnhardt agreed with the importance of stories, citing biographies of outstanding people as example of narratives that inspire. “I have been humbled by narratives many times,” he said.
Once was in the late 1980s when Earnhardt was in China looking for a Hucho hucho, the largest species of salmon in the world. He was in the corner of China bordering Mongolia and Russia looking for a villager to tell him about the fish.
When he found the man, Earnhardt said he spoke a native dialect, so it took three translators for them to communicate. The man told him a story about the Hucho hucho fish that has a lesson about the future of the planet.
It seems a great freeze came to the village, the man told Earnhardt, and the people were without food. The children were looking into the frozen river, he said, when they spotted a giant eye in the ice.
They went back and told the adults about the fish, the man told him, so they headed to the river with hatchets and knives, cutting flesh off the giant fish to feed their families. When the ice melted, Earnhardt said the man continued, the fish swam away despite its missing flesh.
Each year when the river froze, the man told him, the fish returned and the villagers took chunks of its flesh to sustain them. The moral of the story, Earnhardt said he told him, was “if you take care of the river, the river takes care of you.”
Dr. Linda Rimer ó the liaison between North Carolina and South Carolina and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ó served as moderator for the panel.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249 or kchaffin@salisburypost.com.

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