I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the little ovenbird I briefly held in my palm this past Saturday. I’m amazed how such a simple and short experience has stayed with me and has kept me thinking. Several times I’ve thought of this little bird as "my" ovenbird and have wondered which one of the several ovenbirds singing in the ("my") woods was this one.
And then it occurred to me that if people don’t have similar experiences in their lives, they will have no connections to ovenbirds or a forest or the natural world as a whole. I wonder if that’s why so many people don’t seem able to relate to, say, global warming? If you’ve never stood on a glacier or noticed that the trees are now in leaf weeks before the warblers arrive or have seen that the northern species slip further north with each passing year, how can you connect to the problem in any real way?
If you live in a city or only occasionally leave a town, you will only rarely, if at all, have the chance to make the connection that forces you, suddenly, to care. I’m sure everyone who already cares about the natural world has a story or an incident that changed their perception. It might be an "aha!" moment. It might have been a long, steady process of one little thing after another. But there’s something, and you know your life would be poorer if it had never happened. Somewhere along the line, you made the connection and were transformed by it. Suddenly, something had a hold on you and changed you.
I’m afraid that for many people, that incident or that process never happens and their perception of the world lacks those pieces. And in the future, as more and more people live their lives in cities or within the confines of suburbia, how many fewer people will have the opportunity to experience that connection? And more importantly, what can those of us who cherish the natural world around us do to help ensure that connection is somehow made and nurtured?
Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum says it best. "For 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." There are many different kinds of teachers and teachings. On Saturday, an ovenbird was my teacher and has staked his claim on me. It may be "my" ovenbird, but it has now claimed me, and I am also "his."