In harmony with nature

They all walked fast. I always marvelled at how those geezers made it a struggle for us young college students to keep up.

By W S Robinson

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Published: Tue 28 Sep 2010, 10:08 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:43 AM

But they did: Shailer Philbrick, who explained Ithaca’s deep-gouged gorges; Dick Fischer, who strode through Sapsucker Woods expounding on club mosses or plucking a pileated woodpecker feather from the ground and waving it at us; Bill Turner, who drove us all over eastern Washington State, climbed in and out of steep canyons and dug deep into tree trunks with his pocket knife to pluck out gigantic carpenter moth caterpillars.

And they had the personal touch. I can remember the exact moment when I decided to become an entomologist. Ed Raffensperger approached me as I bent over my insect collection in his introductory entomology lab, put his hand on my shoulder, peered through thick horn-rims and grinned, “I think you’re enjoying this course.” I’m writing from the steaming sauna that is northern Thailand in the rainy season. Every day I ride a rented mountain bike about eight kilometers from the small town of Mae Hong Son to a mango orchard along the surging cocoa-brown Pai River. A year ago, many migratory groups of honey bees appeared there and performed fascinating stunts for my research pleasure. So far, this very rainy year, only a few swarms have materialized, so I’ve had the leisurely pleasure of watching other creatures while I await the bees’ arrival.

The orchard brims with life. When the sun comes out, so do the clouds of butterflies. Their names are evocative: Asian tigers, autumn leaves, great windmills, golden birdwings. Gigantic Nephila spiders, golden and black, hang in their orb webs. Iridescent purple sunbirds flit through the teak and eucalyptus blossoms. Giant coucals clamber away, and keelback snakes slither up into tree branches at my approach. I pay a price for these strolls in paradise. In return for granting me leave to return to Thailand, my college required that I teach a freshman biology course — online. I’m having attitude problems. From the beginning I suspected I might, but I eagerly cut a deal as I haggled for another research season in the tropics.

What’s wrong with teaching on the Internet? For certain courses, maybe nothing. But for the study of life? The Earth is in danger, the result of human abuse, and we need more young people going outdoors, enjoying and appreciating all that is on display — this incredible array of life forms that modern genetics resoundingly confirms is our kin. We do not need students absorbed by computers and cellphones. We especially do not need students required to attach themselves to these things for college credit in the sciences. If more of us would step outside and take in nature’s offerings we just might see beneficial effects on this gasping planet. As Baba Dioum put it, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

When back home, I teach a field biology course in Yellowstone National Park. Once I joked on the first morning of class, “I assume you all know a robin when you see one?” One young man, raised on a ranch, arched a sheepish eyebrow and replied, “I’m not sure.”

Small wonder, in the face of this kind of ignorance, that citizens of the Western United States are willing to sacrifice wolves, grizzly bears, bison, prairie dogs and sage grouse to ranching and energy development. Here in Thailand, tigers, leopards and elephants adorn the beer labels, and are popular subjects of wood carvings and folklore. Elephants? I have seen only those that are plied in various ways in the tourist trade. Tourists pay to ride these wise creatures, or watch them wield a paintbrush or perform other tricks; beggars use them as foils.

Few exist in the wild. Although many maps show the theoretical ranges of tigers and leopards stretching through Thai hill country, I have yet to speak to a Thai who has ever seen either of these glorious cats, or believes there is hope these days that I or anyone could see one. In the evenings my wife and I slowly bicycle the cooling streets after a delectable, spicy dinner of noodles, rice or tom yom. Youngsters in their blue school uniforms, cellphones to their ears, throng the brightly lit convenience store. The Internet cafés brim with teenagers. The windows of every house glow ethereal TV blue. I walk in the door of my guesthouse, sigh and turn on the computer. I have a biology course to prepare. I won’t be putting an encouraging hand on any aspiring biologist’s shoulder tonight.

W S Robinson teaches at CasperCollege in Wyoming


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