By Bill Pulliam
Back in my childhood, I spent my life outside. My summers and weekends were passed in the woods. I splashed around in creeks, fished in the pond and climbed trees. I also took a “mousy” detailed interest in all the things I found out there – plants, bugs, rocks, everything. I was fascinated by the sky, day and night. My older brother was often along with me, and many family weekends were spent in the wilds.
But here is the thing – this nature-oriented childhood of mine did not happen out in the countryside, or in some small town like the many within the Validity readership area. No, I grew up in Atlanta. Not just in the Atlanta metro area, but in the city itself, two miles from downtown. The fishing pond was at Piedmont Park. The creeks and woods were in vacant lots behind Ansley Mall, and dozens of small parks and other green spots scattered around the neighborhoods.
Now, we live in one of Tennessee’s most rural counties, and I see the youth living indoors in electronic worlds. When we first moved here a dozen years ago, I still saw kids with cane poles walking around looking for a place to hook some bream. But I have not seen that in years. The folks who fish my pond now have gray beards. The kids are indoors in the air conditioning staring at screens. As a “city” boy, in many ways I had a more “country” childhood than most of the “country” boys and girls I see around me now.
Some, especially those under 40, might ask, “Why does it matter? The world has changed, get with the times!” There are many ways to answer that, but this is a column about birds and observing the natural world. And there is a fundamental difference between the world behind your window versus the world behind your electronic screen. The “world” your device brings to you comes entirely from the human experience, and the human mind. Even if it is talking about nature, it is just that: humans talking about nature. It is not nature.
Of course, you can say the same about a magazine column, and you would be right. Please go sit out on your porch while you read this! But I’d also ask you, when was the last time you saw someone with their face buried in a magazine while they were driving down the road, walking through the park, or having a meal with friends?
The world behind your window, in contrast, is not all made of human thoughts. Even in a city, there are many things “out there” that do not come to you filtered, reshaped, and reinterpreted by human brains. You are taken beyond yourself and your own kind, into a vast universe populated by beings very much unlike you. An hour in the woods can expand your horizons in ways that a lifetime of tweeting or web surfing never will.
If you read my column, then I know you are one of the ones who do go beyond your computers and TV screens into the great vast world. And also, the odds are, you are not a child. But, I’d bet you know some. Most of them may seem irretrievably lost inside their screens already, but some of them still do look up every now and then. Use your own interest in birds and other wild things to see if you can spark an interest in them as well. Some will think you are boring and lame; not much to do about this since many kids have thought this about grownups forever. But some might find their worlds expanded. And it might not be the birds themselves. It might be a beetle, a rock, a sound or just the total experience.
But one way or another, get them outside, and at least give them the opportunity to have an experience of nature that doesn’t come through Panda-Cams and “Swamp People.” Because in reality they don’t all think we’re lame. Many of them are looking to their older friends and family for clues to how the world really works and guidance on how to live in it. It’s been said that it only takes one generation for traditions and knowledge to be lost. Do what you can so that doesn’t happen on our watch.
Fortunately, that adage isn’t really true. There is always a countermovement of youth who run away from the mass cultural trends and keep the threads alive. One of my nephews is in Borneo looking for otters this summer. His big brother hardly even knows how to work his cell phone, but he can track a mountain lion. When you find one of these kids, he or she won’t think you and your bird watching are “lame,” they’ll think you are “cool.” Or whatever word the kids are using these days.
It’s true, the world has changed, and is changing. This has always been true. So it’s a good idea to actually be living in that world, and able to see the changes, without having to wait for a little electronic box to tell you. Twitter and Vine are not actually the world, and you can’t really live in them. Best to look up from time to time and see something that is real. Maybe something with feathers?
Bill Pulliam got started in birdwatching by his junior high science teacher in 1974, and has been an avid birder ever since in 48 U.S. states and 7 foreign countries. He is currently the Tennessee editor for eBird, an online project that compiles millions of observations from tens of thousands of birders around the world.