I became a fan of Dr. Edward O. Wilson in the late 1990s while I was working at the Chattanooga Arboretum & Nature Center, which provides environmental education programs in Chattanooga, Tenn. A Harvard professor for four decades, Wilson is an entomologist who has, among other things, written 20 books, won two Pulitzer prizes, discovered hundreds of new species, and developed the concept of “biodiversity.”In 1999, Audubon magazine published an interview with Wilson that outlined his views on the importance of getting an understanding of the biodiversity into the general public. In the article, Wilson stated his concern that only 20 percent of Americans understand what biodiversity is.
“We have to get an understanding of biodiversity into the mainstream of public consciousness so it becomes a principal factor in economic and social policy,” said Wilson.
The words of this famed American biologist and writer became an important tool for me as I wrote grants to support the environmental education programs of the Chattanooga Arboretum & Nature Center. The development of ecological values can be tricky to “measure” for fundraising purposes, but Wilson’s eloquent words helped me define the important outcomes that environmental education provides for both children and adults.
In recent years, as I write about the importance of environmental education and outdoor play in the lives of children, I find Wilson to be an important voice in defining the role of nature in developing an ecological consciousness in the lives of children. He not only offers a lifetime of scientific expertise, but writes about his love of the natural world with poetic insight.
Wilson is a living example of the “naturalist formula,” a common denominator among conservationists today. The naturalist formula – the way to raise a child who grows up to care about the natural world – is simple: allow a child to spend unstructured time in natural places and to provide an adult in the child’s life who enjoys the outdoors and models respect for nature.
For Wilson, his evolution as a biologist as beginning during childhood when he wandered beaches each summer, as described in his memoir Naturalist:
“Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist,” he said. “Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical details. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”
For Wilson and many other childhood wanderers, these carefree explorations resulted in a passion for nature that Wilson to eloquently said “enchants them for the rest of their lives.”
It was my great honor to meet Dr. Wilson in April at a fundraising event in Knoxville for the nonprofit group Discover Life in America, which sponsors the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) that has inventoried an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 species within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wilson traveled to East Tennessee to serve as keynote speaker for Discover Life in America’s annual ATBI conference in Gatlinburg, Tenn., which offers participants the opportunity to gather with scientists from all over the world to learn about recent ATBI research and participate in expert-led field trips in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
While I was not able to attend the conference, my husband and I traveled to Knoxville for the fundraising reception with Dr. Wilson, “An Evening with E.O. Wilson,” which was held at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
Dr. Wilson, age 82, cheerfully greeted a long line of guests who waited to speak with him and have books signed. He was seated against a wall of windows that overlook downtown Knoxville, and at one point I looked over at him and noticed the brightest rainbow I have ever seen outlining the sky behind him.
Later that evening, Wilson spoke to the intimate crowd about his continuing work to protect the world’s most biologically significant regions. The crowd cheered when Wilson got up to the podium and told us he was going to speak from the heart, not from his notes – which seemed to denote his comfort with this crowd of supporters.
He spoke about the importance of national parks in protecting biodiversity, important soil science research needs, the incredible diversity of life found among the canopy of trees in the rainforest, and how much we still have to learn about biodiversity on the planet as a whole.
He also outlined the major threats to biodiversity, which he refers to as HIPPO:
- Habitat destruction, which includes climate change
- Invasive species
- (Human) Population explosion
Wilson has spent a lifetime devoted to science and conservation – he is one of the few people on the planet who is able to fully comprehend the status of life on Earth. However, his message was not one of gloom and doom – he encouraged the crowd with the opportunities available to students and researchers in science today. I was moved by his message of hope and possibility for the future.
At the end of his lecture, my husband encouraged me to ask Dr. Wilson if I could have my picture taken with him. Given the small crowd, we easily approached him and he warmly agreed to the picture. I was nervous, but it was important to me to let him know that his life’s work has been important to me and that, as I writer, I will do my part in carrying his message into the world. He thanked me for that, and Monty snapped our picture.
I have looked at that picture of silly me standing next to one of the world’s greatest living scientists many times. It is a small token that will remain a hopeful reminder to me of the important work to be done by parents today to create the scientists, conservationists and naturalists of the future.