It visited last week, while I flipped enviously through photos my cousin, Jason Moeller, had posted on his blog for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Teacher at Sea program. I'd been following his three-week adventure aboard a pollock research vessel in the Gulf of Alaska whenever I wasn't reading about a friend's fieldwork in Greenland, getting updates on an another’s research in New Zealand, or Skyping with a classmate studying amphibians in Costa Rica.
When I finally got back to work on my own research, one thought lingered (alongside the envy): Today’s technological advances let us live more vicariously through the lives of others than ever. Those of us well-connected in the field can blog and email every day. Even the most remote colleagues send off updates, photos, and even videos with the weekly supply helicopter.
Many scientific organizations have taken advantage of this opportunity to merge science and education in modernized outreach programs. Of course, no matter how upbeat and entertaining a writer my cousin is (especially impressive as he battled seasickness), neither he nor any other similar writer will have as many followers as, say, Lady Gaga’s Twitter account. But each effort reaches someone – or some dozens – who knew nothing about Alaska’s pollock fishery, measuring melting on the Greenland ice sheet, or other such work.
It’s on this principle that the Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom founded its “Act for Wildlife” site, highlighting global conservation efforts linked to the hometown zoo. At a time when youngsters seem more interested in the internet than the outdoors, and adults believe in conservation but rarely back their feelings with finances, the zoo hopes that bringing a personalized touch onto the living room computer will inspire the next generation of environmental philanthropists.
After reading about Chester Zoo's project, I asked my cousin (who coordinates education efforts at the Knoxville Zoo when he's not off gallivanting shipboard) what he thought. Jason reminded me that the (likely universal) goal of zoos is first to reach people in person, actually getting them through the doors to experience the animals firsthand. But if the zoo can enhance that experience, or expand its audience, using social media and a well-designed web presence, so much the better.
Each year, major zoos around the world receive about 620 million in-person visits. Some of the visitors – like some of my colleagues – find their calling in the experience, pursuing careers in conservation or biology as a result. Others, myself included, need something more.
For me, “more” was a childhood hiking through New Jersey’s parks and preserves, a college romance with a budding ornithologist who proved you could make a living doing what you loved, and a field summer in Southeast Alaska.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had these – and other – experiences. The world is getting smaller as humanity gets bigger, and perhaps no part is shrinking faster than the wilderness. While most people in the United States will have zoo access at some point, few will visit Alaska or hike the High Sierras, and only a handful will conduct research on the open Pacific or amid the African savannah.
In the age of viral YouTube lion-crocodile tug-of-war clips and BBC’s Planet Earth, can good luck and elegant cinematography transmit some of the magic these experiences bring to those who have seen them?
I’ve seen many still and moving pictures of things I will never witness in person. Some motivated travel plans; others elicited a “wow” and were filed away in memory. I’m glad to have seen them all. I’ve also read blogs and books on science, on wildlife, and on wilderness. Some passages have given me the same chills I get when I stand before the ocean, or beneath a thousand-year-old redwood. Yet these chills stem from memory, from a commonality of experience.
The irony – and perhaps a fortuitous one – is that, as wilderness (and wilderness access) shrinks, and as, reportedly, our schoolchildren spend less time outdoors “in nature”, we’re better than ever at transmitting awe-inspiring experiences that most of those children would never have seen otherwise.
But will my cousin’s new lesson plans incorporating his NOAA field days replace long afternoons with fishing lines at the local lake? Will an IMAX video of a wildebeest stampede stand in for robins tending a backyard nest each Spring?
I don’t think we’ll lose our sense of awe – in some ways, we’ll probably be more impressed than ever. But I worry that we’ll continue to separate ourselves from nature, a divide that’s neither “natural” nor healthy. I worry that one day, Planet Earth footage will evoke the same sepia-tinged nostalgia that Woodstock clips do. Because we’ll no longer remember for ourselves.
On Sunday, I thought these sad thoughts while kayaking through Elkhorn Slough, some 45 miles from Stanford. But it was impossible to stay melancholy for long amid flocks of seabirds and rafts of sea otters. That’s what experiencing nature does for me.