How Do You Make A Person Feel Connected to Nature?


SCA Intern Jacob Cravens Feels Out the Perfect Interpretive Talk for Capitol Reef National Park

How do you make a person feel a connection with the natural world so that they want to conserve it? In my last blog I mentioned how if we can’t make enough people feel that connection the conservation movement is in trouble. I mentioned the need for involving people to make them feel and there are various ways to do this. The SCA involves people by giving them the experience of working in conservation. 75,000 alumni is a good start and hopefully that number continues to grow. But there will always be people that can’t get involved this way because they never will work in conservation, not even in an internship. So how can we as conservationists, through our jobs or informal conversations, make those other people feel and care enough to become involved with nature? Over 50 years ago a ranger called Freeman Tilden came up with a series of ideas to answer that question. Some of those ideas can be summarized into revelation, provocation, and connection to the whole.
During Tillman’s time he saw many rangers giving lectures to audiences littered with facts and information about the national park. Tillman saw that this wasn’t working. People remembered only a few of the facts and felt no connection to what was being presented. Even today we are tempted to regurgitate facts and evidence about carbon emissions in metric tons to the atmosphere, rapidly declining bee populations, and miles of plastic waste islands in the Pacific. But facts and statistics don’t make people feel. Stalin, while a monstrous tyrant, had the relevant thought “One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.” When we lose a family member we are emotionally crippled, but when we read in the paper about the Democratic Republic of Congo where millions have lost their lives, we say, “ That’s awful. Someone needs to do something” and take a sip of coffee before going off to work. Tillman saw the need to reveal the true meaning of nature to people, instead of list statistics. Accurate information is always important, but Tillman used it in the context of themes that apply universally to people. He wouldn’t only talk about rising and falling wolf populations, he would tell a story of survival, struggle, and desperation of the hunt.  He wouldn’t talk only about the geological dates of a rock, he would explain how the rock tells a story of a changing world where dinosaurs used to rule the Earth. He wouldn’t only tell you how many acres were burned by a wildfire, he would make you visualize a hundred foot wall of flame scorching the Earth as deer, squirrel, and everything that could move fleeing before that burning wall of death. It may sound like a creative license is being used, but nothing is being created, only the true meaning revealed. Nature isn’t just facts, it is universal concepts that we all can relate to.
            Tillman’s second idea was revelation of the true meaning provokes a desire to broaden a person’s “ horizon of interests and knowledge and gain an understanding of the greater truth.” The audience cannot be passive, they must be active.  To listen to an external message is not enough it must be internalized and a desire generated. A feeling must be provoked of sadness and lost at a talk about the last of the buffalo in the west. Anger must rise in the audience when they hear about the destruction of pristine forests for the tar sands of Canada.  Solitude and peace needs to be sensed when talking about the importance of wilderness. As conservationists all that we feel in nature must be provoked in our audience.
      The last idea of Tilden was the importance of presenting the whole, and not just a bunch of separate parts. He mentions an example of a ranger at Vick National Military Park, a civil war site where a city was surrendered to the Union. There are millions of facts about this place, separate parts that could not leave a person with a sense of the place and what it was like. On the other hand, one could simply mention that both armies had soldiers from Missouri and say that explains the tragedy of the war: fratricide. Brothers killing brothers is a whole from the Civil war, and gives people a true sense of what happened. The greenhouse effect is a fact about the global warming, the whole is the consequences of excess. The greenhouse effect doesn’t give you a feeling of an upcoming environmental crisis, but people can sense disaster when we live beyond our means. These three of Tilden’s ideas, are not separate, but absolutely connected to and necessary for each other. Not all the facts, evidence, and pie charts in the world will accomplish as much as provoking a powerful emotion in a person by revealing the universal concepts, the whole, in nature.
            At Capitol Reef National Park I work as a park interpreter and am lucky enough to work and observe a talented team of rangers that thoroughly understand and implement Tilden’s ideas. At the end of one of their talks, instead of that familiar rush out of the classroom teachers know, many visitors stick around for 20 minutes to ask questions. This happens almost every time, and it is evident that a feeling and desire has been provoked. Starting this week I’ll be giving talks on American Indian petroglyphs (rock art) and geology. I’m still practicing the presentation but the end of my geology script goes
We started this program with saying “Rocks remember.” What would happen if they didn’t? What if they had no memory?  A fact of the world we live in is “We are shaped by the land; and we shape the land.” Dynamite, drilling, and development (roads, parking lots, cities, acid rain) all change the geology of our world. The changed geology changes the drainage, erosion, and conservation of water. The changed geology changes the lives of plants, animals, and ecosystems. The changed geology can force us to change. It destroys the memories written in the rocks and stories can be lost for future generations. However, we can also shape the landscape through sustainable development, and preservation. Water can be conserved and fairly distributed, ecosystems can be  maintained, and we can ensure that some places, like Capitol Reef, are protected and treasured. In geological time we are only a couple seconds in the story, but we get to write the next chapter. What do you want the rocks to remember about us?” 
I try to reveal to the audience how geology at Capitol Reef is about change (the whole), and provoke feelings of how fragile and easily changed our world is. If we can keep these three ideas of revelation, provocation, and connection to the whole in mind whenever we talk about conservation, I believe we’ll have more success in connecting the general public with nature, and making them feel, because the world needs them to feel and care a lot. The book where Tilden lays out his ideas, Interpreting our Heritage, is a canonical text, but I believe the most influential book in conservation, the one that has reached the most people, is The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, which perfectly states the importance of cultivating that connection to nature in the public, “Unless someone like you cares an awful whole lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”