Friday, August 20, 2010

The Age of Exploration and Discovery

During lunchtime the other day, I stopped by our Bayscapes demonstration garden in front of the Museum, to weed the Black-Eyed Susans. Bayscapes features native plants of Virginia that residents can use in their home landscaping which also improve water quality in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. After removing a handful of weeds, I looked up for a moment at the hundreds of flowers moving back and forth to rhythm of the wind, and was immediately transported back in time.
“Put your crayons away, and place your drawings underneath your desks. Now line up. We’re going outside to take a walk.”
It wasn’t recess time, so why were we going outside for a walk, I thought? Behind the school, my classmates and I walked in single file (more or less) following Mrs. Folkes, our first grade teacher, past the swing sets, the seesaws, the monkey bars, and across the dusty, red clay baseball field, and finally down to the edge of an open meadow adjacent to the forest woods.
Stopping at some Black-Eyed Susans hosting a couple of honeybees, Mrs. Folkes said,
“Look. What do you see?”
Without hesitation, Susan said “Two honeybees on a flower.”
“Right” said Mrs. Folkes. “What kind of flowers?”
Billy, who lived on a farm, said “Those are Black-Eyed Susans.”
“Correct. Very good, Billy. Now who can tell me what the bees are doing?”
Even though I didn’t know that particular flower, I knew what honeybees were, and what they were doing on the flowers. My dad had answered the same question when I saw some honeybees on the flowers of bean and tomato plants in his garden just two months earlier. And so, I raised my hand and said “They’re pollinating the flowers so fruits will form.”
“Very good’ said Mrs. Folkes, who reiterated the relationship between bees and flowers to the rest of the class.
As we walked, she stopped every couple of steps or so, and said “this is Queen Anne’s lace, this is an oak tree… this, an elm… here’s a maple… this is moss… look at that six-lined skink… there’s a Monarch butterfly, a bumble bee, carpenter bee, garden spider, broomsedge, and the like. “These grasses were here when the Native Americans lived here. You know, you can still find their arrowheads in the earth.”
Not only did she help us to identify all of these animals and plants, but related one or another to others, and to the history of the area. This was the beginning of a journey of exploration and discovery. Mrs. Folkes was empowering us to see, observe behaviors of insects, and to enjoy the great outdoor classroom. I was seeing and discovering for the first time the great fabric of life. The takeaway message for me that day was that I was an explorer, and could identify new species of plants and animals, things I had never seen before or had not noticed in my previous five years of life. Maybe I had, but they didn’t register with me then. But now, they did (thank you Piaget). And I couldn’t get enough.
Being raised in a traditional Greek family where history and stories are conveyed through either Greek or English language, but often in sentences beginning with Greek or English and ending with the alternate language, small children learn the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses at an early age. And so, at six years old, not really knowing how to distinguish the real world from that of mythology, I thought my first grade teacher, Mrs. Folkes, was actually the Greek goddess, Gaia, who had transformed herself to reveal her divine being. It was magical.

My first grade teacher, goddess or not, did a wonderful thing that day. She made a lifelong impression on me. She showed me how to “see” the natural world, how it was interconnected, and also how to be part of it. And that’s been one of my lifelong endeavors…Helping people not to just look at the world, but to see it as it really is, not what we’ve been told to believe it is, or how we think it is.

And so, I ask you… what, how and where were the beginnings of your age of exploration and discovery?

Eugene G. Maurakis, Ph.D.
Director of Science and Museum Scientist
Science Museum of Virginia


Jeremy said...

My Dad has taken me to Shenandoah National Park for as long as I can remember and that starated the beginning of exploring and discovering the natural world. I also would ride my bike all over the neighborhood and wander through the trees growing up. One of my high school science teachers would take us around the sports fields at the school and show us all the nature that existed there. He once caught a black rat snake and told us what to do if we encounter a snake. I went to school right next to the James River, and he would take us down to the river.

Rich Conti said...

Gene: Your story is really beautiful. My own is not nearly as compelling, but being raised in a low income household, nature served as our tox box. Catching crayfish in streams, picking wild berries and catching interetsing critters in the woods were great entertainment before the days of cable television.

I worry that so many kids are missing out on this today.

Liz Mebane said...

It's wonderful to hear so many different ways that folks learned about the world around us. For me, growing up in a seaside rural community meant lots of woods, fields and waterways to explore. Just about all my free time was spent outside. In the summer, my siblings and I would often only come inside for meals.

I agree that most kids are don't have that freedom of discovery now. Even if it's in a more formal setting, we all still need that contact with nature to help us see our place in the world.

Eugene G. Maurakis, Ph.D. said...

Alas, the Nature bug bit all of you at early ages. Back in (I'll speak for myself) the old days, the outdoors was THE "toy box" as you say which we naturally gravitated towards. We were not forced to go outside. It was free and our parents trusted it.

So now, how do we instill the desire to go outside in our children and youth, who are constantly bombarded with techno-marketing? They are immersed in and live within technology that continually separates them further from the natural world, the same one that attracted us to it. We 'know' that the natural world soothes our bodies and minds, our inner also builds self esteem, instills a sense of self worth, and gives us THE constancy in our lives (e.g. the sun rises and sets; and we'll have weather, regardless whether it is sunny or rainy).

So, what will fuel their desire to go outside?