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Henningsen: Documenting The Decline

I once heard an environmental scientist describe her work as “documenting the decline.” At the time, I thought her overly pessimistic. Now I’m not so sure. Three recent developments should command our attention.First: An Associated Press report that, since 1988, there’s been a 50% drop in American research universities offering degrees in botany. In 2012 fewer than 400 botany degrees, college or graduate, were awarded. Apparently, scientifically-inclined students feel pressured to go into tech-related majors or, say, molecular biophysics and biochemistry rather than plain old botany. The result, we’re told, is that “the plant world could become a virtual mystery” as the supply of those who can teach about plants and their uses dwindles.

Next: British essayist Robert Macfarlane recently noted that the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary – a children’s reference work – has eliminated words related to nature in favor of terms related to technology. Words like “acorn”, “dandelion”, “fern”, “heron”, “otter”, “pasture”, and “willow” were evicted to make room for terms like “attachment”, “blog”, “broadband”, “chatroom”, and “voice-mail”.

And finally: A teacher friend recently described students who perfectly identified 25 corporate logos, but could correctly name only two or three images of plants and animals common to northern New England.

So, as the number of botanists declines and words relating to nature disappear from dictionaries, the evidence suggests we’re becoming strangers to the natural world, victims of self-inflicted ecological illiteracy. And when we no longer understand nature, no doubt we’ll finally stop worrying about climate change.

We’ll still enjoy looking at nature, but as novelist and naturalist John Fowles noted, landscape alone is a “bare lifeless body” without the flora and fauna that give it speech, movement, and dress. “Without natural history” he wrote, “the world is only a fraction seen. [Imagine] not knowing any flowers, any birds. [T]o so many, they are meaningless hieroglyphs."

“I pity people”, Fowles continued, “who know nothing of nature, who will not let the world without man exalt them.”

Pity them indeed. Pity us. The natural world, especially in Vermont, is an open book that inspires and nourishes. But it’s closing, as fewer and fewer of us know how to read it.