Tuesday, September 7, 2021

A Sense of Place and Birds

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Young Children, Nature, Wildlife, Society, Culture

Ed Hessler 

A book and a letter to Garrison Keillor served as prods to think about the idea of a sense of place. The book is not explicit; the letter is.

"Do you know about storks?"  Smack, dab "In the middle of an arithmetic lesson, Lina (the only girl in this class of six in the village of Shora, Holland) raised her hand and asked, "Teacher,may I read a little story about storks?" This is how Meindert DeJong opens his heartfelt book "The Wheel on the School" (Harper Trophy 1954) with picture perfect illustrations by Maurice Sendak

And what did the teacher do? He "was so pleased that Lina had written a little piece on her own, he stopped the arithmetic lesson right there and Lina read the story to the class. It turned out that she knew quite a bit about storks without having a lot of experience with them. She ends her story saying "I do not know much about storks, because storks never come to Shora. They go to the villages all around, but they never come to Shora. This is the most I know about storks, but if they came to Shora, I would know more about storks.'"

After a brief discussion with the class, the teacher who is a great "nudger" throughout the book, gives them an assignment (and also lets them out early to get a start". He asks them to wonder since they don't know much--ask some questions that might help them answer the question Lina raised. The author writes "when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen." So out they go to do just that although all are not as committed as Lina.

The next day the teacher asks where their wonder had led them. Some asked others who said storks never lived in Shora. Maybe it was because they had no trees. Lina was told by an old villager that Shora once did and the two of them talked about trees and other features of the habitat back then. Lina thought that while they nest in trees she also knew that they also nest on roofs but she thought they didn't in Shora because their house roofs "are too sharp." While she was talking with the villager she'd seen a candy tin "with the picture of a whole village on its lid and stork nest on every roof---because there was a wheel on every roof," something for the storks to build nests and live on.

The class knew that it would take too long to grow trees, there was a great search for old wagon wheels and after many twists and turns, including help and advice from a legless and wheel-chair bound old man who is fierce and determined, one is recovered from a boat long stranded and now overturned in a canal. The wheel is mounted, two near-drowned storks, a pair, are placed on it, and remain to nest.

This is a wonderful story by a writer deeply familiar with the minds and actions of kids, their desire to "get on with it." I thought of bluebird box projects when I read it.  Bluebirds prefer cavities for nesting sites so why not build them. The story is a forerunner of this kind of ecological restoration, of behavioral studies, of developing alternative hypotheses, of using scientific evidence to reach a tentative conclusion. It is also a story about one young girl's sense of place. In Shora, something was missing which when returned would make it complete.

On August 22, a Minnesota author was the last to respond to Garrison Keillor's "disparaging comments on birdwatchers" in a earlier post.  She, a life-long bird watcher, tried to resist this impulse but was unable to deny it's force. Sue Leaf's response is of gem-quality. Three of her reasons for having binoculars and birdbook at hand. whether on a porch, peering through a window, or hiking to take up this hobby are found below. There is more than one parallel here with Meindert Dejong's book (John Newberry Medal, 1955).

"1. Birding sharpens the eye to detail. Most people see in only a coarse-grained way. Birders by necessity are fine-grained lookers. What color legs? Yellow or pink? Do the wings extend beyond the tail? Does the beak curve downward? How sad to move through this beautiful world and not clearly see it. Furthermore, this looking not only takes in separate details, but also the entirely at once, behavior and movement. Birders see the whole picture.

"2. But I rely far more on my ears than my eyes for bird identification. Having learned the songs of most Minnesota birds long ago, I now am continuously and unconsciously aware of what is around me at any moment outside. I hear the chimney swifts zipping across Minneapolis skies and the unending songs of red-eyed vireos. I know exactly when the predatory Cooper’s Hawk is in our yard, eying my songbirds.

"3. Because birds are extremely local in their choice of nest site, watching them is one way to develop a sense of place (my emphasis). This is an excellent skill for a writer to have, but it seems to me to be essential for anyone to be fully in this world, to know exactly where you are on the face of the planet. The oak savannah. The maple/ basswood forest."  

Keillor responded to this "excellent letter" with " You wouldn’t have written this for a fellow birdwatcher, you wrote it for me, an ignoramus. Case closed." And the rest of us received a gift on the having of a sense of place.

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