Friday, August 17, 2007

Startling Statistic - Why Does It Bother Me?

As I was reading Mary Pipher's book Writing to Change the World last night, I came across a startling statistic. On page 3, she writes "Tech Tonic, a publication of the Alliance for Childhood, reports that the average American can recognize over a thousand brand names but is unable to identify ten indigenous plants or animals."

Ouch. Could that possibly be true?

Ironically, I don't question in the least that most Americans can recognize over a thousand brand names. What scares me is the thought that most Americans could not identify ten indigenous plants or animals.

(Could this be a language issue: not understanding the meaning of the word "indigenous"? If that word were defined for them by the researcher, would they then be able to come up with ten indigenous plants or animals?)

I can't imagine any Kansan over the age of 10 not being able to identify: bison, blue jay, raccoon, opossum, skunk, bald eagle, meadowlark, box turtle, (fox) squirrel, and turkey.

The plant side is harder, though. Most of the plants people can recognize are weeds...and most of those are not indigenous. (Dandelion springs immediately to mind.) By the age of 10, I'd like to see Kansans able to recognize cottonwood, red cedar, poison ivy, big bluestem, cattails, Indian grass, willows, and a couple prairie wildflowers. Knowing the grasses and wildflowers would help them know when the land they were looking at was relatively undisturbed, and it would help them learn about and understand the ecosystem that formed the landscape they live in. Recognizing cottonwood, willows and cattails would help them understand where the land they're looking at is often wet. Red cedar's the only native evergreen here. And knowing poison ivy might help keep them from inadvertently getting themselves in trouble.

Ultimately, though, I think the problem is that most people don't think understanding the land is important any more. They still "hunt and gather", but now they hunt and gather clothes and CDs and DVDs and cars and other stuff. Stuff to make themselves look powerful or important to their friends and enemies. Stuff to impress the other sex. Occasionally even stuff to help them survive.

In other words, they are still acting as animals, but now their frame of reference is divorced from the environment that actually supports them. Who needs to know plants and animals when you think that everything you need is in a store?

My gut tells me that it's important for people to be able to understand the physical world around them. That our health as living beings depends on the health of the environment we live in. And that if we have absolutely no clue how to "read" our environment, we won't take care of it... and we'll "break" it, perhaps irrevocably as far as its ability to support us.

But I wonder if I'm right to be concerned.... Maybe we really aren't living beings any more.


qkslvrwolf said...

Heh heh heh...your gut tells you? "Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say, 'I did look it up, and that's not true.' That's 'cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works"

You and GWB, you've got it covered. You're not factinistas on the nerd patrol... ;-)

qkslvrwolf said...

The previous quote is from Stephen Colbert's masterful WHCD monologue, btw. Just sos you know.

Gaia gardener said...

Ouch again. You're right. That nails me!

Of course, how could I wish for better company than GWB?!!! (I'm gagging myself right now....)

dejavaboom said...

You are so dead-on right with this post! I do an exercise in media literacy where I show a slide w/15 plants...they can maybe name 3 as a class. Then I show them a slide of the alphabet, composed of letters from national logos--they can typically identify every brand.

I'd very much like to know what's growing even on my patch of ground. My extension agent was not much help, and I've yet to find the ideal resource site or book...but I'd like to raise my boys to appreciate, relate to, and interact with the world around them.

Gaia gardener said...


As an entire class they can only identify 3 of the plants you show.... My first reaction is pure dismay. May I ask what 15 plants you have chosen to show? (And approximately what age level do you work with?)

As far as identifying what's on your property, I'd be glad to help as much as I can, if you are interested, although I'm hardly an expert.

For starters, one of the best basic books on native trees and shrubs here in Kansas is H.A. Stevens' classic, "Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas." It was written in 1969, but I've seen it quite recently at one of the big box-store book stores, so I'm sure it's still in print (University Press of Kansas). It's also fairly easy to find at libraries.

The pictures aren't fancy or pretty, but they usually do the job. There's a rudimentary key to get started, and the descriptions help too. Stevens includes a few non-natives that are likely to have naturalized, but usually notes them as such.

I've got about half a dozen prairie wildflower books that I consult when I can't identify a wildflower. I can give you the list if you're interested.

As far as grasses, I'm a frank neophyte. I can identify the main prairie species when they are headed out, but I've got a long way to go. This is a good time of year to learn them, though, since most are actually headed out right now.